Pro-Palestinian march in New York. Pro-Palestinian march in New York. Source: Pamela Dre - Flickr / cropped form original / CC BY-NC 2.0

Des Freedman exposes the highly biased and selective coverage of the latest Israeli atrocity

The bombing and incineration by Israeli forces of 45 Palestinians, most of them women and children, in the Tal al-Sultan area of Rafah in southern Gaza on 26 May was greeted with horror by people across the world.

The killing of civilians sheltering in tents in an area previously designated as a ‘safe zone’ was yet further proof of the genocide being conducted against the people of Gaza. The attack was even condemned by world leaders, mostly because it complicates their task to ‘calm’ things down and was a slap in the face of the International Court of Justice ruling two days, earlier instructing Israel to stop its offensive in Rafah. This was a deliberate provocation and a clear sign that Israel was going to continue its murderous offensive at all costs.

Yet, despite the evident horror of babies being scorched to death, Britain’s main public service broadcaster, the BBC – in its domestic services at least (its World Service coverage was rather different) – immediately spun the massacre as a response to Hamas’ firing of eight rockets earlier that day. ‘Israeli strike hits Rafah area after Hamas barrage’ was how it led its first online story on the Sunday night, a headline that omitted the fact that civilians had been killed in the most horrendous circumstances.

The bombing made that night’s national News at Ten bulletin when both anchor and reporter repeatedly qualified the attribution of responsibility – saying for example that ‘Hamas officials claim at least 30 people have been killed’, that ‘authorities are accusing Israel carrying out a strike on what they say was an area where internally displaced people had been sheltering’ and that ‘the number of casualties seems to be backed up by hospitals and Red Crescent workers who say they’re transporting large numbers of dead and injured’.

Al Jazeera, on the other hand, ran with a headline: ‘“People burned alive” as Israel attacks designated safe zone in Rafah’.

‘Balancing’ the war crime

By midnight, following the admission by Israeli forces that it was their weapons that had, in their words, ‘struck a Hamas compound’, BBC bulletins were still carrying the qualifiers and still repeating the claim that ‘this has happened in the context of Israel’s ongoing military operation in Rafah which it says it needs to carry out to target remaining Hamas battalions’.

The next morning, Monday 27 May, the BBC’s ‘flagship’ Today programme did at least feature an interview with Matthew Hollingworth of the World Food Programme who was able to speak to the horror on the ground. Yet, all three of presenter Simon Jack’s questions were attempts to counter the former’s pro-ceasefire arguments. First, Jack responded to Hollingsworth’s claim that casualties were going to increase by saying that ‘yeah, the Israeli defence force’s version of events seems to be that it was a targeted attack but they were aware of repercussions, in particular fire engulfing the tented area’; second, when Hollingsworth made the point that these ‘repercussions’ were ‘inevitable’, Jack responded that ‘yeah, it did follow a rocket attack from Hamas into Israel’ and asked whether people are ‘treating this as a retaliatory strike for that’. Finally, when Hollingsworth talked of the desperate conditions facing the people of Gaza, Jack acknowledged that famine was ‘a real and present danger’ but added that ‘since then, we’re told that a bit more aid has gone in’.

There was no mention of the ICJ ruling, but instead a grim determination by the presenter to ‘balance’ out the humanitarian views of the interviewee. Presumably this is ‘due impartiality’ in action.

Things did not improve on the PM programme later that day. The story on Rafah was dominated by uncritical reporting of prime minister Netanyahu’s claim that the killings were a ‘tragic mishap’ but presenter Anita Arnand made sure to reference the 8 rockets from Rafah towards Tel Aviv, the first long-range attacks on the central Israeli city since January’ in her introduction. Reporter Paul Adams then spoke of the plans by the Israeli military to investigate the air strike but added that: ‘What they don’t know, and we don’t know, is how it was that this small precision strike led to an absolute inferno in which so many people were killed and wounded.’

This is straight from the IDF playbook: that the missiles were too ‘small’ to do much harm and that this was a ‘precision strike’ that could not have been expected to kill innocent people without some other cause. Arnand singularly failed to challenge Adams on his language.

