Britain’s BBC is one of the world’s most influential and trusted news sources. But pressure from conservative political elites has warped its coverage of Israel’s war and caused it to downplay the violence being inflicted on Palestinian civilians.
A Palestinian flag is waved outside the BBC Scotland building as people take part in a demonstration to show solidarity with the Palestinian people in Glasgow on October 14, 2023. (Andy Buchanan / AFP via Getty Images)
This BBC journalist wrote under condition of anonymity to provide us with insight into what has been happening behind the scenes at one of the world’s most influential media organizations.
The day after an explosion killed hundreds of displaced Palestinians sheltering in the grounds of Gaza’s al-Ahli Arab hospital, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak was in Jerusalem to express his government’s solidarity with Israel. At the press conference, Israeli president Isaac Herzog used the occasion to criticize what is arguably Britain’s most influential export: the BBC.
“We feel that the way the BBC characterizes Hamas is a distortion of the facts,” said Herzog:
I know that in modern democracies such as yours and ours, you cannot intervene per se, but because the BBC has a certain linkage and it is known as Britain as such all over the world, there has to be an outcry so that there will be a correction, and Hamas will be defined as a terror organization.
Herzog’s extolling of the democratic virtues supposedly shared by Israel and Britain while simultaneously applying political pressure on the latter’s key media organization was unintentionally ironic. Why did he bother? Because he knows that the BBC’s reporting on the conflict will help shape perceptions well beyond the UK.
Fit for Purpose?
As the world’s oldest national broadcaster and largest broadcast news organization, the BBC’s importance is far from being confined to British soil. Reaching an average of 489 million adults every week around the world in 2020–21, it is routinely the site of hotly contested political wrangling.
The day before Sunak’s visit, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) targeted the BBC for reporting claims that Israel was responsible for the explosion at al-Ahli. Posting on Twitter/X, the IDF said that the “BBC claims to be impartial and independent” but chooses “to believe a genocidal terrorist organization.”
In the UK, the corporation’s eschewal of the term “terrorist” to describe Hamas has dominated the discourse about its coverage. Appearing on the BBC Breakfast program, the British foreign secretary James Cleverly grilled presenter Sally Nugent about the issue: “Hamas . . . is a terrorist organization — I just want to make sure you recognize that in your reporting; these are not militants, they are terrorists.”
Both Rishi Sunak and the Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer made a point of using the word “terrorist.” UK defense secretary Grant Shapps called for the BBC to “get its moral compass out,” a statement echoed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
The BBC’s former North America correspondent Jon Sopel chimed in too, suggesting that the corporation’s editorial guidelines were “not fit for purpose” and that “not using the word is a barrier to understanding.” Former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said he was “ashamed of the BBC” for its coverage. This is a level of heat that pro-Palestinian voices, who are often somewhat marginal figures such as activists and academics, are unable to generate.
Much of the world considers Israel to be guilty of state terrorism. At time of writing, Israeli bombs raining down terror from the skies have killed more than nine thousand Palestinians in Gaza, including almost four thousand children. Yet there is no question of the BBC referring to such actions as terrorism, with the exclusive focus on how to describe Hamas.
Myths of Impartiality
The ensuing row saw BBC executives spiraling into weeks of neurotic self-reflection. Veteran correspondent John Simpson was wheeled out in an attempt to placate the corporation’s detractors:
It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn — who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Our business is to present our audiences with the facts and let them make up their own minds.
While laudable in principle, Simpson’s argument is outdated and clouded by his own liberal ideology, to which — in my experience — most BBC journalists subscribe. Furthermore, Simpson’s contention that “presenting the facts” will suffice relies on individuals having access to equally potent analytical faculties. The way in which facts are presented is crucial: if the BBC tells people that one hundred Israelis have been killed and one hundred Palestinians have died, both descriptions are factual, but the first version is clearly more damning than the second.
Simply reporting that the Israelis are saying one thing while the Palestinians are saying another is insufficient. This approach gestures toward a nebulous middle ground as the site of an underlying truth, eliding the fundamental component of this conflict: the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Simpson’s argument is unsurprising given the BBC’s attachment to the mythical idea of impartiality. This is a term that has been accompanied in recent years by a qualifier: “due impartiality” now allows for editorial judgements “adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme.”
Yet the distinction is undermined by the BBC’s operational structure, which rewards those with more conservative instincts. Journalists are only promoted to senior positions after having demonstrated editorial caution, and stories abound of careers ruined by on-air blunders. Typically editors will succumb to this structure of incentives, disregarding the “due” element in “due impartiality,” which amounts to allowing the oppressed and oppressor equal airtime with equally vigorous pushback.
The investigation of Channel 4 News into the al-Ahli hospital blast demonstrated braver journalistic ethics by questioning the credibility of official Israeli sources. As Channel 4 correspondent Alex Thomson told viewers:
Israel has form when it comes to war propaganda. Israel denied shooting dead Palestinian-American photojournalist Shireen Abu Akleh last year only to backtrack later on, admitting they probably did kill her.
The BBC, on the other hand, has stuck doggedly to its “he said, she said” approach, hampered by its deep interconnectedness with the British state and its fealty to a reputation for impartiality from going beyond this restrictive framework.
The pressure on the BBC over its reporting on Hamas eventually told, and a memo from bosses went around the corporation:
Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah are proscribed as terrorist groups by the UK government. Where possible we should reflect this at first mention of the organization in a story.
Another instruction told journalists to caveat the escalating Palestinian death toll by attributing the figures to the “Hamas-run” health ministry. The effect of the stipulation was to cast doubt on the veracity of the death toll, while the BBC applies no such caveat to claims made by Israeli state institutions.
When Joe Biden questioned the casualty figures from Gaza on similar grounds, the Washington Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler explained that Biden was “remarkably uninformed by history and precedent” in making such a claim:
The Gaza Health Ministry has had a pretty good track record with its death estimates over the years, notwithstanding that it is part of the Hamas-run government, and Biden is in a position to know that.
So is the BBC.
Such double standards are evident across our coverage. When Israel’s supporters justify its actions as “self-defense,” this argument is never challenged by reference to the right of Palestinians to resist occupation, which is guaranteed under international law.
Our persistent portrayal of October 7 as the starting point for the conflagration obfuscates the crucial context of the occupation. It is true that the short-form nature of BBC programming allows little space for historical nuance; you are unlikely to hear mention of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, or the Nakba. But as Palestinian ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour put it: “History for some media and politicians starts when Israelis are killed.”
Marching to the Beat
Hypocrisies abound in our language. While BBC journalists use words like “massacre,” “slaughter,” “barbarism,” and “brutality” when talking about the Hamas attacks, they do not apply similar terminology to actions by Israel that have killed many more people than Hamas did on October 7. Palestinians and their defenders face constant demands to condemn Hamas, while supporters of Israel do not come under the same pressure to condemn what the Israeli government is doing.
The focus has recently shifted toward stigmatizing the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which powerful, bullying figures like the Conservative home secretary Suella Braverman claim is antisemitic. The real value of these frenzied debates for Israel and its supporters is the way they shut down Palestinian voices, swallowing up airtime that might otherwise be used for discussion of Israel’s mounting crimes or the relevance of terms like “colonialism,” “apartheid,” or “ethnic cleansing.”
The BBC marches to the beat of the loudest drums, totally divorced from a clear understanding of how it reproduces the dominant ideology. It takes criticism from left and right as proof of its “impartial” positioning, while being unwittingly disciplined by the hegemonic political forces in Britain. In the face of what UN human rights official Craig Mokhiber describes as an unfolding genocide, the BBC is failing the Palestinians, and history will not be kind to the role it has played.Original post