Skip to main content

Jenin assault: BBC reporting has been pro-Israel for decades, but is it changing?

Coverage of the latest Israeli attacks was unusually forthright, highlighting the power imbalance at the heart of the Palestinian plight 
General view of Broadcasting House, the BBC headquarters in central London on 9 July 2023 (Reuters)

For the past 23 years, since the beginning of al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, BBC management of the news from Palestine and Israel has been blatantly adapted to Israeli and western government interests and concerns. 

I called it in 2005 “the tyranny of spurious equivalence” - the underlying assumption that Israel and the Palestinians were equal-weight contestants in an eternal war.

BBC reporters in the field were, I wrote, "lions led by donkeys", trimming their stories so they were acceptable to editors in London, and thus Israel.

Academics Greg Philo and Mike Berry, and their team at Glasgow University, wrote two seminal research accounts: Bad News from Israel (2004) and More Bad News from Israel (2011), detailing the pro-Israel bias, chapter and verse, of the BBC, ITV and ITN, spanning the use of language to disparage and demean Palestinians; the falsification of cause and effect; confusing the perpetrator with the victim; and failing to include sufficient historical background.

In 2006, a panel set up by the BBC board of governors (then the corporation’s overseer) found the BBC’s coverage of the conflict to be “misleading”. It noted the absence of historical context, pointing to the BBC’s failure to convey the disparity in the experiences of occupier and occupied.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Seventeen years later, despite the corporation’s national and global reach and its reputation for fairness, the BBC has exponentially degraded its coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict and shown itself to be impervious to criticism - except when it comes to Israel’s friends and supporters.

In 2009, the BBC refused to broadcast a charity appeal for Gaza after Israel’s three-week air, land and sea invasion of the besieged enclave. Around 1,400 Palestinians were killed, along with 13 Israelis. The Gaza appeal ban was a shocking, immoral decision. BBC insiders protested, to little effect; ultimately, then-MP Tony Benn voiced the appeal himself on the Today programme, over the half-hearted protests of the presenter. 

Pro-Zionist coverage 

The Panorama programme’s coverage of the issue is continually pro-Zionist. It is impossible to document here the thousands of complaints of pro-Israel bias and framing that have inundated the corporation, to the point where they are no longer answered, while Israeli complaints are acted upon with alacrity.

I therefore turned on BBC Radio last Monday morning expecting more of the same - and indeed, in many parts of the coverage, there was more of the depressing same.

We can only wait to see whether fairness and impartiality have really made new beginnings at the corporation on this issue

But this time there was a difference, and it started with international affairs editor Jeremy Bowen on the breakfast-radio programme Today, which is essential listening for the British political class. It is vital to examine his reporting, first in the Today studio, hours later on the road to Jenin, and then in Jenin.

Bowen has reported well and bravely before, as Middle East correspondent and later editor, but he has been a sporadic visitor to Israel/Palestine recently. Sometimes, I have felt Bowen straining at the BBC self-censorship shackles that younger and less experienced reporters do not even try to break. 

This past week, much changed. Bowen’s forthrightness spread to his colleagues on the road, in the occupied West Bank and Israel, and even to presenters in London. For the first time in more than 20 years, I felt that the journalists in the studios back home were taking his lead and beginning to portray some of the realities of the Palestinian plight.

Bowen repeatedly made the point that Israel’s latest invasion of the Jenin refugee camp (21 years after it had supposedly been destroyed) would not be decisive; even as the last Israeli soldiers pulled out last week, Palestinian gunmen were back on the streets, he pointed out from inside the camp. He called them "fighters" and "resistance", rather than using the BBC’s dire formulation "militants", with its aura of innate aggressiveness. These Palestinians “feel just their presence here is a victory in itself”, Bowen said. 

He stressed that the Jenin refugees were the people of 1948 and their generations of descendants, victims of the Nakba - a point that was taken up by the presenter of the main TV bulletins. 

These people are not going anywhere, Bowen reported, and their resistance is no more over now than it was in 2002. This is a "generational conflict", with an extremist Israeli government now intensifying the degradation of the Palestinian people. Time and again on the BBC’s main news bulletins, Bowen said that despite Israel’s claims that it had extinguished a nest of dangerous rebel cells, “more violence is guaranteed”.

Public influence

Importantly, he told us plainly that all this was inevitable in a political and peace-seeking vacuum: the two-state solution was a “slogan”. There has not been a peace process for seven years (many would say far more, in any terms liable to succeed, going back to the fatal Camp David fiasco of 2000).

BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams added his voice. In the late 1990s, he was a BBC correspondent in Jerusalem, and he was disastrously sent elsewhere just as the al-Aqsa Intifada was erupting - leaving the reporting to newcomers easily subjected to the Israel/BBC requirements. Adams, speaking in London, said that for Palestinians, “there’s always a new generation” of young men fighting the occupation the only way they can. 

Purists will note that there is much more to be said, which should have been said before. But it is hard to tell a story, in all its historical, tragic, corrective context, in a few minutes of air time - especially one the BBC has failed to tell properly, if at all, since 2000.

As Israel smashes up Jenin, its British apologists are enabling this violence
Read More »

The BBC might at last be responding to public influence, rather than perceived or understood government, and real Israeli and Zionist, influence - using its editor on the spot to take the lead. I stress the “might”. The new, and even more rabid than usual, extremist government in Israel might have helped here, alongside the decline of the present British government, whose support for Israel knows no bounds. 

The BBC might also have taken into account the massive, negative public and parliamentary reaction to the anti-Israel boycott bill, which threatens to stop local governments and universities from making ethical investment decisions concerning Israel and its illegal settlements.

