Conflict between Israel and Palestine: Masha Slonim on how the BBC is losing the trust of its viewers

British politicians continue to express solidarity with Israel. The government and opposition once again voiced their support for the country at a parliamentary session on Wednesday, with Rishi Sunak arriving in Israel to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu following Joe Biden. But following a new outbreak of conflict between Israel and Palestine after a terrorist attack by Hamas, a scandal has erupted in Britain over the way the conflict is covered by the local media, particularly the BBC, the oldest radio broadcaster.

Masha Slonim
Masha Slonim

Rishi Sunak, speaking in Israel during his visit and clearly paraphrasing Churchill, said: “I am proud to stand with you as a friend in this darkest hour for Israel. We stand in solidarity with you and wish you victory.”

During his meeting with President Herzog, Sunak assured him that Britain stands in solidarity with Israel and recognizes the country’s right to defend itself. “It is not only your right but also your duty. You must restore the security of your country.”


King Charles III, careful not to break the ancient tradition of Buckingham Palace’s non-interference in politics, hinted at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while speaking at a reception for the Lord Mayor of London. Speaking of “tumultuous events and tragic victims,” he did not say specifically which events he meant, but called for tolerance, for understanding at home and abroad.

His words about civility and tolerance, that there should be room in society for “reflection and free speech,” suggest that he was also talking about what was happening on the streets of London and other cities after the terrible events in Israel on October 7.


The war in the Middle East has erupted in the UK, as has happened before, into a war of information.

Whereas in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on the border with the Gaza Strip, in which some 1,500 Israelis were killed, as we now know, and more than 200 taken prisoner, there were pro-Palestinian rallies and demonstrations, attacks on Jewish stores and other anti-Semitic antics on the streets of British cities, this week the main protests were around the BBC’s coverage of the conflict.

Earlier this week, a demonstration organized by the British “National Jewish Assembly” took place outside Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC. It protested against the corporation’s refusal to refer to Hamas by the word “terrorists” and its use instead of the more neutral word “militants,” according to the BBC. But as it turns out, pro-Palestinian groups in London are also unhappy with the company’s coverage of recent events. The day before, they held their rally by throwing red paint at Broadcasting House, accusing the BBC of having Palestinian blood on the corporation.

The corporation is not used to being criticized from diametrically opposed sides, but this time the attacks on Britain’s oldest broadcaster and accusations of bias are well founded.


The BBC continues to insist that by refusing to use the word “terrorists” in reference to Hamas, the corporation is following the guidelines of OFCOM, the agency that oversees broadcasters’ compliance with rules of impartiality and accuracy in reporting. “The word ‘militant’ does not carry the same evaluative load as ‘terrorist’,” the BBC said, so the presenters use it.


This week, the dispute between government officials and the corporation erupted with renewed vigor. Following a remark from the Prime Minister’s office demanding that the BBC call terrorists “terrorists,” newly appointed Defense Minister Grant Shapps entered the discussion. He is, incidentally, the first Jew to be appointed to the post, and said the BBC’s excuse that the corporation was following the rules set out by OFCOM for electronic media did not work in this case.

“Parliament has passed a law declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, Ofcom has confirmed that the BBC is wrong to say that the department forbids the corporation from using the word “terrorist” in reference to Hamas, and I think it’s time for the BBC to move on. Ministers have already spoken out. Hamas is a banned terrorist organization. The term ‘terrorist’ is the precise legal definition.”

Shapps, following other critics of the BBC’s position, reminds us that the 9/11 attacks, and more recently the terrorist attack on passers-by on a Brussels street, were called terrorist attacks by the corporation and the perpetrators terrorists.


Members of The Board of Deputies, Britain’s largest and oldest Jewish organization, are also outraged by the BBC’s reluctance to use the word “terrorist” in reference to Hamas. Her lawyers have lodged a complaint with Ofcom against the company in this regard. The lawyers’ letter says: “The BBC is contrary to the guidelines set out in the charter.” Lawyers cite examples of a corporation using the word “terrorism” 50 times recently.

In the first week of the conflict, the BBC received over 1,500 complaints about its coverage of the conflict. Half of those who filed complaints were unhappy with the corporation’s pro-Palestinian stance, the other half with the corporation’s pro-Israel stance. I think there were many times more complaints after the “puncture” of the Gaza hospital strike, when its journalists kept talking about an “Israeli airstrike” long after the explosion in the Gaza hospital area!

