UK coverage of the Arab Spring so far: Journalisted analysis

Arab Spring

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

  • Me

    Nicely done

  • Anonymous

    One issue I would like to throw into the ring  about  news paper standards which   I feel is becoming relavent to your organisation , is  the subject of  the regulation on line  comments by news papers

    This now is a growing part of a news paper strategy to encourage contact with the public , hear thier views  and feel the public pulse ,even obtain ideas for future articles

    Having been a large contibutor to these one cannot help but noticed that these are being manipulated by the news papers  this done under the words ”Moderate”

    They of course have the right to moderate comments even delete comments that are offensive but do they have the right to delete comments that have a different point of view to those being promoted by the paper,  that are not abusive  ?

    For example if news papers in an extreme case delete all views that were against a military solution to Libya ,one would gain the impression from that blog that everyone was pro the war , that would create a wrong impression .

    I have made  2445 comments about different topics and 9707 likes , I am careful not to be offensive but my experience and the experience of many of other people that they are completely puzzeled   why there comments are removed

    Many people are commenting in good faith ( though there are some people who just want to let their hair down ) they spend time writing a well thought senario only to find inexpliquably that it has been removed .
    Often it has recieved a number approvals but suddenly it is gone  I one case last week that was described as Brilliant (not my words perhaps a little over the top !) , then suddenly removed .

    Many of these blogs are run by companies like Disqus but as far as one can see it is the News papers who are making the decision to delete but also do these companies also have a code of conduct that they expect thier customers to adhere to .

    Does any one know if there is a standard code of conduct for News Papers operating their blogs .

    Of course some news papers do have terms and conditions but under the word
    Moderator they seem to believe they can do anything they like with these comment pages .
    At a time when the media is continually fighting to protect freedom of speech  it seems that the last thing they want is to give their own  clients acess to it, on thier own comments pages  .

    It seems to me that the news papers want their cake and to eat too?


  • Anonymous

    One point on Libya  that  the media does seemed to be  really covering though today there was some coverage on total deaths in Libya since the UN resolution it seems very hard to come up with a figures  we are hearing only in the last few days , numbers of  30,000 to 50,000 deaths but no one is sure what it includes . Many people are interested in knowing how many people have died since the UN resolution , this includes people lost in trying to escape the region . We have also heard figure of 50,000 unaccounted people and prisoniers  what has happen to them. Today we heard that the NTC our now saying at Least thirty thousand people have been killed and over 50,000  wounded . Throughout the war the media has been very silent on the number deaths , this has cushioned the British people and their leaders in acquiesing into bending the UN resolution for regime change .
    The other point is how can the government talk about democracy for Libya when there is a draft constitution on the table that contains Sharia Law and is based on non democratic institutions, this makes a charade of democracy but  why are these points not being taken up by the media  ?

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