Not Right: why did the BBC get the Israeli elections so wrong?

The day after the Israeli elections, with most of the real results in, some furious back-tracking was going on across the board of BBC reporting. All of a sudden, the obviously flawed predictions were attributed to an anonymous “many” in a revealingly titled article by Kevin Connolly:

“But the sudden and decisive lurch to the right that many predicted hasn’t happened.

The results show that there’s plenty of life on the left and the centre of Israeli politics too.”

That same message was repeated in an additional article, in which (as well as in another report) it was also suddenly discovered that security was not the main issue worrying Israelis at all, as the BBC had previously claimed

“However, unlike in previous elections, the campaign focused largely on social and economic issues, rather than the prospects for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.”

On election day itself, the BBC was still promoting the notion of the “sleepiest election ever” – although it soon had to back-track on that theme too.

sleepiest elections

So why did the BBC – with its multitude of locally based reporters, analysts and ‘expert’ Middle East editors get it so wrong

The obvious answer to that lies in the BBC’s organizational culture. Existing collective assumptions about Israel – influenced by an unchallenged predominant political view – guided interpretation of facts and events and prevented BBC journalists from taking note of local outside analysts other than those which supported their own preconceived ideas. 

Collective perceptions of Israel and Israelis – perhaps coupled with over-confidence in their own expertise – meant that BBC reporters did not even try to find out which issues were important to the Israeli electorate: instead they produced material which supported their own preconceived ideas – beginning long before the election itself, with the promotion of the notion that Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’ was part of the Likud election campaign. In addition, a marked lack of understanding of the inapplicability of their own Eurocentric interpretations of terms such as Left and Right or “nationalist” to the Israeli political scene was very evident – especially in relation to the subject of traditional support from specific socio-economic groups for certain parties.

Donnison Livni tweet

Tweet by Jon Donnison, 22/1/13

The term “nationalist” (and even “ultra-nationalist” – whatever that may be!) was, for example, employed exclusively – and with implied disapproval – as a description of parties considered by the BBC to be on the Right of the political map, such as Likud-Beiteinu and ‘Jewish Home’. What the BBC failed to grasp is that many of the other parties which it may have categorized as ‘Left’ or ‘Centre’ are no less committed to the principle of national independence and Zionism – the right of Jews to self-determination in their own nation-state.

Most blatantly obvious is the fact that the BBC’s insistence upon framing this election almost exclusively in terms of the potential effect of its results on ‘the peace process’ reflects its own institutional attitude towards that subject, both in terms of its perceived importance and in terms of the curious notion that only what Israel does has any effect upon that process’ chances. 

Broadly speaking – and we see this reflected time and time again in its reporting; not only in relation to the elections – the BBC absolves the Palestinian side of the equation of any responsibility for the progress of the peace process (or lack of it) and turns Palestinians into child-like creatures lacking all agency. That approach was reflected in a strange report which asked Palestinians in Gaza and Ramallah “what the results [of elections in Israel] could mean for them”.

Twenty years of waiting for the Oslo Accords to produce positive results means that for many Israelis, the subject of ‘the peace process’ with the Palestinians is not the most burning issue on the agenda. According to the BBC’s accepted wisdom, however, that is the only subject of importance – and one which it frequently mistakenly describes as ‘Middle East peace’; as though the rest of the region were a bastion of tolerance and harmony.

There can be no doubt that the BBC’s organizational culture – molded by a largely homogeneous political approach to Israel and the Middle East – is what led it to make such dramatically mistaken assumptions which, in turn, produced seriously flawed interpretations which generated a volume of useless reporting and analysis. 

Such mistakes are, of course by no means the exclusive territory of the BBC, but they are also not confined to the subject of the Israeli elections. This blatantly obvious failure to meet its commitment to “explain the world” accurately and impartially to its licence fee-paying funders should, in theory at least, be the catalyst for some very serious introspection on the part of the BBC. 


14 comments on “Not Right: why did the BBC get the Israeli elections so wrong?

  1. Good analysis. I would just like to add that one reason why the campaign might have seemed “sleepy” was that most of it for the first time was digital. Instead of posters plastered all over the streets, we were bombarded with phone calls and text messages, and the social media were full of campaigning.

  2. Amazing how the disappointed BBC has almost completely lost interest now that the “ultra-uber-right-wing, extremists” failed to get in. Their “experts” got it so wrong, how can anything they ever say be trusted?

  3. Very incisive explanation, Hadar.

    BBC “… analysts and ‘expert’ Middle East editors…” None of these unreconstructed leftists speak Hebrew.

    • Spot on Mr. Crockett. I brought that very point up on the old Biased-BBC blog while crossing swords with a virulently anti-Israel BBC hack who called himself “John Reith,” was highly defensive of the BBC and claimed there was no way it could ever be biased.

      The gist of my argument was that, what with the BBC’s Arabic Service
      and its pro-Arab bias, the idea of The BBC ever having a Hebew Service was actually hilarious.

