The BBC Is Afraid to Report the Facts About Israel’s War

A BBC journalist writes that editors at the broadcaster are afraid of reprimand from their bosses for reporting that displeases the Israeli government, leading to the BBC’s consistently holding back from reporting the full horrors of Israel’s war on Gaza.

A protester holds a banner reading ‘’Biased Based Censorship‘’ at a Media Workers for Palestine event outside BBC Broadcasting House on February 7, 2024 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images)

A few months ago, as Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas attacks was beginning to unfold, I wrote a piece for Jacobin about the BBC’s sorry coverage of events. Not long after, eight of the corporation’s journalists published an open letter to Qatari-based broadcaster Al Jazeera (now banned from broadcasting in Israel) in which they expressed similar dissatisfaction.

The letter accused the BBC of excluding decades of crucial historical context and privileging Israel’s narrative of events, allowing its brutal retributive assault to be understood on its own terms as “self-defence.” As the authors put it:

For Israel’s bombardment to be considered “self-defence”, events must begin with the Hamas-led attack. News updates and articles neglect to include a line or two of critical historical context — on 75 years of occupation, the Nakba, or the asymmetric death toll across decades.

Absent Perspectives

The argument has been borne out in the data. Consider the findings of a study published in December by openDemocracy examining daytime coverage by the BBC One television channel during the first month of the war:

The Palestinian perspective is effectively absent from the coverage, in how they understand the reasons for the conflict and the nature of the occupation under which they are living . . . this perspective, if it occurs at all, is not developed as a theme by journalists or related routinely to events, and has nothing like the status given to the Israeli perspective. . . . The BBC’s coverage locates the origin of the conflict in the recent actions of Hamas — but Palestinians see themselves as resisting the actions of Israel stretching back decades.

The elision of historical context is just one aspect of the BBC’s multiple failures. The study also found sizeable disproportionality in both the airtime provided and the emotive language employed vis-à-vis Israeli and Palestinian deaths.

These conclusions were supported by data scientists Dana Najjar and Jan Lietava, who analyzed a total of six hundred articles and four thousand live-feed posts on the BBC website between October 7 and December 2, establishing a “systematic disparity in how Palestinian and Israeli deaths are treated.”

The report, published by Guardian journalist Mona Chalabi, recorded that the broadcaster used terms such as “massacre,” “murder,” and “slaughter” almost exclusively in connection with the deaths of Israelis, while being more likely to use words like “killed” or “died” in conjunction with the deaths of Palestinians. The BBC was also much more likely to use familial nouns such as “mother,” “grandmother,” “daughter,” and “father” in reference to Israeli people than to their Palestinian counterparts.

Credence and Credulity

Another aspect of the woeful coverage has involved the frequent furnishing of Israeli figures and claims with a level of credence they obviously do not deserve.

On March 27, BBC presenter Matthew Amroliwala interviewed Israeli government spokesman (and former director of Labour Friends of Israel) David Mencer. He allowed one of Mencer’s key claims to go totally unchallenged: “The truth of the matter is that the combat ratio right now . . . is one to one; that means one terrorist to one civilian. That’s what the prime minister has made clear.”

Amroliwala chose not to dispute this assertion by providing contradictory evidence. Nor did he ask for clarification of the methodology employed in the calculations.

Mencer’s interview the following month with Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation presenter Yama Wolasmal went somewhat differently. Widely lauded on social media as a stark and welcome contrast to the BBC’s journalism, it remains conspicuously absent from Mencer’s YouTube channel.

Among the highlights were Wolasmal challenging Mencer no fewer than five times on his claim that Israel had destroyed eighteen Hamas battalions. When Mencer went on to suggest that Israel’s operation had killed a total of “thirteen thousand combatants,” Wolasmal responded: “It’s just a number, Mr Mencer. We’ve never seen any concrete proof that backs up this number.”

The Norwegian journalist also gave short shrift to another unsubstantiated Israeli allegation that a handful of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) workers were active participants in the October 7 attacks — an accusation that prompted some allies of Israel to pause vital funding for the agency, severely hampering the flow of aid into Gaza:

The international community is not buying what the Israeli government is saying. . . . Thirteen thousand Hamas operatives have been killed, hospitals have been used as control and command bases. . . . UNRWA workers took part in terror attacks. . . . Why should the world believe your side of the story when you keep pushing unfounded claims?

Wolasmal’s point that such figures should not be taken at face value seems an obvious one. Compounding the issue is the fact that Israeli voices are so rarely asked to show the logic behind their assertions. Even Piers Morgan received recent online acclaim due simply to asking Israeli spokesperson Avi Hyman: “How many civilians do you believe you’ve killed?”

Compare this to a February interview with Israeli propagandist Mark Regev conducted by Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s HARDtalk program. It was a cringingly blustering production that aped the performative machismo of a particular brand of US news interviews.

