British media organisations and journalists working for them have struggled for decades to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accurately and impartially. Supporting what we all observed with our very own eyes and ears, research has demonstrated categorically over the years how Israeli narratives and viewpoints dominate the Middle East output of most mainstream media organisations in Britain, leading to the silencing, erasure and dehumanisation of the Palestinians.
So the unmistakable pro-Israel narrative in most of the British coverage of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza – which prioritises Israeli suffering, threat perceptions and geopolitical aspirations over all else – did not come as a surprise to anyone who was paying attention to the country’s news landscape before this most recent episode of violence.
Nevertheless, on this day, as bombs continue to rain down on besieged Palestinians in Gaza with unprecedented force and a wider regional war looms on the horizon, it is crucial to point out this problematic journalistic conduct once again in the hopes that it may encourage some members of Britain’s media establishment into acknowledging their responsibilities as journalists and adopting a truly impartial attitude towards the conflict – a change in direction that could not only help all those affected by this war in their search for safety and justice but also improve the British public’s deteriorating relationship with and trust in its national press.
One of the main issues with the British coverage of the ongoing war is the seemingly universal insistence on framing it as a confrontation that began only on the morning of October 7.
In most of the British media output on this war, there is little mention of decades of Israeli oppression and military occupation directed at the Palestinians, or the Israeli history of land grabs that is shaping the Palestinian – and the wider Arab – perceptions of, reactions to and interactions with Israel in the Gaza Strip and beyond. This blind spot in the coverage contributes to the dehumanisation of Palestinians, providing Israel with a pass to reframe them as “barbarians” who cannot be reasoned with and thus are deserving of the bombs raining down on them.
There are many other layers to these efforts to dehumanise Palestinians.
In the past three weeks, more than two million Palestinians in Gaza, half of them children, have been indiscriminately bombed, starved and killed in their thousands. This is a fact. Videos and photographs proving their suffering, their violent deaths, their fear and desperation are readily available and reported upon by Palestinian journalists in Gaza.
Despite this, “guests” and “experts” with clear links to the Israeli government have claimed on British television with no challenge whatsoever from experienced journalists who should know better that Palestinian numbers “cannot be trusted”.
The United Nations says the casualty numbers coming from the Ministry of Health in Gaza – currently standing above 9000 – are accurate. Leading international NGOs also say they are accurate. Palestinian authorities, who published the names and ID numbers of the victims, insist they are accurate. We have the photos. We have the videos. We have the mass graves. Most importantly, we have the Palestinians mourning their dead and telling us in every way they can, on every platform they can find that they are being slaughtered.
Yet the Israeli government says the numbers are “inflamed”, the United States president agrees and many UK journalists are suddenly not so sure whether the carnage unfolding before their eyes is real. This gives a pass to Israel to continue its indiscriminate bombing and killing of civilians in Gaza without any worries about media scrutiny.
There is also the other side of the coin. Since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, much of the British media have been accepting as fact all information coming from Israeli authorities. From 40 beheaded babies to Hamas command centres hidden under hospitals packed with displaced and wounded civilians, British media organisations have repeated as fact even the most inflammatory and consequential claims from the Israeli authorities without taking the time to verify the information presented to them.
As a journalist and a scholar on media who has reported on and analysed the coverage of conflicts, I undoubtedly know how difficult it is to verify certain information in times of war. But I also know the importance of clearly attributing newsworthy yet unverifiable claims to sources and the grave harm such unverified claims being presented as fact can cause.
Remember the days leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq?
The US and the United Kingdom claimed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The Anglo-American media, including the BBC, took that claim at face value and presented it as fact. The result was an unlawful war, years of instability, limitless human misery and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis.
Today, history is repeating itself, it seems, and no lessons have been learned from the grave mistakes made in the aftermath of 9/11.
For example, on October 22, the BBC presented its report on an Israeli strike on a mosque within the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp with the caption “Israel strikes Jenin Mosque targeting Hamas cell.” The claim that the targeted mosque was in fact a “Hamas cell” was not attributed to anyone or placed in quote marks, creating the impression that the BBC itself has somehow verified the existence of this cell in a place of worship. This careless attitude in handling claims by a military at war is not only obvious journalistic misconduct but also a moral failing that could serve as a green light for more atrocities.