      Reith’s response? Silence.

      The idea of BBC Middle East reporters being fluent in Hebrew and having knowledge of the Israeli-Arab conflict that diverges from the Palestinian narrative really does have a funny side to it.

  4. “So why did the BBC – with its multitude of locally based reporters, analysts and ‘expert’ Middle East editors get it so wrong?

    The obvious answer to that lies in the BBC’s organizational culture. Existing collective assumptions about Israel – influenced by an unchallenged predominant political view – guided interpretation of facts and events and prevented BBC journalists from taking note of local outside analysts other than those which supported their own preconceived ideas. ”

    I suspect they – and the Guardian are spending too much time in the company of Haaretz journalists and their followers, instead of real Israelis. By all means, they should get the Haaretz viewpoint, but as the election results showed, it is not – by a long stretch – the only game in town.

    Question: can we do anything to help change this? For example, invite the journalists to a round table/open discussion with half a dozen or more Israeli bloggers. (No, I am not volunteering.) Let’s get some REAL Israeli voices heard. Ok, let’s get some more real Israeli voices heard.

  5. I wanted to comment separately that I agreed the analysis was incisive. The quality of the contributions on this site is impressive. If the BBC listened, what an improvement they could make!

  6. I can’t help but wonder if, in addition to the analyses in the article and comments, there isn’t a touch of both cognitive dissonance and wishful thinking going on?
    That is, the active seeking-out of information according to what the BBC wants to be true so that it can continue to justify its very obvious position?

    Notable by its absence is the BBC’s inclination to report on any Palestinian issue unless it is tacked on to ‘Israel as Cause’. What information does the BBC bring into the public domain about Palestinian society that allows it to claim impartiality?

    The BBC is becoming hopelessly lost. It doesn’t take a public jammed to the rafters with psychologists to know what the BBC is attempting to sway opinion on in any issue – not just Israel.

    I think Raanana’s idea is well worth a try. Why not invite the Bowenites to a meeting?

  7. The BBC was similarly askew with regard to the Arab Spring. Egypt, for example, has a population of some 80 million, but from what I could see, the BBC seemed to believe its borders were limited to the boundaries of Tahrir Square. To my mind taking the opinions of the hopeful secularists gathered there is rather like projecting the opinions of a large interest group protesting in Trafalgar Square – a small sample and so not particularly representative of the country entire.

    I was also struck by some comments left on blogs following the escalation of the crisis in Syria. Because many know that the BBC’s reporting on Israel and the ME is skewed and faulty, it led to some doubt regarding events in Syria. That is the danger of pursuing and pushing a narrative – once the bias has become transparent, doubt about other issues and reporting creeps in. While the BBC is not the only narrative-pusher, it was once highly respected and to see it throw its mighty reputation down the drain is sad. And for what?

  8. Since I don’t follow BBC closely, I’ll comment on the US MSM, which I do. It’s probably similar.
    They transpose their own political bias’ (far left) to the coverage. That creates distortion because they see anything riht of them as “extream” right. Then there is the attempt to interpret the multitude of Israeli parties (32!) using the two major party system of most western democracies. There really is only one similarity. It seems most Israeli voters voted for percieved economic considerations.

    And for those who think this makes a 2 state solution and peace more likely, think again. The Palestinian leadership wouldn’t come to terms with Barak and Olmert, who offered them the moon. They can not, will not, ever compromise. They don’t want to end up like Sadat.

  9. EthanP
    “They don’t want to end up like Sadat.”

    True. The Palestinian who makes peace with Israel will be a dead man walking. Of course, it could be argued that Prime Minister Rabin also paid with his life for trying to make peace with Arafat. But there are stark differences here:

    Rabin’s killer is reviled by the vast majority of Israelis. Sadat’s killers came from the Muslim Brotherhood – now in power in Egypt and as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic as Sadat’s killers.

    Arafat walked away from peace with Rabin. Begin made peace with Sadat.

    • And that has always been the point. When ever I hear someone say “one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter” my blood boils. Yes, Irgun and the Stern Gang resorted to terror tactics. Against military targets. And Israelis and Jews do NOT celebrate the exceptions. The Palestinians and Islamists DELIBERATELY target civilians, especially children. And then they celebrate the child killers. Parties are held. Streets are named for them.

  10. True, Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the Arab-Israeli terrorist who murdered eight young students at a school in Jerusalem, calling him a “martyr.” He was about to hols a ceremony naming a square or whatever after him when it was abruptly cancelled.

    I imagine he was advised it wouldn’t look too good since Joe Biden (I think) was in Israel to try to revitalise the “peace process.” It might have distracted Obama from his obsessive attention on the settlements – in the event that there were any journalists around with enough integrity and guts to report on the pending ceremony.

  11. Pingback: Kevin Connolly tweaks the Israeli political map | BBC Watch

Comments are closed.