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. 


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