BBC anti-Israel bias is a myth
The broadcaster favours Israeli over Palestinian sources in its news reports – as does al-Jazeera, a new study shows
I am always baffled at the ferocity and frequency of accusations that the BBC’s Middle East coverage is anti-Israel. I have yet to see convincing, thorough, statistical evidence that this is the case.
When it comes to the secret report on Middle East coverage by the BBC’s Malcolm Balen, just about every article I have read in the mainstream British press assumes that it shows an anti-Israel bias by the corporation – despite the fact that no one has read it. I guess if you make an accusation often enough, not matter how baseless, it eventually sticks.
A study (pdf) I wrote, published by Arab Media Watch on 10 June 2009, confirms that the BBC’s coverage favours Israel. This comes as no surprise, as its findings echo those of numerous previous studies by AMW, universities and others, including the major, independent impartiality review commissioned by the BBC a few years ago.
What is surprising, given the review's findings, is the continued extent of this one-sidedness, a sign that little has been learned from past mistakes.
AMW monitored BBC Online news articles about violence between Israelis and Palestinians over four months (February-May 2009). This aspect was chosen because it is one of the most reported in a conflict that is almost always in the news, and thus shapes public attitudes towards the peoples involved.
AMW analysed the prominence of each side's viewpoint and version of36by monitoring how many words were devoted to quoting and paraphrasing Israeli and Palestinian sources, and in what order they were reported. AMW also analysed the prevalence with which each side were portrayed as instigating or responding to violence.
While every BBC article included Israeli sources, 35% had no Palestinian sources. Some of those articles omitted Palestinian statements and viewpoints that were available in other respected news outlets, such as reactions to Israeli violence or explaining why Palestinian violence took place. Of the 65% of articles containing Palestinian sources, 82% devoted more words to Israeli sources. This, as the study says, is "a woeful imbalance".
But arguably the most startling aspect of the study is the performance of al-Jazeera's English website. Having concluded my findings for the BBC, I decided to monitor al-Jazeera in the same way as a comparative exercise. I had expected the world-renowned Arab station to be an example for the BBC, but in fact, it fared little better.
While every al-Jazeera article had Israeli sources, 11% had no Palestinian sources. Of the 89% that did, 69% devoted more words to Israeli sources. "A further breakdown raises more concern," the study says. "The articles in question are either attributed to 'agencies', or 'al-Jazeera and agencies'. Of the articles attributed solely to agencies, 57% devoted more words to Israeli sources. However, the figure jumped to 78% for articles attributed to 'al-Jazeera and agencies'."
When articles contained more words for Israeli sources than Palestinian, the degree to which this was the case was considerable: the BBC averaged 3.3 times more words for Israeli sources per article, while al-Jazeera averaged 3.4 times more words. When articles contained more words for Palestinian sources, the ratio was significantly lower: both broadcasters averaged 1.8 times more words for Palestinian sources. Of the articles containing sources from both sides, the majority for both the BBC and al-Jazeera reported Israeli sources first: 59% and 53%, respectively.
The absence of Palestinian sources and viewpoints, and the predominance of those from the Israeli side, go against the editorial guidelines of both broadcasters. The BBC's guidelines state that "we must ensure we avoid … an imbalance of views on controversial subjects", that "we should … fairly represent opposing viewpoints when appropriate", that "we strive to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views" and that "we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight".
Al-Jazeera's guidelines stress adherence to "the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity", "giving full consideration to the feelings of victims of crime, war, persecution and disaster" and presenting "diverse points of view and opinions".
The bad news continues. The BBC and al-Jazeera both unequivocally portrayed Israeli violence as a direct response to Palestinian violence, in the use of words such as "responded", "responds", "fired back", "in response", "in retaliation" and "deterrent against". On no occasion did either portray Palestinian violence as a direct response to Israeli violence.
Furthermore, both broadcasters implicitly portrayed Israeli violence as a response to Palestinian violence by overwhelmingly reporting the former as following the latter: 10 times and seven times, respectively. "Only once did the BBC report Palestinian violence as following Israeli violence. This was one occasion more than al-Jazeera," the study said. "The effect of this is to legitimise and justify Israeli violence, while portraying Palestinians as the instigators of violence that has no explanation or cause."
I talked to several Arab journalists and media analysts about these results. None were surprised at the BBC's performance. In fact, some were not even surprised at how poorly al-Jazeera fared. Others believed that this is a result of its English-language section overshooting in its attempts to differentiate itself from its Arabic-language counterpart. Whatever the reason, this study should be a wake-up call for both news organisations.