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The representation of the Royal Air Force in the British media

For many in Britain, newspaper articles and on-line written media remain the primary source of information on Royal Air Force (RAF) operations. How the media present the RAF and its activities, then, is of public interest. To this end, this paper set out to analyse the content of articles on the Royal Air Force by the BBC News Online, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail. Reports published between 1 January 2016 and 31 July 2019 were evaluated. These three media outlets were chosen for their impact, and for the fact that they covered a broad political spectrum. It was believed that an analysis of these three media giants would enable AOAV to paint a picture, of sorts, of the UK’s media representation of the RAF.

This paper will show that none of the media outlets examined were overly critical of the RAF. All three media outlets refer to political sources more frequently than third parties when describing RAF operations. This suggests a general failure to voice dissenting opinions from independent analysts and charities in terms of RAF coverage.

The Guardian appears to strike more of a balance between political sources and third parties, whilst the Daily Mail has an almost negligible number of references to third party opinions and comment.

The weapons used in RAF operations feature very highly among all three media outlets. The Daily Mail focuses most significantly on detailed descriptions of the weapons and their destruction when discussing enemy targets. Both BBC News Online and the Guardian appear to focus more heavily on civilian deaths in their discussions on RAF operations, when compared to the Daily Mail. Outside of the context of airstrikes, BBC News Online and the Daily Mail publish a high number of articles on obituaries and RAF ceremonies, whilst the Daily Mail is more concerned with the RAF’s historical successes.

Articles found

A total of 1,832 articles were found on stories concerning the RAF using the websites of each media outlet; 313 by BBC News Online, 140 by the Guardian, and 1,379 by the Daily Mail. For the Daily Mail, numerous articles were left out from the total count on the basis that the RAF was only mentioned in passing (examples include articles on PM Theresa May’s activities in relation to Brexit that stated that she had used RAF planes to travel abroad).

To simplify the analysis, a significant number of articles was separated by topic. The topics with the number of articles for each media outlet can be found in Table 1 below. Two topics were excluded from the table to save space. The first topic concerns ‘Corrie McKeague’, a RAF staff member who disappeared. The second topic category was named ‘Miscellaneous’ to cover all articles that could not be matched with existing categories. The sum of articles in the table still takes these topics into account.

The tables below show stark differences between the media outlets. By far the biggest topic for BBC News Online was ‘Celebrations, Ceremonies, and Flypasts’, with 23% of all articles dedicated to that topic. The Guardian expressed the most interest in ‘Obituaries and Funerals’, with 18% of all articles covering that topic. While the Daily Mail most significantly focused on ‘World War II’, with 18% of all articles discussing the role of the RAF in World War II.

In this sense, then, it might be suggested that BBC News Online prioritises reports about the institutional presence of the RAF. The Guardian highlights individual histories. And the Daily Mail’s reporting remains rooted in British history.

The Daily Mail also reported far more on airstrikes, RAF staff mental health and RAF missions than the BBC and the Guardian.

It is noteworthy that RAF airstrikes only makes up 4% of all BBC News articles in the sample. Out of 313 articles, BBC News only published one more article on airstrikes than the Guardian with its total of 140 articles. For the Daily Mail, the topic of airstrikes is the second biggest with 16% of all articles dedicated to the topic. In total, 242 articles on airstrikes across the three media outlets were analysed.

Language analysis methodology

To develop a comprehensive picture of media perceptions of the RAF, it was essential to turn to analysis of language used in articles on the RAF. Due to the sheer size of the sample of 1,832 articles, the analysis of language had to be restricted to a particular topic. Content analysis frequently relies on coding mechanisms to identify patterns and meaning in the content of the articles analysed.

For instance, in the case of ‘airstrikes’, given their small sample of 12 articles, the Guardian’s articles were used as a starting point. All 12 articles were read with several questions in mind. The same questions were then applied to 45 of the 217 Daily Mail’s articles to determine the suitability of the coding pattern.

