There has long been a need for authoritative monitoring of Israel coverage by British media outlets. Just Journalism (JJ), headed by Middle East commentator Adel Darwish, seeks to do this with quantitative and content analysis. The group’s first major study, looking at UK media coverage of Israel’s 60th birthday, reinforces many of the stereotypes held by British Jewry.
Coverage of the event was extensive, with more than 70 separate articles in the print media, 12 segments on BBC Radio 4 and 40 items on the BBC’s website. The most comprehensive coverage was found in those publications which have long been considered most hostile to the Jewish state, The Guardian and The Independent.
As was noted here at the time, much of the British media has bought into the narrative of “Nakba” or catastrophe — the idea that Israel’s creation was at the expense of the Palestinians. Some 44 per cent of the articles contained this message, and the figure rises to 54 per cent when just the broadsheets are examined. What is extraordinary is that if one turned the clock back a decade to Israel’s more significant 50th birthday, the idea of the “Nakba” barely registered. This an indication of how well the Palestinians (with help from Israeli revisionist historians) have done in the intervening period.
JJ found that The Guardian was also the paper most likely to buy into the “Nakba”, with 67 per cent of the articles containing this message. What JJ doesn’t do is ask why this has happened. The Guardian has invested heavily in Middle East reporting, and this means there is more coverage than elsewhere. Moreover, as a paper of the liberal left, it serves its readers what they want: a version of events which focuses on Palestinian suffering.
Even though The Guardian is a relatively low-circulation paper, its impact on broader media and public opinion is very strong. It is the Bible of the BBC and it is, for the moment, the leader of the pack among newspaper websites.
The most disappointing finding was how little coverage there was of the rich tapestry of Israel life, from its cultural to its economic achievements. The report notes, with the exception of the FT, a lack of coverage of domestic Israel issues, the concessions it has made for peace, and the existential threat faced by the Jewish state.
One of the most disturbing findings was the mismatch in the BBC’s coverage between Radio 4, which made a real effort at balance and pointed out that Israel is a “homeland for the Jews”, and the BBC website. Web pages are less edited than mainstream output and offer contributors the chance to air prejudices. On the BBC website, some 45 per cent of the postings, especially those without bylines, bought into the message that Israel was created at a cost to the Palestinians.
This is disturbing, because it is taxpayers who fund the BBC and ought to be able to rely on its fairness and integrity. And more seriously because, of all Britain’s media outlets, the BBC has the greatest reach. The Birth of Israel, the BBC’s flagship documentary on the 60th, praised Israel’s feat of nation-building, but also emphasised Palestinian dispossession.
Despite fears that the loss of Conrad Black as proprietor the Telegraph Group might end its pro-Israel stance, JJ found its two titles “had the highest volume of positive coverage”. Oddly, The Times, a favourite paper in Anglo-Jewry, carried twice as many negative stories as positive. The middle market (including my own paper) and the tabloids were notable for their lack of attention to the event.
There is nothing particularly surprising in the JJ report. But it does give lobbyists on behalf of Israel statistical ballast required when combating the imbalance so often denied.