UK media should be holding Israel accountable over Gaza. It’s doing the opposite — and knows it

I hoped our research at the Centre for Media Monitoring would result in some much needed balance. Instead, things got worse

Artwork by Hyphen/Image by Planet Labs Inc./Handout via REUTERS
A comprehensive new study has found a dramatic bias in the UK media’s coverage of Israel’s war on Palestine. Artwork by Hyphen. Image by Planet Labs Inc. Handout via Reuters

The sheer scale of the devastation wrought by Israel on Gaza should long ago have compelled western newsrooms to hold accountable the party conducting this mass slaughter.

Israel has killed nearly 40,000 Palestinians in the region since 7 October last year, injuring more than 87,000. It has internally displaced 1.9 million people within the Strip, according to the UN, and effectively “dismantled” its healthcare system, according to the charity Médecins Sans Frontières. Gruesome images show children with shattered limbs and skulls. The destruction is unimaginable.

Yet headlines and commentary continue to minimise Israel’s role in these scenes or — in some cases — omit mention of it altogether.

Headlines contain phrases like “war in Gaza has wiped out entire Palestinian families”, from the Associated Press, or “aid convoy denied entry to northern Gaza”, a BBC exclusive. Who is wiping out entire families, or denying access to aid, we are not told. The Economist even managed to write an entire article on the famine in Gaza and the destruction of its farmland without mentioning Israel once — a true journalistic feat of omission.

When we at the Centre for Media Monitoring presented news chiefs at the BBC and Sky with evidence of their bias towards Israel back in February, they acknowledged that they hadn’t always got things right.

Our 150-page report, Gaza Media Bias, was intended to give newsrooms some clarity in just how skewed their coverage had become. Former Telegraph political editor Peter Oborne described it in his foreword as “devastating”. We hoped it, and the passionately argued panel discussion at which we launched it, would result in some much-needed balance emerging in coverage of the conflict.

But as our research reveals today, the gulf between how the media talks about Israel and how it talks about Palestine has only widened.

Many western news outlets appear to have doubled down on their pro-Israel positions, giving Israeli voices and perspectives even more space.

One of our findings in February was that “Israel’s right” or the “right of Israel”, often paired with the words “to defend”, had been mentioned five times as often in the first month’s coverage as any right of Palestinians.

Now, after nine months of Israeli bombardment, that imbalance has grown, with references to Israel’s rights receiving seven times as many mentions as those of Palestinians. Western news channels had more mentions of the rights of Palestinians or associated phrases in the first month than in the subsequent seven months combined. By 7 November 2023, one month after the Hamas attacks, there had been 163 mentions of Palestinians’ rights on Western news channels. By 7 June 2024, this figure had increased by just 136 to 299. As Palestinians continue to be killed, there is now even less discussion of any rights they may have to prevent their obliteration. 

Al Jazeera English, the Qatar-based news channel that the Israeli government has gone to great lengths to ban, and which has drawn criticism from pro-Israel voices in western media, accounted for 64% of all mentions of Palestinian rights on British broadcast television. All 12 of the other channels we looked at — BBC One, BBC Two, BBC News, BBC World News, ITV News, Channel 4 News, Sky News, Channel 5 News, GB News, Talk TV, CNN International and CNBC Europe — we categorised as providing news from a traditional western perspective.

The insistence on Israel’s position and what Israel says is also a feature of online news, where Israeli views, spokespeople and justifications still outnumber those of Palestinians almost three to one.

Some news anchors have resorted to challenging pro-Palestine guests solely on the basis of what Israel says. The veteran Palestinian diplomat Mustafa Barghouti suffered this fate on the BBC where a presenter’s riposte to his explanation of 270 Palestinans killed in the Al Nuseirat refugee camp was that “Israel disputes this was a massacre”, “the number of casualties is contested” and “Israel’s view is: don’t take hostages, then we won’t need to free them”. The anchor added: “They’re using people, surely — civilians — as human shields.” 

Presenting a guest with opposing claims might be standard journalistic practice, but in cases like these it should surely come with the caveat that Israel has a history of denial and even outright lying — as with the assassination of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, where Israel initially insisted Palestinian fighters were the “likely” perpetrators and shared misleading video footage to back up the claim.

The differing approach between western-facing reporting and what media analyst Tine Ustad Figenschou called Al Jazeera English’s “southern perspective” in her 2013 book Al Jazeera and the Global Media Landscape is evident in the mentions of “occupied territories”.

Palestinians routinely point out that this is a conflict between an occupier and the occupied. Yet our analysis found that Al Jazeera English had more mentions of occupied territories than all other western news channels combined. 

Updated statistics show 29,763 references by Al Jazeera to occupied territories, compared with 5,768 by the other 12 channels — in other words, Al Jazeera, a single outlet, was responsible for 81% of references to the Palestinian occupation.

This 81% figure in favour of the Qatar-based station is reversed in the reporting of the Russia-Ukraine war. Here, 81% of mentions of Russia occupying Ukraine are found on western news channels, according to our analysis.

Examples from print media also illustrate this double standard. The Financial Times published two headlines within three days in May 2024 that make the point perfectly. One stated: “Russia targets Ukraine’s Kharkiv region in deadly missile attacks.” The other read: “Dozens killed and wounded after explosions at Gaza ‘safe zone’ camp.”

The omission of Israel’s role as an occupying power for more than 75 years means that 7 October continues to be the ground zero upon which the war on Gaza is anchored in much of the news coverage. 

This was evident in the first UK general election leaders’ debate on ITV in June, where an audience member’s question on how to “stop the awful scenes in Gaza” was bizarrely summarised by the host, Julie Etchingham, as a question “about the Hamas terrorist atrocities of October 7 and then what unfolded after”.

Despite evidence of Israel’s consistent brutality against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank over decades, western news anchors seem reluctant to look back any further than the autumn of last year.

They also seem largely unable to equate the suffering of Palestinians with Israeli suffering. When a Palestinian doctor spoke to Talk TV on 1 December about decomposing bodies he saw in Gaza, he was shouted over by the host Kevin O’Sullivan that it was “almost as awful as what we saw on October 7”, before being dismissed as spouting “propaganda”.

Claims about the events of that day have been challenged and disproven, mainly through the journalistic rigour of non-mainstream outlets.

Yet the BBC allowed a supposedly liberal Israeli politician to suggest during an interview that people chanting the word “intifada” were in effect endorsing those contested and fabricated actions, saying the word meant “raping young girls” and “burning alive women”. The politician, Sharren Haskel, also repeated the story of a baby being cut out of a woman’s womb and beheaded — a tale that remains completely unsubstantiated — without challenge from the broadcaster.

This double misdemeanour — allowing the continued airing of fabricated claims, and the misrepresenting and maligning of pro-Palestinian supporters — is a failure of interviewers to do basic journalism.

Omitting Israel as an actor in the devastation and death wrought on Gaza should be an impossible task. Yet its backers in the western media continue to shield it from such charges. On the odd occasion, perhaps this can be put down to clumsy editing. But as the author and lecturer Noreen Masud observed on X when she discovered that editors at the Guardian had changed her reference to “Israeli violence in Gaza” so that it read simply “violence in Gaza”: “Isn’t it funny how it’s always the same word that gets edited out?”

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