The BBC News website’s Middle East page features ‘Country Profiles’ for twenty states and two ‘territories’ – the Golan Heights and the Palestinian Territories.
On the basis of those categories, BBC Watch carried out a count of articles featured on the Middle East page every day throughout the month of March 2013. Two categories were employed: one relates to the headline articles which appear with an accompanying synopsis. The other category relates to articles which appear usually below the headlined articles without a synopsis (as shown in the red box in the example below) and may be either reports which previously appeared as headline articles or new items in their own right.
Thus, in the example above we would see five headline articles and seven non-headline articles. ‘Related articles’ appearing as links under a headline report were not counted. The count relates to the number of times an article appeared, thus reflecting both an article’s initial appearance and its exposure in terms of the number of days it was left up on the page.
As may be expected given the situation there, reports relating to Syria received the most exposure on the BBC News website’s Middle East page throughout March 2013. But out of the remaining nineteen countries classified by the BBC as making up the Middle East, the country receiving the most exposure was Israel, followed by Egypt and then Iraq.
To what extent is that attributable simply to the ease of reporting from Israel as compared to other countries on that list? According to the Foreign Press Association in Israel, it represents some 480 correspondents covering a country the size of Wales and that does not include those ‘parachuted in’ to cover exceptional events such as last November’s ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’, during which the number of foreign news crew staff in Israel reached the thousands.
As we know, the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau serves as its main base for the entire region and – as is the case with many other media organisations besides the BBC – whilst that physical fact may have its roots in the sheer convenience of establishing a base in a modern country with essential communications services, a relatively high proportion of English speakers and the ability to provide a comfortable and reasonably familiar Western environment for its staff, it also means that there are quite simply proportionately more journalists on the lookout for stories in Israel than in many other countries.
How much of the BBC’s reporting on Israel has actual journalistic value and how much is just space-filling with items conveniently located on its doorstep? To what extent does the BBC’s focus on Israel distort the picture BBC audiences receive of that country in general and their perception of the prominence of the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular?
The fact that one tiny Middle East country with only a fraction of the region’s total population is the subject of so much reporting in comparison to most of its larger and, in many cases, more turbulent neighbours reflects a disproportional approach to Middle East reporting which in itself has the potential to compromise the BBC’s reputation for impartiality.