Concern over BBC documentary ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’

Iranians attend an event to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2007. (MaanImages/Payam Borazjani)

Arab Media Watch is concerned by the ‘This World’ programme ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’, broadcast on BBC2 on 10 October 2006. Its severe lack of balance manifested itself in the number and range of sources used, the airtime given them, and the numerous unchallenged claims made about the Arab world. A statistical analysis of ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ yields these figures:

The programme lasted 38 minutes and 33 seconds, of which 31 minutes and 17 seconds consisted of talk time, including 123 appearances from 21 sources (including the narrator). Israeli sources, of which there were 15, appeared 55 times for a total of 15 minutes and 58 seconds - 51% of talk time, 41.4% of the programme, 71.4% of sources and 45% of source appearances.

In stark contrast, the Iranian sources, of which there were just two, appeared three times for a total of 52 seconds - 2.8% of talk time, 2.2% of the programme, 9.5% of sources and 2.4% of source appearances. The first Iranian source does not appear until around 27 minutes into the documentary.

In other words, there were almost eight times as many Israeli sources as Iranian, the Israelis appeared over 18 times more often than the Iranians, and the Israelis had over 18 times more talk time.

The Israeli sources had even more airtime than the narrator, who had 31 minutes and 17 seconds - 41.6% of talk time and 33.8% of the programme. The only other sources were David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, who echoed the opinions of the Israelis in the programme, and a BBC reporter in Israel who relayed Israeli viewpoints during the war against Lebanon:

“Right now, Israelis feel under attack. Hezbollah rockets have been landing here in northern Israel and in other towns, and Israel’s message to Hezbollah, to those firing the rockets, will be this: ‘Israel will go after its enemies, no matter what the consequences’.”

Although there were numerous claims made against the Arab world, particularly Lebanon and Iraq but also Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians - listed at the end of this press release - there were no Arab sources or viewpoints whatsoever.

When asked to explain this disparity, producer Chris Boulding told AMW that the documentary “was supposed to give the Israeli perspective,” adding that it was balanced by one which aired in 2005 entitled ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’, which “gave far more airtime to Iranian spokespeople.”

However, it is reasonable to assume that viewers of ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ would not have necessarily seen ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’, so they would have no point of reference from which to counter this imbalance. Furthermore, this does not answer the problem that there were no Arab sources to counter the many claims made against them in ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’

In any case, Boulding kindly sent AMW a copy of ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’, which we analysed in the same way, expecting similar results but in reverse. However, this was far from the case.

The programme lasted 58 minutes and five seconds, of which 52 minutes and 16 seconds consisted of talk time, including 163 appearances from 19 sources (including the narrator). Six Iranian sources appeared 33 times for a total of 10 minutes and 41 seconds - 20.4% of talk time, 18.4% of the programme, 31.6% of sources and 20.2% of source appearances.

Excluding the narrator, the 12 non-Iranian sources - which included four American, one British, one South African and three Pakistani officials, as well as three from the International Atomic Energy Agency - appeared 58 times for 20 minutes and 37 seconds - 39.4% of talk time, 35.5% of the programme, 63.2% of sources and 35.6% of source appearances.

Of the non-Iranian sources, the IAEA had the most talk time, programme time and appearances (24.8%, 22.3% and 20.9% respectively), followed by the Americans (7.8%, 7.1% and 9.2%), the Briton (3.6%, 3.2% and 3.7%), the Pakistanis (2.2%, 2% and 1.8%) and, lastly, the South African (1.1%, 0.9% and 0.6%).

The narrator had 20 minutes and 58 seconds - 40.1% of talk time and 36.1% of the programme. Once again, there were no sources giving a necessary Arab perspective, given the relevant topics of both documentaries.

In ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’, Iranians took up a fifth of the programme’s talk time, while the Israelis in ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ took up more than half. Almost three-quarters of the sources in the former programme were Israeli, whereas less than third in the latter programme were Iranian. Almost half the source appearances in ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ were Israeli, whereas only a fifth in ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’ were Iranian.

Israelis had around a third more talk time in ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ than Iranians did in ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’. There were 60% more Israeli sources in the former programme than Iranian sources in the latter, and the Israelis appeared 40% more often.

Israelis had 28% more talk time in ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ than Iranians did in both documentaries combined, with almost twice as many sources and 35% more appearances.

In all, these statistics are a far cry from what AMW was led to expect. Furthermore, while the director of ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ was Israeli, the director of ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’ was not Iranian.

As such, and contrary to what Boulding claims, the former programme cannot be seen as the counter-weight to the latter. While ‘Iran’s Nuclear Secrets’ was itself balanced, with a broader range of sources and opinions and much more equitable time allocation, ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ was blatantly and inexcusably biased in favour of Israel and against Iranian or Arab perspectives.

In any case, AMW believes that trying to achieve balance between one programme and another is no substitute for objective journalism from the outset in each and every programme.

AMW is also concerned that there were numerous claims in ‘Will Israel Bomb Iran?’ about the Arab world, made by Israeli sources and even more so by the narrator, which went totally unchallenged. Statements of concern include:


“Hezbollah’s militants allegedly have support from Iran.”