  • What issues do the articles focus on?
  • Is there talk of the RAF equipment used in the airstrikes?
  • How are the consequences of the airstrikes presented?
  • Is there any discussion on casualties from the airstrikes?
  • Who is consulted to provide a comment in the particular article?
  • Is it a political source or a third party?

These research questions resulted in the following codes: ‘Deaths and Injuries’, ‘Destruction’, ‘Pilots and Ethics’, ‘Weapons’, ‘Airstrike’, ‘Government (UK, US, France)’, ‘Third Parties’, ‘Russia’, ‘Targets’, ‘Countries’, ‘Royal Air Force’.[i] These codes were then used in MAXQDA, a software programme for computer-assisted qualitative and mixed methods data, text, and multimedia analysis, to count the number of times each code appears as well as each individual word within each coding group for all three media outlets. The elements of each code can be found in Appendix A.

Airstrikes language

The following tables present the results of the content analysis. Table 4 shows how frequently a term from each code category was referred to in the sample of articles. The code ‘Targets’ and ‘RAF’ were excluded from the table to save space. The sums of all topic mentions still include these two codes.

The biggest topic for all three media outlets is the code ‘Deaths and Injuries’. With 13.42% the code ‘Airstrike’ is the second biggest for BBC News, whilst the Guardian and the Daily Mail focus on the ‘Countries’ targeted in the airstrikes. The Daily Mail appears more concerned with the ‘Weapons’ used and the ‘Destruction’ they cause than both BBC News and the Guardian. BBC News has the highest percentage references to ‘Government’ sources with 8.44% out of all the topics referred to in the sample of articles. This is somewhat balanced out by the fact that BBC News also consults the highest percentage of ‘Third Parties’ with 3.03%. The Guardian similarly strikes a balance between ‘Government’ sources and ‘Third Parties’ with 5.91% versus 2.85%. Notably, the percentage difference between ‘Government’ sources and ‘Third Parties’ is 5.41% for BBC News versus 3.06% for the Guardian suggesting more balance in the consultation of sources by the Guardian.

The Daily Mail’s consultation of sources also appears more balanced than that of BBC News with a percentage difference of 3.9% in favour of government sources. 0.47% is, however, an almost negligible percentage of references to Third Parties found in the Daily Mail.

A more detailed look at the constituent elements of the codes reveals further interesting insights. Table 5 below shows the 20 most frequently used words from among the codes in order of their appearance among BBC News articles in the sample. Civilian, strike, and RAF are the three most frequently used words. The Guardian’s most frequently used words in Table 6 are strike, Syria, and civilian, while those for the Daily Mail are Syria, ISIS, and strike in Table 7.

Table 5 shows that Ministry of Defence (MoD) features twice among the sources referred to in BBC News articles. The Defence Secretary is another ‘Government’ source mentioned among the 20 most frequently used words. BBC News also refers to the NGO Airwars 7 times in the list in Table 5. The Guardian (Table 6) also refers to MoD and Ministry of Defence as well as the Defence Secretary and the Pentagon, but no ‘Third Parties’. The Daily Mail (Table 7) appears not to consult any sources among its 20 most frequently used words.

That Mosul, Iraq, Syria, and Raqqa feature in the list suggests a focus on describing the airstrikes carried out as opposed to discussing their consequences. This is further evidenced by the use of such words as bomb and kill as well as the description of ‘Weapons’ used, such as Tornado and drone, and enemies targeted, such as jihadi and terrorist. Interestingly, the Guardian and BBC News adopt similar language in that they both go so far as to mention Brimstone missiles used in many of the airstrikes. Whilst the words bomb and kill also feature highly in Tables 5 (BBC News) and 6 (The Guardian), neither media outlet spends as much of its word count labelling the people targeted by the airstrikes. BBC News does not use the words terrorist and jihadi, and the Guardian only mentions ISIS. It appears that both BBC News and the Guardian focus more on the effects on civilians than the Daily Mail.


