How mainstream media ignores UK military support for Israel

Britain does much more than simply sell weapons to Israel, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the BBC.

21 June 2024
2RM8RFK (140424) -- JERUSALEM, April 24, 2014 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) is interviewed for the BBC, Fox News and MSNBC in Jerusalem, on April 24, 2014. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erikat accused Israel on Thursday of undermining the peace process with its decision to halt talks with the Palestinian National Authority because of the latter s reconciliation with Hamas rulers of Gaza. (Xinhua/JINI/GPO/Haim Zach) MIDEAST-JERUSALEM-ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS-NEGOTIATIONS-SUSPENDING PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxCHN Jerusalem April 24 2014 XINHUA Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netany

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interviewed by the BBC. (Photo: Haim Zach via Alamy)

Mainstream journalism insists that its core function is to investigate the actions of the most powerful people in society. The BBC’s editorial guidelines state: “We must always scrutinise arguments, question consensus and hold power to account with consistency and due impartiality”. 

According to AG Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times: “Journalists hold power to account by exposing corruption and abuse. Journalists reveal injustice and inequality”.

Nowhere has this myth been more thoroughly exposed than in news coverage of the war crimes that have been committed in Gaza since 7/10.

Critics have identified how Palestinians have been consistently dehumanised and marginalised in the media and highlighted the fact that established news outlets have firmly reproduced a consensus on Israel’s unambiguous right to “self-defence”.

History has been erased, genocide normalised and language brutalised when describing massacres as “precision air strikes”.

Much of the criticism of this coverage has understandably focused on the most visible and outrageous examples of bias

But there’s another side to the problem of the media: the stories that are not covered and the uncomfortable truths (for Israel and its supporters) that are not acknowledged.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the issue of how the UK military has contributed to Israel’s assault on Gaza.


‘Found dead in Gaza’? No, murdered by Israel


Bullish coverage

Of course, straight after 7/10, mainstream journalists were quick to promote the deployment of planes and personnel to support “our ally” in the region. 

While the Sun splashed photos of British jets and frigates heading to the eastern Mediterranean with the headline “United We Stand”, the BBC basically reproduced a Ministry of Defence press release in its story, “UK to deploy Royal Navy ships to Middle East to ‘bolster security’.”

On 2 December, the Ministry of Defence released a short statement on UK military activity in the region, ostensibly to secure the release of (only) Israeli hostages. 

The BBC, along with other news outlets, immediately ran a story repeating the MoD’s words verbatim (with a sprinkling of additional text from the Pentagon) as if these were to be innocent “surveillance flights” despite the fact that over 15,000 Palestinians had already been killed in brutal air strikes since 7/10.

This was followed by a flurry of highly bullish coverage of two further military interventions directly related to bolstering UK support for Israel – evidence of the “extensive defence and security cooperation” between the two countries that was embedded in the ‘Roadmap’ agreement signed in 2023 (and ignored by the media).

First, a series of gung-ho stories earlier this year celebrated UK participation in the US-led air strikes against Houthi groups targeting ships in the Red Sea linked to Israel.

Second, there was no shortage of headlines welcoming the deployment of British Typhoons from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to shoot down Iranian drones launched in response to Israel’s strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus in April. 

The objective, as several headlines put it, was to “protect Israel” even if it meant further destabilisation of the wider region.

But other than those stories on active military operations against the Houthis and Iranian drones, there have been very few pieces in the UK media exploring the underbelly of British military relations with Israel.

Ukraine covered differently

A search of the Nexis news database between 7 October 2023 and 19 June 2024 reveals that there were no stories on “UK military assistance” and “Israel”. 

There were 17 stories on “UK military support” and “Israel” (most of which were in relation to parliamentary debates on arms sales) and 13 on “UK military aid” and “Israel” (most of which were about aid to Ukraine). 

There was one story on “British military assistance” and “Israel”, 10 on “British military support” and “Israel” (again mostly about Ukraine) and 34 stories featuring “British military aid” and “Israel” (25 of which were actually the same story across different BBC regions on 11 October).

If you replace “Israel” with “Ukraine” in these searches, there are 157 stories – reflecting a media consensus that while military assistance to Ukraine is a legitimate topic for debate, military assistance to Israel is not.

This is backed up by a search of “military aid” on Twitter: there are 15 tweets on @BBCWorld (14 of which relate to Ukraine), four on @BBCNews (all of which are focused on Ukraine), three on @ITVNews (all on Ukraine), eight on @Channel4News (seven of which are about Ukraine) and one on @Guardian (about Ukraine). 

There is a similar preoccupation with Ukraine in the very few tweets from those sources on both “military support” and “military assistance”.


UK media shouldn’t be ‘impartial’ – but fearless and truthful


Censorship by omission

This lack of interest in the British government’s military links to Israel shouldn’t suggest, however, that there is nothing to investigate.

Indeed, Declassified UK has published multiple stories on the more opaque actions of the UK government that have been largely ignored by mainstream news including the deployment of a British spy team in Israel since 7/10, the dozens of flights by UK military aircraft to Israel in this period, the surveillance activities in support of Israel and the training of Israeli military personnel in the UK. Almost none of these have been followed up in broadcast bulletins and articles.

There is one area, however, in which the media do appear to have engaged with this topic: British arms sales to Israel that, according to the Campaign against Arms Trade, amount to £576 million since 2008. 

That there were 2,648 stories mentioning “arms sales to Israel” and “UK” between 7 October and 19 June 2024 might suggest this is a major area of concern for journalists.

Not so fast. 85% of all stories appeared after 1 April when three UK citizens were among seven aid workers killed when Israeli jets attacked the food convoy they were managing. 

For the 177 days between 7/10 and 1 April, the media (with the exception of the Scottish National, Guardian and BBC Parliament) showed little inclination to open up discussion on the issue. 

Despite serious concerns that, through its exports of weapons to the Israeli military, the UK is complicit in ongoing war crimes, major news outlets only started to show an interest in the topic once British people, not Palestinians, were the story.

Crucially, this limited opening was a response to elite concern about the geopolitical risks (and not the ethics) involved in providing Israel with deadly military hardware.

This was stimulated by a letter from 600 lawyers (supported by intelligence experts concerned that the UK was losing its leverage in foreign policy circles) as well as a typically hawkish opinion piece by former prime minister Boris Johnson condemning even the very idea that arms sales should stop.

Outside of this brief interlude and the military interventions discussed above, specific details of Britain’s military support for Israel’s genocide are hard to come by in the UK’s major news outlets.

Stories on surveillance, spies, training and logistical support for Israeli forces has been confined therefore either to the likes of Declassified UK or, in a very different vein, to highly specialist security sites like Airforce Technology or UK Defence Journal, hardly bastions of investigative journalism or indeed critics of UK foreign policy.

The failure of the mainstream media to address the genocide in Gaza is all too clear when looking at the euphemistic language they use and the sources they highlight.

But we also have to look beneath the surface: to the stories that the media choose not to pursue because that would draw attention to the complicity of all those at the heart of the British establishment who have helped to facilitate the war crimes currently taking place in Gaza.