A claim that the BBC’s news coverage of Israel-Palestine conflict is strongly biased against Palestine and in favour of Israel would not surprise anyone who closely follows developments there. It is nonetheless hugely valuable to have the report of two highly qualified academics, Greg Philo, Director of the Glasgow University Media Unit, and Mike Berry of Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, which examines over twenty years of BBC reporting and confirms the bias beyond any reasonable doubt. Their original report can be found here.

Media research shows BBC is very far from ‘biased against Israel’

Academics analysed Israel-Palestine coverage and found Palestinian perspectives were given far less time and legitimacy

Greg Philo Mike Berry
22 December 2023, 1.17pm

Signs criticising the BBC for perceived bias at a protest called by the National Jewish Assembly, Campaign Against Antisemitism and UK Lawyers for Israel at BBC Broadcasting House on 16 October 2023

Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Broadcast journalists are sometimes accused of bias against Israel.

Such claims have been made, among others, by the pro-Israel media monitoring group BBC Watch and the right-of-centre press. More recently, the BBC was criticised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a former BBC executive for not referring to Hamas as “terrorists”.

These accusations tend to rely on highlighting a single issue or event that is then extensively analysed and presented as symptomatic of a widespread problem. However, to properly assess whether coverage is balanced, what is needed is systematic academic research that relies on tested social science methods.

In this article, we will review research carried out over more than 20 years – from the second intifada at the turn of the millennium to the current war in Gaza – and show what it tells us about whose perspectives are favoured in broadcast news. What this review will reveal is very striking continuities and patterns in broadcast reporting stretching back over decades. Such patterns are also seen in current reporting of the Gaza war, which we show in new research published for the first time here.

Most studies carried out prior to the current fighting in Gaza – including research commissioned by the BBC itself – have repeatedly found that it is the Israeli perspective that is favoured. This judgement is formed on the most basic criteria, such as the number of appearances of spokespeople, the use of press statements and the legitimacy accorded to Israeli rather than Palestinian perspectives.

We conducted a series of studies between 2000 and 2010 that showed the impact of such coverage on public understanding of the history and origins of the conflict; the motives of those involved; and who is publicly perceived as having initiated violence and sustained the most casualties.

To do this we combined two research methodologies. First, we did a thematic analysis of transcribed television news broadcasts, examining which explanations and ways of understanding are foregrounded in broadcast news bulletins and which are absent. We chose television news because at the time research showed that this medium was the main source of world news for 79% of the UK population. Second, we used surveys and audience groups to explore how such coverage influenced public knowledge and understanding of the conflict.

During the second intifada (the Palestinian uprising of 2000 to 2005) we took a sample of 3,500 lines of news text covering the first three weeks of the uprising on the mass audience bulletins (lunchtime, early evening and late news) on BBC1 and ITV1.

Only 17 of these, across both channels, mentioned any aspect of the history of the conflict. For the Palestinians, the loss of their homes and land when Israel was created, and the military occupation under which they have lived since 1967, are fundamental. Yet we found that explanations of the conflict given in news accounts tended to reduce it simply to a “cycle of violence” that started when one side attacked and the other “retaliated”. In this initial sample we found that approximately three times as much text (50 lines) was devoted to explanations of the conflict as a “self-perpetuating” cycle of violence, as was given to discussion of its origins or history.

Even in this, we found that the attribution of what was “triggering” the violence was not equal between the two sides. There was a much greater emphasis on Israeli “retaliation”. In one sample – taken between between October and December 2001 – we found that Israelis were described as “responding” or “retaliating” to what had been done to them about six times as often as the Palestinians. This created a framework where Palestinians were presented as initiating the violence and Israelis simply as reacting to it.

In 2023, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reaffirmed the centrality of the conflict’s backstory when he stated that the 7 October attacks “did not happen in a vacuum” and were related to the history of the occupation: “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” he said. “They have seen their lands steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence, their economy stifled and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

Yet the BBC repeatedly gives reports of events without such context. For instance, on 23 November BBC Online reported that: “The conflict began when Gaza-based gunmen from Hamas attacked southern Israel on 7 October, killing about 1,200 people and taking about 240 others hostage.”

The BBC’s coverage locates the origin of the conflict in the recent actions of Hamas – but Palestinians see themselves as resisting the actions of Israel stretching back decades.

