The BBC’s reporting around the status of Jerusalem is “of such a low standard it fails to qualify as journalism,” say campaigners.
This argument is the basis of the challenge made last week by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and Friends of Al Aqsa (FoA) against the BBC’s insistence on referring to the whole of Jerusalem as an Israeli city, in contradiction to international law.
The argument was put forward in an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office, asking the BBC to make public documents relating to its decision to accept in its reporting that Jerusalem is Israeli.
At the end of 2013, PSC and FoA made a direct request to the BBC asking that it release these documents under a Freedom of Information request. The aim was to find out how and why the BBC Trust had made a decision that referencing Jerusalem as Israeli was not in breach of its editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality, and what had influenced the Trust’s decision.
This request was rejected by the BBC, leading to last week’s appeal to the commissioner, which is the next stage in the Freedom of Information process.
In the appeal, both organizations set out the background to the request. PSC had challenged the BBC in 2012 and 2013 over reporting on its online pages and radio broadcasting, where Jerusalem was called an “Israeli city,” and no distinction was made between East Jerusalem — which is considered by the United Nations to be occupied Palestinian territory — and West Jerusalem.
BBC “accepts” Israel’s facts on the ground
After months of correspondence, the BBC Trust replied to say that its senior editorial adviser, Leanne Buckle, had decided that BBC journalists were justified in ignoring international law and the fact that East Jerusalem is considered to be Palestinian land for the following reason:
“The adviser acknowledged that Israel’s sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem was not recognized under international law,” the Trust wrote. “However, she considered that Israel had de facto control over the entire city in a political, administrative and military sense. She also noted that Jerusalem was administered as a single entity by the Jerusalem municipal authority which made no distinction between East and West.”
Incredibly, with this decision, senior BBC executives and the Trust seem to have accepted Israel’s illegal creation of facts on the ground. Moreover, the BBC appears to be making a political decision, behaving in a manner that is far from impartial or politically neutral as demanded by the Royal Charter by which it is governed.
PSC continued its challenge, taking issue with the fact that, in its online country profile of Israel, the BBC refers to its “seat of government” as Jerusalem.
PSC pointed out to the BBC that this formulation implies that Jerusalem is a single entity — when international law and opinion is categorical that West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem are separate territories.
The BBC Trust replied to say that it “took the view that although all Israel’s government buildings are in the west of the city, it does not alter the fact they are in Jerusalem.”
It is beyond understanding why a major news organization, supposedly independent and supposedly with a journalistic commitment to accuracy, impartiality and integrity in its reporting, is going to such lengths to bypass accuracy and impartiality in order to present Israel’s narrative.
And this is why PSC and FoA decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out what is behind the BBC Trust’s reasoning and decision-making in this instance.
The BBC rejected PSC and FoA’s request to release all its documents relating to the formulation of this decision on the basis that Part VI of Schedule 1 of the Act provides that information held by the BBC and other public service broadcasters is only covered by the Act if it is held for “purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature.”
The BBC argued that “journalism, art or literature … seems to be intended to cover the whole of the BBC’s output in its mission (under article 5 of its Royal Charter) to inform, educate and entertain the public.” This, therefore, protects it from releasing the information requested.
However, PSC and FoA argue that the BBC’s policy of referring to Jerusalem as an Israeli city neither “educates” nor “informs” the public.
In fact, because international law and international opinion is very clear in stating that Jerusalem is not an Israeli city, but is divided between East and West Jerusalem with Israel’s sovereignty over neither sector being recognized, the BBC is actually and actively misinforming the public.
It could further be argued that the BBC is counter-educating the public with Israeli propaganda that all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel rather than providing the facts.
The two organizations argue that the BBC Trust’s decision on how the BBC reports on the status of Jerusalem seeks to hide the truth from the public, rather than informing and educating its audiences.
Favoring Israeli claims to Jerusalem
In their appeal to the commissioner, PSC and FoA make the point that the BBC’s habit of referring to Jerusalem as Israeli is inaccurate, and therefore cannot be classified as journalism. For this reason, documents relating to the decision should not be considered to be covered by Part VI of Schedule 1 of the Act, and can be released.
The appeal to the commissioner states: “The BBC should be subject to some public scrutiny, for example when it fails its own basic journalistic obligations and produces content of such a low standard it fails to qualify as journalism.”
It adds: “Failure to disclose the requested information would not ‘protect the independence of the media,’ it would help to carve out a space in which the BBC can subvert its own Editorial Guidelines and facilitate the creation of low quality factually incorrect output that damages the BBC’s own long term interests.”
By continually referring to Jerusalem — in its entirety — as Israeli, the BBC is not only being grossly inaccurate, it is actively advantaging the Israeli position over that of the Palestinians, and favoring Israel’s claim to the whole of Jerusalem. The BBC Trust’s decision makes it seem as though it has fallen for Israeli propaganda, which wants journalists to accept that Jerusalem belongs to Israel and to then convey this lie to their audiences.
As PSC’s director, Sarah Colborne, says: “To make reference to either East or West Jerusalem, while reporting, would be so easy, and would result in accurate journalism. However, the BBC seems to be more concerned with portraying the Israeli line on the status of Jerusalem, at the expense of accuracy and impartiality, and we want to find out why.”