The assertion that during Hamas’ attack in southern Israel on 7 October babies were beheaded gained traction almost immediately.
On the morning of 10 October, Israeli news channel i24 claimed it had received confirmation from soldiers that “40 babies/children were beheaded”.
On that same day, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repeated the claim to Business Insider that soldiers had found decapitated babies.
This precise language was echoed the next day by the spokesperson of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to CNN.
US president Joe Biden also announced he’d seen “confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading babies”.
When the IDF was questioned about those claims on that same day, it said it would not investigate and insisted testimonies from soldiers amounted to sufficient evidence.
There was therefore still a cloud of doubt surrounding the story.
On Sky News’ “press preview” on the evening of 10 October, the presenter emphasised that Sky had asked the IDF on three occasions to confirm those reports – each time with no success. She added that Sky’s chief correspondent on the ground, Stewart Ramsey, could not corroborate them either.
But the story had already made the front page of the majority of British newspapers.
‘Holocaust plain and simple’
“A claim from the Israeli military was instantly transformed into an established fact by the British media”
“They decapitated women and children” was the Independent’s headline. (The paper’s reporter later deleted the post on X that regurgitated that claim but the “special dispatch” on the beheaded babies is still on the Independent’s website).
The story also featured heavily in the broadcast realm on 11 October, with little room for any view of a conflicting nature.
On LBC, presenter Iain Dale expressed disgust at a caller who did not condemn what Dale referred to as “what Hamas did” including their “beheading babies” and furiously took him off air.
What started as a claim from Israeli military and media circles that lacked certainty was instantly transformed into an established fact by virtually the entire British media.
In subsequent days, journalists at the scene in Israel continued to investigate the validity of the beheaded babies story. A French journalist in Kfar Aza reported that nobody had mentioned beheaded children to him.
Meanwhile, Oren Ziv, a prominent Israeli journalist, highlighted he had not seen any evidence to support the claims before adding that Israeli soldiers and the army’s spokesperson remained unable to confirm the allegations.
The White House quickly walked back on Biden’s earlier claim. It reiterated he had not in fact seen evidence of the beheaded babies he was convinced of less than 36 hours ago, making clear that the president’s comments were merely repeating Israeli news reports and officials.
However, there was little detectable appetite from the British media to change tack and report on this clarification in the ongoing story.
In fact, the newspapers had moved on completely. The zealous willingness to examine in scrupulous detail atrocities taking place on the ground and describing in vivid terms the violent acts, spectacularly disappeared.
Nor was there a lack of information to report on. By the time one week had passed since 7 October, more than 2,000 Palestinians had been murdered by Israel’s relentless military bombardment. At least 720 of them were children and around 450 were women.
But by this point, the British media had ditched the graphic images and were no longer interested in being the arbiters of what constitutes a massacre or terrorism and there was palpably no longer a need to make that clear to the public.
Same hymn sheet
One investigation looked at four weeks of BBC One’s daytime coverage of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza starting from 7 October.
It found journalists drew on the words “murder”, “murderous”, “mass murder”, “brutal murder” and “merciless murder” a total of 52 times to refer to Israelis’ deaths – but never in relation to Palestinian deaths.
So Israel can exaggerate or fabricate claims, paving the way for an unrelenting operation of ethnic cleansing, safe in the knowledge British media will sing from the same hymn sheet.
“Erase them and their families. These animals can no longer live”. Those were the chilling words of advice from 95-year-old Israeli army reservist Ezra Yachin as Israeli forces prepared to invade Gaza.
After the British media unambiguously asserted babies were beheaded, the genocidal intent from Israeli officials is likely to be perceived less as an extreme call for mass murder and more a justified response.
The process of automatically regurgitating claims not only constitutes an abandonment of the basic principles of journalism – like fact checking, accuracy and objectivity – but also helps legitimise Israel’s violence.
Command and control
The Israeli military stormed Gaza’s main hospital, Al-Shifa, in mid-November under the premise it was being used as a Hamas command centre sitting atop underground tunnels operated by militants.
Israel’s claims were again rehashed by portions of the media.
The Telegraph echoed that Israeli soldiers found a Hamas tunnel, the Times declared weapons had been found in the hospital and an LBC online article cited the Israeli army’s claim that it was being “precise” in what they labelled a Hamas hunt.
However, in December, an independent Washington Post investigation concluded the evidence presented by the Israeli government and army fell short of satisfactorily showing that Hamas had been using the hospital as a command centre or that there was any military use in the facility.
Until Israel’s claims are no longer treated as the unvarnished truth by the mainstream media, there can be no claim to impartial journalism and little resistance to the accusations of their complicity in the genocide in Gaza.