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19 October 2023

Anatomy of a disaster

How a rush to report on the hospital blast in Gaza led Joe Biden’s Middle East summit to collapse within hours.

By Harry Lambert

On Tuesday 17 October, a blast struck the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City. The origin of that blast was unknown. Videos filmed from multiple angles show that the blast occurred at 4.59pm GMT (6.59pm in Gaza). News of the explosion began to reverberate across social media within 80 minutes, as the BBC News at Six was concluding. 

Shortly after the Gaza health ministry, which is run by Hamas, reported that 500 people had been killed in the blast, which they blamed on an airstrike by the Israeli defence forces. A spokesman for the IDF said it was investigating its cause. Minutes later, at 6.51pm, the BBC’s Breaking News account on X (formerly Twitter) sent out a post to its millions of followers (and sent the same message in a news alert to millions of phone users), which read: “Hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli air strike on hospital in Gaza, Palestinian officials say.”

Only minutes earlier, video footage that contradicted that claim – or at least brought it into question – had already begun to surface on X. Nevertheless, the BBC tweeted the news of an “Israeli air strike” and relegated the attribution (“Palestinian officials say”) to the end of the sentence. The New York Times echoed the BBC’s framing when it splashed on the story 20 minutes later.

By 7.17pm, Jeremy Corbyn had tweeted his condemnation at the “unspeakable horror” inflicted on Gaza by Israel (to 10 million views). The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, also tweeted (“appalling and devastating”), as did Anas Sarwar, Labour leader in Scotland (“There is no justification for this brutality. It must be condemned.”) They all treated the news as fact.

Yet the presumed facts soon began to unravel. Within 30 minutes of Corbyn’s tweet, one prominent British war analyst, Justin Bronk, questioned the origin of the blast, suggesting it didn’t sound like an Israeli Air Force air strike. Yet just past 8pm, the BBC reporter, Jon Donnison stated on air that it was “hard to see what else” other than IDF ordnance could have caused the strike.

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[See also: Who is to blame?]

Minutes later Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, cancelled his upcoming meeting with the US president Joe Biden, who was on his way to the region. Médecins sans Frontières condemned Israel for causing a “massacre”. By 8.42pm, less than four hours after the blast, protests broke out in Ramallah in the West Bank and Amman in Jordan.

Israel began to deny any role in the strike at this time, claiming that a rocket fired by Hamas from within Gaza had misfired, breaking up over the hospital and striking it. (The next day, the IDF spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said that Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group in Gaza, was responsible.) At 9.18pm, BBC Breaking posted Israel’s denial – two and a half hours after its initial post accusing it.  

An hour later, footage of the strike appeared to be geolocated from a rocket launching site within Gaza. Yet by now King Abdullah of Jordan was following Abbas by cancelling his summit with Biden, Abbas and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. A narrative had spread. The facts couldn’t catch up.

The next day the BBC’s Verify team released its analysis of the blast. It made no firm conclusions, pointing out only that there is a lack of corroborating evidence for an air strike. (“Another important part of missing evidence is missile fragments. Projectiles are often identifiable by the wreckage of their shell, and they can be used to determine the projectile’s origin. But in this case, we have not seen that evidence.”) But the broadcaster’s day-two caution has been undermined by its rush to report on day one.

“The reality is that you have to feed the beast,” a former editor of BBC News told me. BBC Verify is a flagship news initiative, not a replacement for breaking news, and “the problem with that is fast news is flawed”. In a fairly short time, the former editor suggests, the BBC got it right – the origin of the blast was being contested by the time of the News at Ten and later on Newsnight.

Yet the news spread in the interim. Periodic news programmes are no longer the primary means that the BBC conveys information. Its website, push notifications and social accounts are. Online stories can build within minutes, sparking outrage and protest. “Those millions who formed an opinion and aren’t willing to revise it later, they’re lost anyway,” suggests the former editor. But in a conflict as contested as this one, those lost amount to millions. Biden’s Middle East tour, now limited to Israel alone, has collapsed on a possible falsehood.

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

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