BBC admits coverage of Israel’s ICJ defence was a ‘mistake’

  • Post last modified:March 21, 2024
  • Reading time:9 mins read

BBC bosses have all but admitted that the BBC News Channel‘s coverage of part of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings were biased towards Israel. Of course, the BBC would never admit the systemic bias which led to MPs’ questioning the broadcaster about the issue – instead calling it a “mistake”.

BBC: what was it thinking?

Independent media outlet the National spotted the admission during a meeting of the Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee on Wednesday 20 March. BBC bosses were giving evidence to MPs over various issues.

The ICJ admission came after Labour MP Julie Elliott asked the panel about the BBC‘s coverage of the ruling. It found ‘plausible’ evidence that Israel was committing a genocide in Gaza.

Elliott asked:

The ICJ hearing, several weeks ago, was a hugely significant news item… the [BBC] News Channel [showed] hardly any of the South African submission on day one, and yet hours and hours of the Israeli submission on day two. Have you looked into the disaster that was in terms of impartiality – because that wasn’t impartial.

What was also interesting was the different responses.

‘Both sides’

Arch Tory and BBC director general Tim Davie was dismissive of the idea the BBC News Channel made a mistake and cost the broadcaster its impartiality.

He first said that the BBC gets ‘lots of feedback’ from people on ‘both sides of this’ – at which point Elliott interrupted him saying there’s “not two sides to this – there’s an issue of impartiality and fairness”.

Davie was dismissive of this saying:

Overall, I think we’ve been pretty robust in covering the ICJ.

Elliot threw it back, saying:

So you think it was fair to have a tiny bit of the South African submission, and then switch to the Post Office [inquiry]… but then have hours and hours the next day of the other side’s submission? You think that was fair and impartial?

Davie said:

I think overall, when you look at our coverage on the rulings, we’ve been in a reasonable position.

A ‘mistake’ – but it was ‘difficult’

However, director of editorial policy and standards David Jordan had a different take. He said:

I think you’ve [Elliott] put your finger on something very important about what happened. Because it only happened on our UK outlet…

They made the editorial decision to go with the Post Office coverage rather than the other coverage… which was a very difficult decision to make… When News looked at it in retrospect, they did think that perhaps they’d made a mistake on not making the two live coverage events similar or the same, but all the coverage was similar or the same…

He also noted that:

In this particular conflict, if you don’t have absolutely equivalence… it leads to people suspecting that you’re doing something deliberately to be bias, that isn’t the case – it was genuinely a difficult editorial decision about which hearing they went with…

To anyone outside of the BBC, it would not seem like a difficult decision.

Exposing BBC Israel systemic bias

If the BBC was (rightly) going to cover the Post Office scandal at the expense of live coverage of South Africa’s evidence session to the ICJ, then it should have allotted the same amount of time to Israel’s evidence session the following day.

However, clearly in the minds of BBC editors this kind of balance wasn’t important – otherwise it would have been an obvious decision. What is obvious is why this is.

As the Canary‘s James Wright previously wrote, broadcast media has shown systemic bias in favour of Israel since 7 October. The Centre for Media Monitoring analysed coverage from 7 October to 7 November. It found, as Wright wrote:

the Al Jazeera English channel had more mentions of ‘occupied territories’ than all UK and US news channels combined…

Most TV news channels repeated Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’, overshadowing Palestinian rights by a five to one ratio.

The report also analysed language used. When broadcast uses emotive language, it’s 11 times more likely to refer to Israeli deaths as victims of attacks than Palestinians. And in TV clips, the media uses two out of three emotive terms for Israeli deaths, compared to one in 10 for Palestinian deaths.

It’s this bias which led editors to think it was acceptable to show Israel’s ICJ defence in full – but not South Africa’s testimony.

The BBC: always an arm of the state

This is, of course, the same bias which has been present at the BBC throughout its history.

As the Canary previously wrote, during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic the BBC went onto a war footing. It was a similar MO to the one it had during WWII. It’s also the same one that led it to it being directly involved in espionage during the 1953 Iranian coup. It’s the same MO that led Marr to stand outside Downing Street at the end of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and say:

it would be entirely ungracious, even for [Tony Blair’s] critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.

And it’s the same MO that saw the government fund the BBC to push Western propaganda in North Korea. The point being, the BBC has often worked as a propaganda arm of government; regardless of whether that government is Tory or Labour.

We’ve now seen it with the BBC‘s coverage of Israel. Even if editors think they’re presenting balance, at the heart of the broadcaster is an inherent bias towards UK and Western capitalist and colonialist interests – often unconscious in the minds of its staff.

Unconscious bias?

It’s what Noam Chomsky famously called Andrew Marr out on. Crucially, it’s also what Media Lens highlighted in the ‘five stages of mainstream journalism’:

American political writer and media critic Michael Parenti… quoted Nicholas Johnson, former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, who said that there are four stages that journalists typically go through in their career:

‘In the early stage, you’re a young crusader and you write an exposé story about the powers that be, and you bring it to your editor and the editor says: “No, kill it. We can’t touch that. Too hot.”

‘Stage two: You get an idea for the story, but you don’t write it and you check with the editor first and he says: “No, won’t fly. No, I think the old man won’t like it. Don’t do that, he has a lot of friends in there and that might get messy.”

‘Stage three: You get an idea for the story and you yourself dismiss it as silly.

‘Stage four: You no longer get the idea for that kind of an exposé story.

‘And I would add a stage five: You then appear on panels, with media critics like me, and you get very angry and indignant when we say that there are biases in the media and you’re not as free and independent as you think.’

The BBC working as it’s supposed to

However, perhaps the crux of the problem was best summed up at the start of the session. When chair Caroline Dineage asked the select committee members whether any of them had any conflicts of interest in relation to the BBC – it was more a case of who DIDN’T have any:

Therefore, not only does the BBC exhibit (often unconscious) bias – but this pervades many politicians’ thinking about the broadcaster, too.

The fact editors didn’t even think to provide balance in the ICJ evidence sessions is damning. However, it actually shows the BBC operating as it is supposed to – punching down in the interests of Western capitalism and colonialism, and maintaining that status quo.

Featured image via ArchDaily

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