Representing Israel to the UK media during the Gaza conflict

The conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israeli forces generated wall-to-wall coverage by the world's newspapers and broadcasters.

Gaza: the focus of conflict with Israel (Photo: AP/Adel Hana)
Gaza: the focus of conflict with Israel (Photo: AP/Adel Hana)

Graphic pictures of bloodstained children in Gaza, or families rushing for the bomb shelters in southern Israel, provoke strong emotions and harsh words on all sides. It generates a huge comms challenge for supporters of Israel.

The job of BICOM – the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre – is to ensure a fair, balanced view of Israel in the UK media. We are an independent organisation, funded by individual donors, not the Israeli government.

We promote expert Israeli views and voices, so that discussion of Israeli politics, society and culture can be fair and informed.

In a war situation, with public opinion stacked heavily against Israel’s military action, this job becomes more important, but also more difficult.

I lead a team of a dozen staff. Once the situation deteriorated, I placed BICOM on a crisis footing, cancelled leave and holidays, and established a new protocol for our comms.

That included a 24-hour media operation, with people available for advice and comment at any time, day or night. We issued a daily brief for journalists at 8.30am, with the latest news reports from the region and news and comment from the UK.

Our comms strategy had three elements:

The first was to maximise the number and range of Israeli voices, offering argument and comment in the UK media – from Labour leader Isaac Herzog to finance minister Yair Lapid. We lost no opportunity. I am proud to say that during the current conflict, we did not turn down a single request from a broadcaster for a spokesperson. Not one.

Second, we used media platforms not just to respond, but also to shape the debate, to influence the agenda and to introduce new arguments and angles into the narrative. For example, we worked with BBC TV on a story about the traumatic effects of rocket attacks in southern Israel, providing trauma experts for interviews and local residents for vox pops.

Third, we sought to challenge bias and propaganda in media reporting. For example, we challenged broadcasters’ uncritical use of unreliable civilian causality figures given to them by Hamas. We are currently assessing whether Jon Snow’s extremely partial and one-sided reports from Gaza are in breach of Ofcom’s guidelines on balanced reporting. We worked with broadcasters to highlight fake images in circulation on social media. For example, images from Iraq were being circulated on Twitter, purporting to be from Gaza.

Journalists and broadcasters in Gaza have come under enormous pressure to censor their reports. The Foreign Press Association (FPA) has highlighted the intimidation by Hamas of the world’s media.

Journalists have complained of being shot at by Hamas for reporting from missile sites hidden near schools and hospitals, or even being deported for not toeing the Hamas line. In this environment, fair and balanced reporting of a fraught and fragile situation becomes even more important.

BICOM’s job is not to counter propaganda with more propaganda. We just seek fairness in the UK’s reporting, free from stereotypes, prejudice or mistruths.

Israel is a country which inspires fiercely polarised views. In an armed conflict, those views become even more polarised.

That is why our work becomes even more important, so that our fellow citizens can hear all sides of a complex situation, and come to a rational conclusion based on the facts.

Dermot Kehoe is CEO of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

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