In our earlier studies, which covered nearly five months of BBC One and ITV1 mass audience bulletins, we also found that, in the absence of context and history, BBC journalists would report the Palestinian “side” in terms of the suffering caused by the fighting. But the Palestinian perspective in terms of the reasons for the conflict was absent. The Israeli rationale, on the other hand, was often foregrounded in news reports.

When we tested the possible effects of this on audience members – by asking why participants in our audience groups thought the two sides were fighting and how the conflict could be resolved – we found these patterns in reporting appeared to lead some to conclude that it was “very sad” for the Palestinians but that the Israelis were “retaliating” and the situation could be resolved if the attacks on Israel stopped.

Another key finding from these studies was that Israeli casualties were given proportionally more coverage than Palestinian ones, and the language used to describe Israeli deaths was markedly different. Words such as “atrocity”, “murder”, “lynch-mob” and “barbarically killed” were used by journalists to describe the deaths of Israeli soldiers, but not those of Palestinians.

Such patterns are also evident in current reporting. We examined four weeks (7 October to 4 November) of BBC One daytime coverage of the 2023 Gaza war using the database TV Eyes to identify which terms were used by journalists themselves (not in direct or reported statements) to describe Israeli and Palestinian deaths.

We found that “murder”, “murderous”, “mass murder”, “brutal murder” and “merciless murder” were used a total of 52 times by journalists to refer to Israelis’ deaths but never in relation to Palestinian deaths. The same pattern could been seen in relation to “massacre”, “brutal massacre” and “horrific massacre” (35 times for Israeli deaths, not once for Palestinian deaths); “atrocity”, “horrific atrocity” and “appalling atrocity” (22 times for Israeli deaths, once for Palestinian deaths); and “slaughter” (five times for Israeli deaths, not once for Palestinian deaths).

But the issue goes beyond these differences. The Palestinian perspective is effectively absent from the coverage, in how they understand the reasons for the conflict and the nature of the occupation under which they are living.

One senior BBC correspondent commented to us in 2002 that what was missing was the view that the Palestinians saw themselves as engaged in a decades-long struggle of national liberation “in which a population is trying to throw off an occupying force”. Our research has found that this perspective, if it occurs at all, is not developed as a theme by journalists or related routinely to events, and has nothing like the status given to the Israeli perspective which stresses that Israel is subject to terrorist attacks motivated by Islamic extremism and antisemitism.

In contrast, Palestinians regard the Gaza attack by Israel in 2023 as part of the war of occupation. They see it as genocidal in the level of civilian casualties and damage to residential areas, infrastructure and health facilities, well beyond defined military targets. They received support for this view from the director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for human rights, Craig Mokhiber, who resigned from his post, terming the attack a “textbook case of genocide”. An online search of BBC coverage shows no trace of this resignation or its cause although it was widely covered by other sources.

But legitimacy is given by journalists to the perspective of Israel, and the conflict can be seen and described through this. So, for example, during the second intifada in 2002, Israeli soldiers were described as being “in good spirits” and their leaders “determined to press on with the offensive”. Palestinians see themselves as subjected to military control and a system of apartheid. But Palestinian fighters were not described on the news at this time as being, for example, determined to overthrow this system and the occupation of their land. In this conflict, the perspective of only one side is given legitimacy.

In the current Gaza war, when a former Israeli general was interviewed for BBC Online, he was described as “straight-talking” when he said that innocent civilians would have to be killed when Israel “crushed” its “enemy” and that “we need to be tough”. It is inconceivable that any Palestinian group would be given space to describe the need to kill Israeli civilians – let alone be described as “straight-talking” when doing so.

We did not write this article or engage in research to justify the use of violence by anyone in any circumstances. But we write in the knowledge that peace can only come when realistic negotiations take place between people who are actually fighting. For peace to have any chance, the reasons for conflict must be understood and seriously addressed.

The BBC must support international law. If claims of genocide are being made then these must be named and investigated and the actions of politicians held to account. For the BBC and other western media to simply repeat the propaganda of one side while denying legitimacy to the other will in the long run do nothing for the cause of peace but will simply hold back the public and political will needed to press for realistic negotiations to end the conflict.