Outsourcing language 

This was also the approach taken in an article by Adams and Matt Murphy that was posted on the BBC’s website the same day. Reporting on the Rafah killings as well as analysing Netanyahu’s military and strategic options, the experienced BBC journalists wrote that:

‘Despite the appalling scenes from last night, Israeli ground forces still appear to be acting somewhat cautiously as they edge closer to the city of Rafah itself.

‘Their operations so far have not resulted in a bloodbath.’

The historian William Dalrymple responded to this by tweeting: ‘Has the BBC outsourced its coverage of the Rafah [sic] to the Israeli embassy? When 45 people have just been hideously burned alive, how is that not a bloodbath, @BBCNews? Would you use that language if say, the bomb had dropped instead on Portland Place [the home of the BBC]?’

In fact, the BBC reporters’ claim was so offensive that the current version of this story on the BBC website no longer contains these paragraphs. They have now mysteriously disappeared from the story, presumably due to public outrage and not because this was initially seen by BBC bosses as a problematic thing to write.

Finally that day, 27 May, the main News at Ten TV bulletin that evening did carry some horrendous images of casualties from the Tal al-Sultan attack, but once again, it repeated the context of Hamas missiles being fired, referenced the earlier claims from Netanyahu and the Israeli army and then carried a clip of an IDF spokesperson saying that ‘this is the war Hamas wanted and started’, all without comment or rebuttal.

The BBC’s coverage on social media was equally outrageous. Despite covering the attack on its bulletins, it failed to post anything on ‘X’ that Sunday night (Al Jazeera, in contrast, tweeted at 11.26pm showing harrowing footage of casualties earlier that evening while Sky News posted regular updates on ‘X’ that night).

The first reference on its ‘X’ platform was an @BBCNews tweet at 9.24am on 27 May, not actually showing pictures of the attack but simply acknowledging the condemnation by the Irish foreign minister of what he described as a ‘barbaric’ strike.

However, its main world news feed, @BBCWorld, did not issue a single tweet about the events in Rafah until Tuesday 28 May, some 42 hours after the air strike. Curiously both @BBCWorld and @BBCBreaking did manage to find time to tweet about the Hamas rockets in the hours before the strike.

Neither independent nor impartial

The BBC’s appalling coverage of the Rafah massacre will come as no surprise to those regularly infuriated by its consistent framing of the genocide, not that it would ever describe it as such, in ways that speak to Western foreign policy and not to the needs of Palestinians themselves.

Of course, the BBC is by no means alone in its awful reporting (bear in mind that the headline in The Times following the massacre was ‘Dozens killed as tents catch fire after Israeli strike on Rafah’) and that the vast majority of the mainstream media has aided and abetted Israel’s onslaught and refused to treat Palestinian demands for sovereignty in the same way as it does Israel’s right to ‘defend itself’.

But, given how much the BBC crows about its ‘independence’ and its ‘impartiality’ and how it is (even in 2024) a ‘beacon for truth, democracy and freedom around the world’, it is all the more offensive that the Corporation regularly acts as a stenographer, most often in relation to foreign policy, for governments in Whitehall, Washington DC and Jerusalem.

The great media academic and activist Greg Philo, who tragically died very recently, conducted extensive research on the BBC’s coverage of Israel with his colleague Mike Berry. They concluded back in 2011 that reporting was ‘dominated by Israeli accounts’ and stated that:

‘we have been contacted by many journalists, especially from the BBC, and told of the intense pressures they are under that limit criticism of Israel. They asked us to raise the issue in public because they can’t. They speak of “waiting in fear for the phone call from the Israelis” (meaning the embassy or higher), of the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau having been “leant on by the Americans”, of being “guilty of self-censorship” and of “urgently needing an external arbiter … Those in control have the power to say what is not going to be the news.’

Mainstream media that claim that the murder of 45 civilians in Rafah was ‘not a bloodbath’ and deny legitimacy to Palestinian self-determination are not neutral observers of these atrocities but protagonists in a genocide.

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Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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