“Casualties on both sides [Israeli and Lebanese] are severe.”

“Israel claims that behind the scenes, Iran is actively supplying the militants [of Hezbollah].”

“Israel’s troops repeatedly find evidence of what they say is Iran’s involvement [with Hezbollah against Israel].”

“Inside an abandoned Hezbollah bunker, Iranian pictures are on display alongside the group’s own leaders.”

“Throughout the fighting [between Israel and Hezbollah], Col. Efroni claims Iran’s fingerprints have been visible around Hezbollah.”

“In the wider Middle East, celebrations of what is seen as Hezbollah’s Islamic victory, spread from Beirut to Cairo and Tehran.”

“…in Israel, intelligence is emerging of what is perceived there as a far greater danger than Hezbollah.”

“This country [Israel] is obsessed with its own safety from attack.”

“The army is part of every citizen’s life, with Israel continually on guard against potentially hostile neighbours.”

“In Israel, [the 1967 war] was regarded as a victory in a fight for survival. They had to win.”

“…the possibility of an atomic strike is a reminder of how fragile Israel is.”

“In the past, this feeling of isolation has led Israel to go it alone. In 1981, Iraq was on the point of acquiring nuclear power. The Osiraq reactor was an experimental plutonium plant. The fear was it could ultimately be made to produce weapons-grade fuel. With America then supporting Saddam Hussein, Israel decided to step in and destroy the reactor by itself.”

“Military analysts predict that in a real raid, the planes would head out over Jordan, and across Iran, splitting off to attack military targets…”

“If Iran is attacked…many Israelis fear a concerted backlash from the Islamic world, of which they would bare the brunt, with Hezbollah renewing their rocket attacks on northern Israel. This summer’s conflict could prove just the first stage in a protracted war… Israel could face renewed violence anywhere in the world.”

“Israel’s Defence Ministry also thinks that Iran has powerful influence over the militants of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.”

Colonel Ishai Efroni, Israeli Defence Force:

“That’s where the war started, here. At exactly this place where the Hezbollah kidnapped the soldiers.”

“What we found - during the fighting, a lot of ammunition and anti-tank missiles that come from Iran. New ammunition, not something you got 20 years ago, fresh missiles made in 2004, 2002. Someone has to bring them to Hezbollah. It’s not something you can buy in the market. It’s something that you can buy off the counter. It’s cooperation between the two, Iran and Hezbollah, and you can see it everywhere.”

Amos Gilad, senior adviser to Israeli defence minister:

“We consider them [Hezbollah] as the long arm of Iranians. They have 14,000 rockets that are threatening Israel and they are supporting terror.”

Major General Mordechai Hod, Israeli Air Force 1966-73:

“We used the spirit [in the 1967 war], and we used another thing which maybe doesn’t exist in any other air-forces in the world, and we call it the ‘no alternative’. And when you don’t have alternatives, you can achieve such achievements, as we did in this war.”

Shimon Peres, Israeli deputy prime minister, former prime minister:

“In 58 years, we were attacked five times by armies, three times by intifida. We were outgunned, outnumbered, there was a danger for our existence yet, when we started our nuclear option, I told to then-president of the United States who asked me about it, President Kennedy, I told him: ‘Israel does not intend to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.’ And that remains our policy to this very day.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister:

“If an Arab or Muslim country acquires and wields nuclear weapons, this will force re-alignment in the entire Middle East, in the world in fact. And certainly Israel will have to consider its long-held policies as well.”

Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, former head of IDF research and development:

“We are outnumbered by our neighbours, and the only way to survive in this hostile Middle East is to develop those technologies that will give us some qualitative edge upon the numbers.”

Ehud Barak, former Israeli prime minister:

“I carry with me an old experience from my time as a young Col. in the [1973] Kippur war. I remember calling my wife at the end of the fighting. I remember her crying over the phone, when she heard the list of all our friends who were killed. And then I came back to California. When I went to the first football game, after it, if we did not manage to win this war, Israel would become a part of history and not a single football game would have been cancelled. And I carried this memory with me to the chair of the prime minister. Ultimately we are standing alone.”

“…at the time, you should remember, the whole world condemned Israel for doing this [attacking Iraq], from the Europeans to President Reagan, only to agree years later how farsighted President Begin of Israel was by ordering our air-force to destroy.”

Eytan Ben-Eliyahu, former commander, IAF:

“You did feel in every single minute that you’re gonna step into something that is going to be historic [in attacking Iraq]…Everything went smooth, not even one single mistake, and the mission was accomplished 100%, maybe more than 100%, no failures, no casualties. You feel it for the rest of your life actually, that you participated in something which may not have changed the world, but changed the destiny of your country.”

Professor David Menashri, Centre for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University:

“…there have been three countries in this axis of evil: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.”

Arab Media Watch is an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media.

Related Links

  • Arabs Less Worried About Iran, Poll Finds, Jim Lobe (7 February 2007)
  • Israeli rhetoric on Iran mismatched with realistic analysis, Gareth Porter (31 January 2007)
  • The BBC and Israel’s plan for a military strike on Iran, Jonathan Cook (12 October 2006)