UK coverage of the Arab Spring so far: Journalisted analysis

The MST’s Journalisted Weekly newsletter gives a snapshot of the most covered (and least covered) news stories in the UK each week. In January and February, the news of the protests against (now former) Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak dominated the newsletter’s ‘covered lots’ section for three weeks. After Mubarak stepped down, coverage of his successor – Egypt’s military council – was remarkably quiet in comparison, and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi became the most covered story.

When it dawned that the Libyan leader was not going to make a swift exit like Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali before him, we remained curious as to how much (or little) coverage other Middle East and North African countries and their leaders would get in Libya’s wake. As UK forces went into action, and the papers understandably gave a significant chunk of foreign reporting over to Libya, we began logging the number of articles mentioning each of the Middle East and North African countries and their (sometimes increasingly protested) leaders. We soon introduced the Arab Spring section to the newsletter (searching, for example, for articles containing “Egypt”+”Mubarak” each week – you can learn more about advanced searches on Journalisted‘s search help page).

The overall results from logging the Arab Spring UK coverage since it began have been fascinating.

Apart from the huge amount of coverage for Libya, the most noticeable thing (shown by the line graph) is the sudden drop in coverage for Tunisia and Egypt after the exit of leaders Ben Ali and Mubarak. This was followed by another steep drop for Libya in March, when Nato took control of the no-fly zone. Since Ben Ali fled, there have only been 74 articles on Tunisia’s new leaders – acting President Mebazaa and Prime Minister Sebsi. There has been similarly low coverage for Egypt’s new leaders: since Mubarak stepped down over 24 weeks ago, Egypt’s ruling military council has received coverage in only 216 articles, with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf mentioned in just 74 articles.

Compare this drop in coverage to ongoing obsessive celebrity trends in the press and it gets a little embarrassing. Since the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 19th December, for example, there have been 1129 articles on Tunisia and its leaders old and new (of which 1,119 mention Ben Ali), versus a whopping 2,123 articles on X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent judge Simon Cowell.

Yemen has also seen significant revolt, yet it has received low coverage compared with Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It decreased further in mid-April – around the time Gulf state ministers met in Saudi Arabia to discuss mediation – before rising again in June, as tribal fighting in Sana’a culminated in an attack on the presidential palace, and an injured President Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia.

Iran – previously so much in the spotlight for its nuclear program, regular executions, and the recent Stuxnet cyber attacks – was shoved aside as the Arab Spring kicked off. An extraordinary power struggle between Ayatollah Khameini and President Ahmadinejad, following a recent spat over the reinstatement of an intelligence minister, has received relatively little coverage compared to the attention it might have gained prior to the revolutions. The same could be said of recent suspected assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Israel and the Palestinian territories have received steady coverage over the past six months, though it dropped during peak coverage of Egypt and Tunisia. It picked up again as coverage of Mubarak and Ben Ali dropped – and rocket fire between Gaza and Israel intensified, Judge Goldstone retracted elements of his 2009 UN report, Fatah and Hamas announced a unity deal, another flotilla floated on the horizon, and the Israeli government effectively banned boycotts.

Coverage of Turkey, wannabe EU member and gateway to the Middle East, rose significantly last month when Syrian refugees began spilling over their border. The long-disputed territory of the Western Sahara, meanwhile, generally receives no coverage, whereas Morocco is increasingly one to watch, with King Mohammed VI finally bowing to constitutional reforms and the recent reform referendum being accompanied by accusations of corruption.

On the one hand, Lebanon’s official leader has received little coverage. Just 42 articles mentioned Prime Minister Mikati – despite the country having been left without a functioning government since its collapse in January, and the consequential political gains for the Hezbollah-led opposition. On the other hand, Hezbollah/Hizbollah (taking both spellings into account) has been mentioned in 366 articles about Lebanon since December.

Finally, there has been frustratingly little coverage of Saudi Arabia, even when the kingdom sent its troops into Bahrain to prop up the minority Sunni regime in face of rising Shia protests. One Saudi story which received astonishingly modest coverage prior to the Arab Spring was a $60billion arms deal between the kingdom and the US, the largest in history, covered in just 20 articles. The lack of coverage of prior international affairs like this leaves us with dangerously little context, without which we cannot better understand the Sunni-Shia power struggle in the Middle East, nor question why things appear disarmingly quiet when Saudi’s troops roll into one of its neighbours.

All figures taken from Journalisted searches between 19th December 2010 and 24th July 2011.

Check out the Journalisted advanced search help page, with advice on how to perform some of the searches used for this article, and others.

Read the MST’s report on the decline of foreign coverage in the UK press, Shrinking World.

With thanks to the Journalisted team, and The Guardian for reference of their interactive Middle East protests timeline. Additional analysis by Laura MacPhee.

Camilla Schick is the former Media and Events Officer for the MST, and was responsible for administering Journalisted (as well as