Another issue with the coverage of the ongoing conflict is apparent acceptance of hate speech – when it is directed at the Palestinians.
Media organisations have a responsibility to not broadcast or publish views and statements that amount to hateful incitement against a group of people on the basis of their national identity, religion or any other intrinsic characteristic. Yet the British media appear uninterested in offering this crucial protection to the Palestinians.
Indeed, since the beginning of this latest round of conflict in Israel-Palestine, pro-Israel pundits, experts and officials have repeatedly been allowed to engage in anti-Palestinian hate speech on British television with little pushback from the journalists hosting or interviewing them.
Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, for example, was allowed to refer to Palestinians, as “horrible, inhuman animals” during an interview with Sky News.
In response to a question about the UN’s concerns over Israel’s “collective punishment” of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip through a blockade and the cutting off of fuel, Gillerman said:
“I am very puzzled by the constant concern which the world is showing for the Palestinian people and is actually showing for these horrible, inhuman animals who have done the worst atrocities that this century has seen.”
“I don’t remember people shedding tears for the Taliban,” he added.
A few hours after this outrageous performance, which received no serious rebuke from the journalist interviewing him, Gillerman was allowed to repeat the same hateful rhetoric on the BBC’s Newsnight.
When asked about the calls for fuel to be sent into Gaza for humanitarian reasons, Gillerman said: “It’s very hard because we’re dealing with murderers and liars.” Once again, his hateful words about the Palestinian people were not challenged by the presenter.
Of course, we all know British TV channels would never allow – and rightfully so – any of their guests or experts to make such generalisations about Israelis. For some reason, it seems, the British media’s rules and norms about hate speech do not apply to the Palestinians.
It will be not only the Palestinians and other peoples of the Middle East who will suffer the consequences of these journalistic failures. When the dust of the war is settled, and the truths about what really happened are inevitably revealed, all British media organisations, and especially the public broadcaster BBC, will also experience significant reputational damage.
In fact, this is already happening.
Arab and Muslim audiences in Britain and across the world are already disillusioned with the BBC’s claims of truthful and impartial coverage and are turning to other sources, especially Al Jazeera, to follow the developments in the Middle East. On Arab social media, it is now widely accepted as fact that the BBC “lies” and its reports on Israel-Palestine cannot be trusted.
The same happened in 2003 when the BBC failed to cover the US-led invasion of Iraq and its grave consequences accurately and impartially. Two decades later, there is now no doubt that the BBC was wrong and the dissenting Arabs were right about the Iraq war. Yet the broadcaster seems to be repeating those mistakes all over again.
It is not only the audience members who are disappointed and angry. It has been reported that BBC journalists are “crying in the toilets” over the network’s Israel-Gaza output, and some of them sent an email to Director General Tim Davie decrying what they perceive as the BBC ” treating Israeli lives as more worthy than Palestinian lives” in its coverage of the ongoing war.
In a recent statement, BBC News CEO Deborah Turness said the BBC’s coverage of Israel-Palestine has received criticism from “both sides” but added that the BBC “cannot afford to simply say that if both sides are criticising us, we’re getting things right”. She made a commitment to attribute all information to appropriate sources and accepted the need for the BBC to be careful about semantics. She acknowledged that the BBC created the impression that it considers some deaths more important than others by writing people “died” in Gaza and “were killed” in Israel in one of its tweets and said its journalists will think “more carefully” when talking about civilian deaths in the future.
This is an important step in the right direction, but it is not enough.
Journalists have a responsibility not only to be impartial, factual and fair when covering a war but also to stand up against hate and call out blatant war crimes that they witness. They have a responsibility not to contribute to the dehumanisation of an entire people. By allowing a state to impose its PR narratives on their output, many in the British media are failing the British public and paving the way for further atrocities against the Palestinians.
I am not alone in my disappointment with much of the British media’s coverage of this war. Dozens of scholars researching media and communication have also spoken out against the inequitable coverage. In an open letter, they decried the double standards and the inflammatory use of language that treats the Palestinians en masse as guilty.
We have seen many times before, most obviously in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, what happens when leading media organisations of the West decide the truth should not get in the way of state narratives. Let’s not repeat the disastrous mistakes of the past.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.