In conclusion, it is clear that there are some significant differences between Britain’s three dominant media outlets in how they report on the RAF. Overall, it appears that no media outlet is routinely critical of the RAF, whilst political sources are unlikely to criticise RAF operations or offer points of discussion.

Whilst the Guardian has more of a balance between political sources and third parties than the other two media outlets, political sources still take centre stage. All three media outlets repeatedly refer to the ‘Weapons’ used and the destruction, deaths, and injuries they cause albeit with some differences in the weight attributed to these descriptions.

The most significant differences between the media outlets lie in their level of concern for civilians affected by the airstrikes, with the BBC showing the most concern, then the Guardian, then the Daily Mail (if looked at as a proportion of all coverage).

Outside the context of airstrikes, BBC News and the Guardian appear to prefer focussing on neutral topics, such as ceremonies and obituaries, whilst the Daily Mail likes to discuss the historical successes of the RAF. This distinction seems to fall in line with the Daily Mail’s focus on the destructive force of RAF airstrikes compared to BBC News and the Guardian.

This analysis is the first of its kind to examine the British media’s language in covering RAF operations, and raises questions about unconscious bias, balance and the politicised prioritisation of coverage, one that usually favours a positive reporting on RAF missions and often lacks a critical voice. It can serve as a bedrock for future discussions.

Appendix A Coding System

[i] The code ‘Deaths and Injuries’ includes words frequently used in the context of deaths and injuries, such as civilians, terrorists, jihadi, kill. ‘Destruction’ concerns the destructive force of RAF airstrikes with words such as destroy, rubble, annihilate, and obliterate. The code ‘Pilots and Ethics’ covers the moral dilemmas, ethical concerns, and emotional trauma of RAF pilots. The code ‘Weapons’ incorporates all weapons used as well as their size. The ‘Airstrike’ code includes words such as airstrike, barrage, bombing raid, and assault. ‘Government (UK, US, France)’ concerns the government sources consulted within the articles including Prime Ministers, Foreign Secretaries, Ministry of Defence Spokespeople, pilots, and commanders among others. The UK, US, and France were consolidated in the same category due to the coalition airstrikes. ‘Third Parties’ include NGOs, such as Action on Armed Violence and Airwars, opposition politicians, and other outsiders. The ‘Russia’ code covers quotes from Russian government officials. The ‘Targets’ code includes cities such as Raqqa and Mosul. The ‘Countries’ code covers all countries hit by airstrikes including Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The ‘Royal Air Force’ code was merely used to determine how many times the RAF is referred to.

