On 19 October, the government's official X account went further, accusing BBC World of 'blood libel.' The reference was to antisemitic accusations (dating back to medieval times) that Jews murdered Christian children as part of their rituals. 'We see you,' the tweet concluded, 'and now everyone else does.'
The BBC defended its coverage on its corrections page, but conceded that its reporter, Jon Donnison, had been wrong to speculate in his analysis, broadcast directly after the attack. "We accept that even in this fast-moving situation it was wrong to speculate in this way, although he did not at any point report that it was an Israeli strike", they said. "This doesn't represent the entirety of the BBC's output and anyone watching, listening to or reading our coverage can see we have set out both sides' competing claims about the explosion, clearly showing who is saying them, and what we do or don't know."
It is arguable that setting out 'competing claims' about any aspect of the war gets the BBC into trouble. Even being on the side of peace, as the Pope urges his believers to be, is not a universally acceptable maxim. Pacifism is not self-evidently a good thing. But without getting too caught up in moral arguments, the effort to achieve impartiality is ongoing, and if you are managing to please neither side, perhaps you really are succeeding. The 1,500 complaints about the BBC's coverage of the war were split fifty-fifty.
Meanwhile, Sky News has had its own wobbles. It interviewed the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot. He was very measured, given the circumstances. This reasonable tone did not prevent one of the channel's top anchors and a correspondent summing up his position as 'the Israelis had it coming.'
This was the result of an argument Zomlot had made that the infiltration of Israel by Hamas stemmed from a long history of oppression. Indeed, there was an insistence at first, across the media, on getting people to condemn the terrorists. Any attempt to discuss the causes was routinely characterised as sympathy for Hamas.
It is a valid question, whether any of these problems could possibly have been avoided. Even if they had, others would have arisen. Certain clichés spring readily to mind, like the fog of war and truth being the first casualty. As Rafael Behr pointed out in the Guardian (19 October 2023), Shakespeare opened Henry IV Part II with Rumour alone on stage, stuffing the ears of men with false reports. 'The difference now,' he went on, 'is that Rumour moves at the speed of a photon down an optical fibre.'
But truth hasn't been the only thing of value to go down the tubes this time round. Journalistic standards have come under immense strain. When each side's truth is the other side's lie, it's never easy to be impartial.
Biden's comparison of bloody conflict with a game was true in one sense at least: it's the decent journalist who gets the thankless job of referee, and even the very best referee is sometimes accused of favouring the other team.