At one point, Regev said, in reference to the death toll to date:

Hamas would have you believe that there are a lot of casualties . . . that Israel is killing children . . . that’s the story that Hamas wants.

Wolasmal or even Morgan would have known what the next question should have been. What were Regev’s own figures? How were they calculated? How did Israel distinguish between combatants and civilians? Instead, Sackur appealed to statements by high-ranking UN officials, allowing Regev to easily pivot to a well-rehearsed denunciation of that institution.

Double Standards

Sometimes the double standards are so brazen as to scarcely require examination. After all, could we imagine a BBC journalist addressing an Israeli spokesperson in the way correspondent Hugo Bachega spoke to Hamas representative Ghazi Hamad, prompting him to walk out of the interview: “How do you justify killing people as they sleep?”

With the Israeli assault on Rafah now underway, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the final place of relative safety for desperate Gazans, much of the outside world now understands what is happening. In the West, where Israel traditionally enjoys its strongest levels of support, the dial has gradually moved.

Campus protests against the brutal onslaught have gripped the United States and many European countries, with some limited successes in forcing universities to divest from Israeli institutions. US secretary of state Antony Blinken even delivered a report to Congress accusing Israeli forces of potentially violating international humanitarian law.

Though such moves are too little, too late, Israel finds itself closer to global pariah status than ever before. In response to this change in the weather, the BBC has also changed course, undermining its own carefully curated mythology as a brave, impartial media outlet to let slip its true character as propaganda machine for a shifting Western consensus.

Faced with a litany of atrocities that can no longer be ignored, the broadcaster has gradually cast previously standard tactics by the wayside. As the bodies pile up, we no longer see the haranguing of Palestinian guests into on-air condemnation of Hamas, or the demand that Palestinian advocates must vigorously endorse Israel’s “right to defend itself.”

Since the Amroliwala interview, we have seen the discovery of mass graves at Gaza’s Nasser and al-Shifa hospitals, where Israeli soldiers conducted operations. Some of the bodies retrieved had their hands tied. Some showed evidence of torture.

In the light of these facts, one might be forgiven for supposing that every Israeli spokesperson on the BBC would be pushed to provide answers on this in the same uncompromising manner as that faced by Palestinian supporters in the immediate aftermath of October 7.

Yet BBC editors live in fear of being reprimanded by their superiors, alerted to some perceived injustice or other by the ever-vigilant Israeli embassy. Israel runs a sophisticated media operation. Its spokespeople are easily reachable, actively offering up their availability on an almost daily basis.

They use their vast experience in public relations and a broad knowledge of the mores of broadcasting to control their messaging. For example, they exhibit a strong resistance to prerecorded segments that run the risk of judicious editing, preferring the live format in which awkward questions can be drowned out by a rapid-fire series of diversionary counterclaims.

They often operate out of the United States or the UK to cater to the specific time zones of those audiences, while liaising with domestic political players capable of bringing their own influence to bear on a corporation that has to manage under the perpetual existential threat of funding cuts.

Proximity to Power

But there is another, more entrenched reason for the inconsistency. It is the very same reason that the BBC does not provide context concerning the occupation and the Nakba; the same reason that the language we use to tell this story is so riddled with inequity; the same reason that the numbers of one side are lent a greater implicit veracity than those of the other.

The BBC is, in many respects, an organ of the British state. As such, its journalism is enduringly informed by an intra-institutional connection to ideas of Western hegemony. This is a paradigm maintained through being deeply encoded in the corporation’s organizational structure.

For staff to acquire editorial power, they must repeatedly demonstrate their adherence to a mode of journalism that is cautious and doesn’t damage political relationships while — crucially — upholding the veneer of impartiality. These are prerequisites for advancement at the BBC. Only those who have consistently proven they will uphold the supremacy of these principles will be elevated to positions of control.

A much-trumpeted fidelity to the fictional credo of impartiality does a good job of masking the conservative algorithm that underlies it all, built into the BBC machine. It is a design feature aimed at rooting out nonconformity and ultimately safeguarding a  Westernized worldview, relegating any narratives that contest a core set of orthodoxies about the virtues of capitalism, liberalism, imperialism, and Atlanticism.

We should look past the familiar “both-sides” defense, recently presented again by BBC veteran John Simpson, and look to the data instead. We should look to the examples of Al Jazeera and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. We should even look, god forbid, to Piers Morgan.

Sure, the output of Al Jazeera and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation does accord somewhat with the respective political prerogatives of Qatar and Norway. On the other hand, the spectacle of heated conflict that fuels Morgan’s clickbait model sometimes accidentally places him on the right side of the argument.

Fundamentally the BBC is hamstrung by its particular proximity to British establishment power and, by extension, the Zionist cause. That, unfortunately, is why we have failed in our reporting on Gaza — and will continue to do so.