Seasoned viewers of BBC News were shocked by what they saw on a prime-time bulletin: two minutes of forensic analysis challenging the Israeli army’s claim to have found an “operational command centre” under Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.
The report, by BBC analysis editor Ros Atkins, concluded that the IDF had “either not found supporting evidence or it’s not sharing it”.
Given the occasionally critical comments by correspondents such as Jeremy Bowen and some increasingly robust questioning of Israeli government spokespeople by presenters like Mishal Hussein, is it possible the BBC has become a reliable guide to what is going on in Palestine and Israel?
Not so fast.
The first point to make is that Ros Atkins’ report was more like the exception that proves the rule: that, like most other Western news outlets, the BBC’s coverage of Palestine is marked by an absence of history and context and a tendency to reproduce official Israeli government and military sources.
Atkins’ piece – a 140 second rebuttal of IDF claims that went out solely on the BBC’s News at Six programme and which was not tweeted or otherwise retransmitted by the corporation – was, after all, preceded by a podcast and a story with the headline: “US says Hamas has a command centre under Al-Shifa hospital”.
A few weeks before that, a tweet by BBC World, which has nearly 34m views, posed the question “Does Hamas build tunnels under hospitals and schools?”, using the hashtag #BBCYourQuestionsAnswered.
Given the IDF has bombed dozens of schools and hospitals, this was a question that suited Israeli military planners far more than it did the lives of innocent Palestinians.
Privileging Israeli perspectives
BBC Verify has not since published the Atkins story. Instead it later analysed IDF footage of a tunnel underneath Al-Shifa in a piece that was far less critical than Atkins’ investigation and entirely ambivalent as to whether there may, or may not, be a command centre present.
It failed even to include any reference to the fact, as admitted by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak on CNN, that “Israeli engineers” helped build tunnels under the hospital decades ago.
The privileging of Israeli sources and perspectives is hardly new. An internal report by the BBC into its news coverage of Israel and Palestine that was commissioned by the corporation’s governors in 2006 remarked on “how little history or context is routinely offered”.
It also noted “the failure to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and other lives under occupation”.
For evidence of this today, just consider the difference between the BBC’s “explainer” of what it calls the “Israel-Gaza war” whose chronology starts on 7 October 2023 and Al-Jazeera’s own version which argues that the current conflict “has its roots in a colonial act carried out more than a century ago”.
We can see this disparity in news coverage particularly when it comes to the language used by journalists to describe the fate of Israelis and Palestinians affected by the conflict.
For example, a BBC World News tweet with nearly 25m views on 9 October stated that “more than 500 [Palestinian] people have died in Gaza” whereas “more than 700 [Israeli] people have been killed”.
In another report on 17 October, Israelis murdered at the Re’im music festival were described as “massacred” while Palestinians were merely “killed” in air strikes. A BBC story about the pro-Palestinian marches across the UK on 22 October specifically drew a distinction between the “atrocities committed by Hamas and the suffering in Gaza”.
“We can see the disparity in news coverage in the language used by journalists to describe the fate of Israelis and Palestinians”
Indeed, while the BBC regularly talks about Hamas “atrocities”, it seems not to want even to ask the crucial question about whether the horror in Gaza constitutes genocide.
It has been happy to use the term repeatedly in its coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but the only reference in BBC World’s X (formerly Twitter) feed refers to a report attacking the US/Palestinian congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib, for calling the Israeli state’s actions genocidal.
It’s not as if this isn’t a matter of urgent public debate. Other mainstream media outlets including Time, Vox, Washington Post and Al Jazeera have covered the issue, not least since two groups of United Nations experts – on 2 November and 16 November – have publicly stated that a “genocide is in the making”.
All this supports a conception that Palestinian lives are somehow less valuable than Israeli (or indeed Ukrainian) ones; the former are simply collateral damage while the latter are genuine victims.
There is a second point to make about any potential change in tone by the media including the BBC towards statements by Israeli officials.
It is that this reflects an increasing discomfort on the part of Western foreign policy elites not with Israel’s overall “security” objectives and its strategic role in the Middle East but with the fact that its actions are generating so much international protest.
Critical headlines in the New York Times and CNN – traditionally firm supporters of Israel – show that even the US administration is a little embarrassed and frustrated that it has had to justify the bombing of hospitals and the killing of babies.
That’s why it put pressure on Israel to agree to at least some sort of pause in the bombing.
This links to the idea that journalists tend to shape their coverage in relation to elite debate around the issue in question. According to the academic W. Lance Bennett, “news professionals tend to ‘index’ the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic”.
So there might be room for discussion (and, at times, criticism) in the mainstream media of the precise tactics needed to destroy Hamas even if there is total agreement on Israel’s right, as it so often puts it, to “defend” itself.
This means that those who want an end to occupation and a permanent ceasefire – beyond the fragile “truce” currently on offer – need to intensify their campaigning and increase their noise. This is the most effective way to prise apart the consensus on Israel and Palestine that has dominated western governments and media for so long.
Of course, the mainstream media will continue to misrepresent this growing protest movement as antisemitic and dangerous.
Academics have talked for many years about a “protest paradigm”, a form of news coverage that focuses on the violent and the spectacular, marginalises the context of and reasons for protesting and seeks to delegitimise both participants and the wider movement.
We saw this clearly in relation to the huge “March for Palestine” of up to a million people on the streets of London on 11 November.
In this case, a news agenda, driven by tabloid newspapers and talk radio but nevertheless repeated by the BBC, focused on a tiny handful of people wearing green headbands or carrying placards that featured both a Star of David and a Swastika.
This was designed simply to attempt to discredit an overwhelmingly peaceful march and to deflect attention from the urgent call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza that is supported by a majority of the British public.
News outlets suddenly appear to have an insatiable appetite for any crumbs of evidence of antisemitic behaviour (behaviour that of course ought to be thoroughly condemned where it is proven).
This “evidence” is often provided by pro-Israel advocates determined forensically to scour pictures of every protest. Journalists can then feel justified in running stories that equate vocal opposition to the barbaric assault on Gaza with support for Hamas or as proof of antisemitism despite the fact that this is far from true.
This is asymmetrical warfare: one side has the upper hand in terms of guns, bombs, propaganda machines and support in palaces, parliaments and the press while the other has little to defend itself with apart from widespread support on the streets.
World public opinion
Yet the sheer scale of the international mobilisations to demand a ceasefire and to show solidarity with the people of Gaza has cracked open both the usual assumption of the “protest paradigm” that the media’s framing will dominate and the political establishment’s hope that marchers wouldn’t turn out and that resistance would fizzle out.
Just as in February 2003 when the huge protests across the world to stop the Iraq war led the New York Times to speak of the emergence of a “second superpower” – “world public opinion” that was made manifest by the protests – the support for Palestinians is only growing.
Mainstream media like the BBC will not represent this movement nor hold to account those governments who are complicit in the destruction of Gaza because they are overwhelmingly tied to an imperial world view.
That responsibility lies instead with people like the media workers, striking school students, dock workers and marchers across the world who are determined to struggle for justice and peace in the Middle East.