It wasn't bias, it was wrong polls

By Jonathan Freedland, February 1, 2013

What matters about last month's Israeli elections is what kind of government they produce. Talk of how those elections were covered in the media is, I know, secondary. So forgive me if I focus on a view that has bubbled up here and there in the blogosphere and, regrettably, in the editorial column of this very newspaper.

Broadly summarised, it goes like this. How delicious to see egg on the face of the liberal, western media which so confidently predicted a rightward lurch in Israel, only to be disproved by an Israeli electorate that backed instead the rising star of the centre-left. If only those reporters and pundits hadn't been so blinded by prejudice, they could have seen it coming.

This argument is wrong on almost every count. First, it wasn't just the liberal left, supposedly anti-Israel media that anticipated a big shift to the right in Israel. It was pretty well the entire media, across the spectrum, from the Wall Street Journal to Reuters, the New York Times to Time magazine and NBC.

What's more, it wasn't the foreign press alone that came to that conclusion. The Israeli media too expected serious gains for Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party that - coupled with the purge of Likud's relative moderates Dan Meridor and Benny Begin and their replacement by the hardcore likes of Moshe Feiglin - were bound to produce a government to the right of the last, already-hawkish one. It wasn't just lefty Ha'aretz who said that. David Horovitz, founder of the Times of Israel, was fully in step with mainstream coverage when he wrote that Israelis were set to wake up to a "Different Israel" the day after the election, describing a "dramatic imminent shift in the national orientation" in which the right would become "the far right".

Almost everyone covering this story, inside and outside Israel, right or left, painted the same picture: Bennett was the campaign sensation, set to play a key role in what would be an ultra-nationalist Israeli government. They were saying that in chorus for one simple reason: they were all reading the same Israeli polls. With only slight variation here and there, those polls showed Bennett surging; none, including the final pre-election surveys, showed what eventually happened with the breakthrough performance of TV host, Yair Lapid.

It's not some act of wicked bias to project a result based on the available numbers. Still less is forecasting a hard right turn tantamount to comparing Israel to the Nazis, as one Telegraph blogger argued. If in April 2015 polls were to show UKIP set to storm Westminster, both the British and international press would report and discuss the fact. If by election day Nigel Farage's star had waned, it wouldn't mean those earlier reports were wrong or biased. It would just mean something had changed.

And that's what happened here. Bennett was indeed riding high, voters apparently drawn to his hi-tech, elite combat unit backstory. But then partly thanks to the media focus on him Israelis learned more about his hard-line, annexationist views and there was, says veteran Israeli political analyst David Landau, a last-minute mass recoiling. Those votes went instead to Lapid.

That can happen in elections: they are dynamic events, constantly changing. Sometimes a shift occurs that couldn't have been reported earlier because it simply hadn't happened yet. Which is why Israel's election night TV coverage began with the announcement of a "big surprise". As one observer wrote, Lapid's success shocked everyone, not least the man himself.

As it happens, Bennett still did pretty well, winning 12 seats. And Israel might get a government that includes both Bennett and Feiglin, alongside Avigdor Lieberman. Worth noting too that, despite his centre-left labelling, Lapid is no dove. So let's not make any assumptions except the one that says journalists are allowed to describe what they see. It's not bias if things then change.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 1:57pm, February 4 2013