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A Case Study of BBC Newsnight Reporting of Israel/Palestine

By Peter Allen | News Unspun | March 25, 2013

‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ is a remark about interviewing politicians commonly attributed to Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman (actually originally made by Louis Heren of The Times). For those of us who watch Newsnight and its like the question we need to ask is not only ‘why’, but also ‘how’ these lying bastards are lying to us. You may well get the feeling that what you are watching is skewed, but given the speed of TV reports it can be difficult to recognise exactly just how we are being manipulated.

There is little doubt that we are being manipulated. For example, the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) – in a study of BBC and ITV news bulletins – found that the Israeli perspective was used to structure news reports (see *Philo and Berry, 2011). There was also very little context given of the history of how the occupation developed and how it has been prosecuted by the Israelis. Reporters tended to use ‘loaded’ vocabulary, so only Palestinians were described as ‘militants’ or ‘gunmen’. In addition, the USA was unrealistically presented as being even-handed and trying to broker a fair peace. Many or perhaps all of these findings also appear to apply to Newsnight.

This article is based on research I carried out for my MA dissertation (the full text of which is available online). Here I’m going to analyse one Newsnight report on Israel/Palestine using a method called Critical Discourse Analysis. The full version of this uses a three-level analysis – the social context (government policy on the Middle East), the institutional context (how the BBC operates to construct news programmes on the Middle East in the context of its relationship with the state) and the text (the reports). For reasons of space I’m just going to concentrate on one programme here. This report was broadcast on 19 November 2012 amidst speculation that Israel was going to invade Gaza once again (the report can be watched online. A full transcript is also available).

CDA is a flexible approach which can analyse a number of aspects of a text – grammar, vocabulary, discourses (such as metaphors), genres and so on, with the aim of revealing the underlying presuppositions and discovering what has been left out. The results can help to illuminate the ideology of the producer. In this case, I’m going to look at the report stage by stage and point out some of the sleight of hand involved.

The first stage is the introduction to the programme which highlights the report on Gaza. The presenter Kirsty Wark begins by saying `who can stop Gaza and Israel descending into a ground war’ (line 1 of the transcript). Why does Wark set up Gaza and Israel as equal subjects of the process `descending into war’? This spuriously implies that there are two more or less equal sides with equal responsibility for the situation. A more honest introduction could be `who can stop Israel attacking Gaza and the Palestinians responding’. Wark’s verbal manipulation establishes the tone of the report which completely avoids discussing Israel’s motivation for starting the conflict.

The second stage is the studio introduction to the report itself, which concentrates on updating the viewer on the most recent events. Here we see a privileging of the Israeli point of view. In particular, Wark claims that `Israeli jets pound the Strip in retaliation for rocket attacks’ (l.11-12). The GUMG has shown that it is very common for TV news to claim that Israeli attacks on the Palestinians are `retaliation’, whether this is true or not. However, the Palestinians claim that Israel started this conflict when they killed a child in Gaza on 8 November. Why does the BBC completely ignore this (reported in The Guardian 18 November) and take the Israeli account as unproblematic?

Wark then asks one question to Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban who goes into an analysis of what has been happening. This format – which is frequent on TV news programmes – allows Urban to state his views unchallenged: a good way to establish his presuppositions as `the truth’. For example, he refers to the 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza as a `limited conflict’ (l.33-35, from which we can guess that he wasn’t living there at the time). And although he refers to the Israeli attack on a building in Gaza which housed news organisations (l.50-52), this reference is `backgrounded’ as if it was accidental. In fact, Israel has a record (as does the USA) of attacking independent journalists, but Urban ignores this.

In the third stage we get an edited `package’ which starts to include other voices – where reporters select and incorporate the comments of interviewees into a chain with a linking voiceover. This may make it seem as if it is just telling a story in a natural way, but of course it is constructed to tell the story that the reporter wants – in other words it is ideological. The voices here are those of the Israeli and Egyptian governments, and Hamas. However, they are not treated equally. Individuals close to the governments are interviewed to give a semi-official point of view, but only a brief clip of a Hamas press conference is included – no direct interview. Why is this? Is the BBC denying a voice to Hamas, which is after all the elected representative of the people of Gaza, because the UK government will not recognise it? The BBC is funded by licence-fee payers, you and me, not the Foreign Office. But for Newsnight the importance of properly informing the viewer of events is secondary to toeing the government line. In practice, the BBC’s independence from government may be real to some degree but it is strictly limited (see my discussion of the reasons why in my original research).

Urban also discusses what will happen if Israel invades Gaza. However, this is done in a very matter-of-fact way, as if discussing military exercises. We are shown maps of Gaza with arrows and tanks, and mention of `2009’s ground push’, `severing communications’, and only additionally `producing hundreds of civilian deaths’ (l.98-101). Would the tone be the same if the US/UK security services’ lunatic fantasy of Iran attacking Israel ever happened? Would Urban calmly be discussing severing communications in Tel Aviv while we looked at graphics of tanks on maps? It hardly seems likely. The screen would be filled with voices denouncing this monstrous attack. Why aren’t we seeing this about the war crime of killing civilians in Gaza? Instead, the only external voice brought in to comment on this is Tony Blair. Newsnight chooses Britain’s major war criminal to sanitise Israel’s assault on Gaza, for that is effectively what Blair tries to do in the final stage of the programme.

Wark now asks Blair five questions. If we examine them we can see quite clearly the presuppositions that inform this report. Two of them are about Hamas receiving weapons via Egypt (l.141-143 and l.159-165) and clearly assume that there is something wrong with this. Why is this assumed? Palestine has been under occupation since 1948, and since 1967 the United Nations has called on Israel to pull back to its pre-1967 borders, which it refuses to do. Instead it uses violence to repress the Palestinians, which includes the use of weapons supplied by the USA and UK. Why should the Palestinians not have weapons to defend themselves? What about Israel’s weapons? These questions are completely suppressed by Newsnight.

It is particularly telling that Wark asks Blair `is there no pressure we can put on that this weaponry does not come through from Egypt’? Who is this `we’ exactly? Neither the UK nor the BBC is involved in the conflict, so why is Wark including the viewer in taking sides? The assumption throughout is that the Palestinians have no right to defend themselves. Even when Wark presses Blair to agree that the Israeli response has been disproportionate her question includes the ridiculous assumption that the Palestinians have been `harassing’ Israel (l.180-185). Blair’s response is a very good example of a politician trying to wriggle out of admitting the truth, which Wark fails to follow up on.

There are numerous other examples from this report which demonstrate how the BBC manipulates its reporting on this topic to favour Israel which lack of space prevents me from recounting (but you can read a fuller analysis in my original research). However, it is clear that the report is framed to privilege the Israeli viewpoint. The question remains – why? Is it the individual bias of particular journalists? That is hardly likely as the approach is consistent across a wide range of reporters. The reason lies in the relationship between the BBC and the state (see my discussion of this here). The BBC is allowed a certain amount of independence as long as certain boundaries are not crossed. One of those major boundaries is Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. We can – and should – pressurise the BBC to be more truthful. But don’t hold your breath for a positive response – we are in for a very long wait.

* Greg Philo and Mike Berry (2011) More Bad News From Israel Pluto Press

Peter Allen can be contacted at

March 31, 2013 Posted by | Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Militarism, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment