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War on Gaza: UK news chiefs admit 'mistakes' but defend Gaza reporting

BBC and Sky News executives push back against criticism levelled by pro-Palestinian groups over 'media bias'
Protesters gather outside the BBC Scotland during a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people in Glasgow on 14 October (AFP/Andy Buchanan)
Protesters gather outside the BBC Scotland during a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people in Glasgow on 14 October (AFP/Andy Buchanan)

British TV news heads have admitted “mistakes” were made in their coverage of the war in Gaza, but defended their reporting at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Centre For Media Monitoring (CFMM), senior executives at BBC News and Sky News said they had attempted to take on board criticism about their reporting, which pro-Palestinian groups say has been too sympathetic to Israel at the expense of the people of Gaza.

“It is a uniquely difficult story to cover and we are striving to cover the story impartially and to bring clarity to the audience but that is very difficult in a story that is highly polarised,” said Richard Burgess, director of news content at the BBC.

Responding to criticisms made by CFMM in a report launched on Wednesday, Burgess said that as a 24-hour news service it was inevitable that there would be mistakes made.

“I hope we are transparent about that when we do it,” he said. “It’s impossible not to make mistakes, we will make mistakes.”

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Despite this, he hit back at the suggestion that the BBC had a pro-Israel bias or that it had succumbed to political pressure in its coverage.

“We get incoming from all sides … but we have to be steadfast in maintaining our core values and in this story that is more important than ever before,” he said.

He acknowledged that there had been unhappiness from some members of staff “from both sides of the argument” but insisted that the BBC had been impartial in its coverage.

“We absolutely resist lobbying from every side,” he said.

'Media bias'

The new report by CFMM, which is a project of the Muslim Council of Britain, examined “media bias” in the coverage of the conflict.

There has been anger from Palestinian campaigners and officials at much of the international media reporting of the conflict.

Marwan Yaghi, a diplomat for the Palestinian Mission in the UK, described the media coverage as "appallingly biased".

Speaking on Wednesday at the CFMM event, on the same panel as Burgess, Yaghi said that when reporting on atrocities committed against Palestinians all details were "qualified to within an inch of its life".

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Having analysed more than 200,000 articles and TV reports, the CFMM report said the British media landscape had been guilty of failing to represent the conflict in Gaza in a fair manner.

The report suggested that Israelis were 11 times more likely to be to referred to as “victims of attacks” compared to Palestinians, while 76 percent of online articles framed the conflict as an "Israel-Hamas war", while only 24 percent mentioned "Palestine/Palestinian", which they said indicated a lack of context.

It also said there was lack of scrutiny around a number of stories perpetuated in the press, noting 361 mentions of the discredited beheaded babies story and only 52 challenges made of it.

Jonathan Levy, managing director and executive editor at Sky News, praised the report and said it raised a number of important points.

“I think the points you make about passive language are really important - I think talking about Israelis ‘killed’, but a loss of life in Gaza, we do slip into that … and I think we need to work harder,” Levy told attendees.

'We could have been better and need to be better at explaining the whole history of this conflict going back 75 years and perhaps further' 

- Jonathan Levy, managing director and executive editor, Sky News

He suggested Sky News and other outlets could have been better at providing context to the conflict.

“We could have been better and need to be better at explaining the whole history of this conflict going back 75 years and perhaps further,” he said.

He also said there had been mistakes made over the reporting of the Ahli hospital strike on 17 October, saying it had provoked “introspection” in their newsroom.

However, he disputed criticism of a number of points, including the description of the conflict as the “Israel-Hamas” conflict.

“Hamas is in charge in Gaza - that’s not a bias, it’s a truth,” he said.

“It is a correct choice in my view … it’s the leaders of Israel and Hamas who are the political players and the military players.”

Journalist deaths

The criticism of media coverage of Gaza has come in tandem with an unprecedented number of deaths of journalists as a result of the conflict

The number of journalists killed in Gaza is estimated by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to be 90 but may be considerably higher.

Two Israeli journalists and three Lebanese have also been killed as a result of the fighting.

In December, Reporters Without Borders filed a second complaint with the International Criminal Court for war crimes against journalists in Gaza since 7 October.

The complaint specifically addressed the deaths of seven Palestinian journalists over the eight weeks leading up to 15 December.

According to the RSF, there is substantial evidence suggesting that the journalists mentioned in their complaint were subject to attacks that could be classified as war crimes and that there is a possibility that these journalists were specifically targeted because of their jobs.

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