And this is where it’s worth revisiting Grant Shapps’ arguments in his claims about the BBC. “There are no restrictions by OFCOM as long as the broadcaster adheres to the rules of accuracy and impartiality,” the minister said.

I think this is a very important reminder.


I have to make a little digression here. Personally, it pains me to write that the BBC has shamefully betrayed its principles this time around.

I associate the best part of my life with the BBC. Once upon a time, when I didn’t yet have a British passport and my Soviet citizenship was stripped from me, it warmed my heart to think that my citizenship was actually BBC. Everything I learned in journalism, I learned from working there. The BBC’s main principle – unbiased reporting – seems to me to be the most important principle in the work of a journalist. And one more – information before it gets on the air must be verified from two sources independent of each other.

I don’t think it’s such a terrible sin that the word “terrorist” doesn’t come out of the mouths of the presenters on BBC broadcasts when referring to the Hamas people. All the context, the horrifying videos, the interviews with eyewitnesses and victims, the newsmakers and politicians who utter the word, makes up for the fact that the word “terrorist” is not uttered in the name of the company. But the unprofessionalism or/and bias that the BBC has shown in its coverage of the bombing of a hospital in Gaza has made the heaviest impression on me and on everyone who has watched and listened to the news in recent days.

Using or not using the word “terrorism” is one thing, but unverified and explosive (in every sense) information on live TV is another. And it happened before our very eyes. For a long, long few hours, the BBC news screens hung with the news: “Israeli strike on Gaza hospital kills hundreds”. And the numbers that were growing by the hour. And it was all given either as Breaking News or with reference to “officials in Gaza” (read: Hamas). At the same time, there was already a video of the impact on the hospital, and experts were already establishing exactly where the impact came from and what damage was done to the hospital (minimal).

As it turned out, the hospital is intact, and more importantly, there is already expert speculation and data indicating that the strike was not an Israeli missile, but one that was fired unsuccessfully by the Islamic Jihad group toward Israel and landed on the hospital grounds. I, like many, followed the developments with horror and kept waiting for the BBC to apologize for the mistake, because I still wanted to believe that it was a mistake and not a deliberate distortion of facts that spoke in favor of the Palestinians. No apology was forthcoming and my desire to defend the BBC faded. Whether the skewed coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is due to unprofessionalism or bias in favor of Palestine in the conflict, both are very bad news.


The BBC’s coverage of the conflict has been covered by many media outlets in recent days. I won’t give all the quotes, there are too many. But here’s the one that’s probably closest to me.

On Thursday, Oct. 19, Times columnist Juliet Samuel wrote this about it: “Normally I try not to attack the BBC and the way it covers events in Israel. But what has happened now is simply out of line. The BBC is recognized around the world as a source of reliable information, domestically it is still regarded as an authoritative source of facts. Yet the corporation has become a conduit for terrorist propaganda. I wonder how journalists feel now, do they ask themselves questions and are they tormented by doubts? Have any been sacked today? Is the BBC about to change its policies? I have always believed that, despite its shortcomings, the BBC was still a force for good. But everyone has a moment when illusions go. I went into a rage!”

I am experiencing very similar feelings today.

I have long argued with friends (and foes) trying to stand up for the BBC, but, alas, it has now become clear to me that the company has essentially turned from an observer into a participant in the information war. I too, like Juliet Samuel, have been waiting and peeking to see if there would be some sort of apology or explanation from the BBC management about the latest overlay, if you can call it that. But no. As of this writing, nothing has come up.

At 9pm on Wednesday, the BBC put its own investigation into the possible causes of the explosion on the hospital grounds on its website. “The corporation contacted 20 expert institutes, universities and companies specializing in weapons issues. Six of them expressed the expert opinion that the explosion near the hospital in Gaza could not have been caused by an Israeli missile strike.”

It would seem that the corporation’s statement that it apologizes for the unverified information that was aired in the first hours after the explosion could be placed here. That the death toll is likely much lower than news releases have reported. But no! No apologies or corrections we have yet to see.


Viewers and listeners follow the BBC more closely than other media because of its unique position. All of us who watch television, even online, have to fund the corporation’s operation by buying an annual license. The system is clearly outdated, now the way in which the ‘old girl’, who turns 100 in just over 3 years time, is funded is under review, but until the Royal Charter, which among other things provides for this old-fashioned way of funding, ends in 2027, those who pay for ‘public’ television will believe that the BBC has an obligation to remain above the fray and follow its own principles of professionalism and impartiality.

But during that time, the number of “refuseniks” – those who refuse to pay for a license – will become even greater.

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