Part of the BBC’s pusillanimity in recent decades has been caused by increasing government pressures on the licence fee, especially since the Tories came to power; and fear of the dreaded charge of antisemitism over any perceived criticism of the state of Israel. This is enhanced by the worrisome, and often abusive, concentrated attacks at all levels of the corporation by the Israel lobby and assorted friends of Israel, if they feel Israel’s position is being somehow misstated. 

Yet, their credibility may be lessening, given their association now with an Israeli government that is avowedly, openly racist, and is no longer paying even lip service to any kind of acceptable political solution in Israel-Palestine. Even the BBC’s bosses, and the government, know that the prospect of a two-state solution is dead - a reality rarely heard from any official source. The prospect is de facto annexation: an Israeli-ruled, one-state solution.

Rejecting 'them and us' narrative

Today, a younger generation has during the past 10 years or so been helping shape BBC coverage, including journalists of Asian and Middle Eastern background. They may no longer be prepared to reflect old British attitudes of “them and us”, which have so often informed coverage: Palestinians just die; but Palestinians kill Israelis. The Black Lives Matter movement might have had an awakening effect, highlighting this long-ignored British colonial injustice.

Israel, the media and the future of Palestinian resistence
Read More »

Elsewhere across the BBC, though, it was still business as usual. There was an immediate BBC apology after a news presenter, in an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, suggested “Israeli forces are happy to kill children”. The apology was called for, but the immediacy of its delivery contrasts sharply with the eternally delayed responses to most complainants - and it is indicative that the presenter felt emboldened to frame the question in a confrontational way. 

Newsnight contributed the usual unproductive ding-dong between an Israeli embassy spokesperson and a Palestinian activist, in which inevitably a Zionist will believe the Zionist, and a Palestinian or Palestine supporter will support the activist. This is the familiar tennis-match formula, except that tennis matches produce results. 

As ever, when the Jenin invasion news broke overnight last week, the BBC gave Israel the ball to carry, until Bowen arrived with his experience, authority, correctives and caveats in the morning. This made a difference.

But the BBC cannot rely on one man. I had the impression that while Bowen was there, other reporters, producers and presenters in London felt emboldened. But how long before caution retakes the reins?

People walk by rubble in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, on 5 July 2023 (AFP)
People walk by rubble in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, on 5 July 2023 (AFP)

The BBC is a nervous institution, and Israel plays a dirty, tough, expert game. Two veteran BBC Arabic service news writers told me a year ago what I had always assumed: that any Israeli complaint at their network was immediately taken up. Senior editors would impose correctives so that stories reflected the Israeli slant. 

Israel, as the dominant power in the Palestine-Israel impasse, always gets its version in first, following up with articulate line-shooters called spokespeople. The BBC has over the past decade given less and less air time to Palestinian spokespersons or commentators, in comparison with Israeli commentators. Two of Britain's most accomplished British Palestinian analysts, who used to be regulars - Ghada Karmi and Abdel Bari Atwan - have rarely if ever been on air in the past 15 years.

The BBC has been known to take the view that if the Israeli press reaction is faster and slicker than that of the Palestinians, that is bad luck. Of course, I am suggesting that this might be changing, which is the most positive I've been since 2002.

Undiscovered territory

There are many inbuilt difficulties. For example, the Palestinian ambassador in London, Husam Zomlot, is fast on his intellectual feet. But as an emissary of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, i.e. the moribund Palestinian Authority (PA), he is not in a position to explain the failings of that body, which came in for much criticism, including from Bowen, during on-air exchanges over the past week. 

The PA is toothless, but Zomlot cannot tell us this, nor can he highlight how the PA was set up to be Israel’s subordinate guard dog in the occupied territory. In security terms, its successes have been in arresting, locking up and abusing its own people. It might be asked how a Palestinian in the PA security forces could be expected to effectively take up arms against his cousin or friend in the resistance; ultimately, that is a recipe for civil strife. 

There will be another Jenin soon. Or a Nablus. Or a Gaza ... Then we will see how long the Bowen effect lasts

But Israel, along with the Americans and Europeans, created this situation. Not many people in Britain will know that from the BBC, where the voices of the Israeli army and security forces predominate.

There was little time to go into all that over the past week. Kenya, Cyprus, India-Pakistan - these and other issues have been rigorously examined, but Palestine remains undiscovered territory as far as the BBC is concerned.

The question remains: Is Jenin-plus-Bowen and its reverberations a one-off? Or is new thinking about this particularly British responsibility, and its tragic consequences, about to pervade the newsrooms of the BBC?

I am sceptical. The establishment and political society, even many Palestine supporters, are heavily influenced by fears of antisemitism smears; the debate is not worth entering, it is felt. Many sympathetic MPs have decided to avoid the Palestine question for the time being. They reckon it can do them no party disciplinary or electoral good. 

The Labour Party positively persecutes Palestine supporters. Civil society is also cowed. Public spaces for open and honest discussions are constantly at risk from Israel’s friends and supporters. It is not an atmosphere in which I could normally, honestly, expect the BBC to take the lead. 

There will be another Jenin soon. Or a Nablus. Or a Gaza. Or an al-Aqsa. Bowen may well be in Ukraine, or taking a well-earned break. Then we will see how long the Bowen effect lasts.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Tim Llewellyn is a former BBC Middle East Correspondent, based in Beirut from1976-80 and Nicosia 1987-92, and reported for the Corporation on Middle East matters as a freelance until 2002. He has since, inter alia, written a book, Spirit of the Phenix: Beirut and the Story of Lebanon, published by I.B.Tauris, and acted as a persistent critic of the British mainstream media, especially BBC TV and radio coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue. Llewellyn is also an Executive Committee member of the Balfour Project, which advocates equal rights for all in Israel-Palestine.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.