Category Search item Category Search Item
Airstrike Airstrike Deaths and injuries Caliphate
Airstrike Operation Shader Deaths and injuries Kill
Airstrike Strike Deaths and injuries Enemy fighter
Airstrike Sorties Deaths and injuries Injury
Airstrike Coalition airstrike Deaths and injuries Confirmed death
Airstrike Dramatic moment Deaths and injuries Injure
Airstrike 100,000 hours Deaths and injuries Vaporise
Airstrike Bombing raid Deaths and injuries Enemy fighters
Airstrike 100 missiles Destruction Rubble
Airstrike 105 missiles Destruction Destroy
Airstrike Barrage Destruction Destruction
Airstrike Assault Destruction Annihilate
Airstrike Coalition airstrikes Destruction Blitz
Royal Air Force Royal Air Force Destruction Obliterate
Royal Air Force RAF Destruction Bomb
Targets Raqqa Destruction Flatten
Targets Baghuz Destruction Crush
Targets Abu Kamal Destruction Decimate
Targets Mosul Destruction Blasting
Targets Homs Destruction Devastate
Targets Shinshar Destruction Pin-point destruction
Targets Him Shinshar Destruction ‘Bunker buster’
Targets Barzah Third parties Iain Overton
Targets Damascus Third parties AOAV
Countries Syria Third parties Action on Armed Violence
Countries Iraq Third parties Airwars
Countries Afghanistan Third parties Chris Woods
Countries Yemen Third parties Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle
Countries Libya Third parties Donatella Rovera
Pilots and Ethics Morality Third parties Amnesty International
Pilots and Ethics Emotional trauma Third parties Chris Cole
Pilots and Ethics Ethics Third parties Drone Wars
Pilots and Ethics Moral Dilemma Third parties Philippe Sands QC
Pilots and Ethics Unintentional Third parties Jennifer Gibson
Pilots and Ethics Gallantry Award Third parties Reprieve
Pilots and Ethics Armchair assassins Third parties Tom Brake
Pilots and Ethics Medal Third parties Jeremy Corbyn
Pilots and Ethics 7,000 miles Third parties Andrew Mitchell
Pilots and Ethics Thousands of miles Government (UK, US, France) UK Government
Russia Russian Ministry of Defence Government (UK, US, France) Boris Johnson
Russia Anatoly Antonov Government (UK, US, France) Theresa May
Russia Vladimir Putin Government (UK, US, France) Major General Christopher Ghika
Russia Alexander Sherin Government (UK, US, France) Air Commodore Roddy Dennis
Russia Maria Zakharova Government (UK, US, France) Penny Mordaunt
Weapons Reaper Government (UK, US, France) Michael Fallon
Weapons Drone Government (UK, US, France) Gavin Williamson
Weapons Tornado Government (UK, US, France) Defence Secretary
Weapons Typhoon Government (UK, US, France) Jeremy Wright QC
Weapons ‘Depressing’ array Government (UK, US, France) Reaper Squadron Commander
Weapons Brimstone Government (UK, US, France) Squadron Leader Colin Bostrom
Weapons Storm Shadow Government (UK, US, France) Corporal Collette Sanders
Weapons Paveway IV Government (UK, US, France) Guto Bebb
Weapons Hellfire Government (UK, US, France) Wing Commander Mark Jackson
Weapons Paveway II Government (UK, US, France) Mervan Kamishlo
Weapons F-35 Government (UK, US, France) Syrian Democratic Forces
Weapons Tomahawk Government (UK, US, France) Group Captain Andrew Dickens
Weapons Scores Government (UK, US, France) MoD
Weapons Remote Government (UK, US, France) Ministry of Defence
Weapons ‘Rivet Joint’ spy plane Government (UK, US, France) Chaplain-General Reverend David Coulter
Weapons Joint Strike Fighter Government (UK, US, France) Rory
Weapons Cruise missile Government (UK, US, France) Eileen
Weapons GR4 Government (UK, US, France) Gav
Weapons High-tech Government (UK, US, France) Zach
Weapons 500lb Government (UK, US, France) Jean-Yves L Drian
Weapons 700lb Government (UK, US, France) Squadron Leader Matt Axcell
Weapons 900lb Government (UK, US, France) Pentagon
Weapons Mach 1.3 Government (UK, US, France) Mike Pence
Weapons Eight tonnes Government (UK, US, France) Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Dana White
Weapons £9billion Government (UK, US, France) Nikki Haley
Weapons £80,000 Government (UK, US, France) Pilip Hammond
Weapons £30,000 Government (UK, US, France) David Davis
Weapons £100,000million Government (UK, US, France) Esther McVey
Weapons £750,000 Government (UK, US, France) Emmanuel Macron
Deaths and injuries Civilian Government (UK, US, France) Jim Mattis
Deaths and injuries Terrorist Government (UK, US, France) Joseph Dunford
Deaths and injuries Jihadi Government (UK, US, France) Justin Trudeau
Deaths and injuries ISIS Government (UK, US, France) Senator Mark Warner
Deaths and injuries IS Government (UK, US, France) Nancy Pelosi
Deaths and injuries Daesh Government (UK, US, France) Paul Ryan