The BBC has provided evidence this week that it prefers to use the territorial claims of the Israeli government to the whole of Jerusalem as a framework for its reporting, rather than acknowledging international law.
International law considers only West Jerusalem, conquered in 1948 — amid the expulsion by Zionist militias of tens of thousands of Palestinians — to be under de facto Israeli control, while East Jerusalem, conquered in 1967 is occupied territory. This is reflected in the UK government’s position, which, since 1950, has recognized Israeli de facto authority in West Jerusalem, but not sovereignty, and considers East Jerusalem to be under military occupation.
However, in a 15 May email sent to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), the BBC’s Senior Editorial Strategy Advisor, Leanne Buckle, has confirmed that the BBC is happy to refer to the whole of Jerusalem as an “Israeli” city. It sees no need for its journalists to make the facts of international law, or even UK government policy, clear to its audiences.
As part of ongoing correspondence between the BBC and the PSC on the subject of Jerusalem, Buckle writes: “a passing reference to Jerusalem as an Israeli city would not [give] listeners a misleading impression of the city’s status under international law.”
The failure to make a distinction between East and West Jerusalem, or to note that Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem — East or West — has not been recognized, plays straight into the hands of Israel’s propagandists whose aim has long been to establish Jerusalem as the “undivided capital of Israel” in the minds of Western journalists, so that they can, in turn, convey this lie to their audiences.
And it is a failure that occurs across the BBC’s output, including on its permanent webpage, “Israel profile,” part of its “country profiles” section. On the page for Israel, the BBC writes: “seat of government: Jerusalem, though most foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv.” However, no country recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
East Jerusalem, as any informed person knows, is occupied Palestinian territory which has been illegally annexed by Israel. There is no “united Jerusalem,” as Israel asserts, and the status of the city is a controversial and sensitive issue; its final status supposedly to be decided by “peace talks.” As such, all reporting on it should be subject to the highest standards of accuracy by responsible news organizations.
The BBC, however, operates by its own inexplicable standards. Buckle’s email to the PSC was in response to ongoing correspondence over a report on Radio 4’s Today program in October. During the course of the report, which was about the establishment of a university in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, the BBC’s correspondent, Kevin Connolly, referred to “Israeli cities with better established academic institutions, like Jerusalem.”
The PSC wrote to the Today program to point out that Jerusalem is not an Israeli city, and should not be referred to as such.
Initially, the BBC wrote back to say: “It would not be possible to explore or describe the full complexity of [Jerusalem’s] status in every such reference — such a practice would simply fall outside the scope of daily journalism.”
How the simple insertion of one word — “West” — for instance, would be beyond the scope of the BBC’s daily journalism was not explained. Rather, as the PSC pointed out, its inclusion would remove the need to “explore or describe the full complexity of [Jerusalem’s] status” in any reference to the city. Moreover, how difficult would it be to add the word “occupied” before references to “East Jerusalem?”
Unfortunately, providing accurate and clear information to its audiences does not seem to be the BBC’s main concern when reporting on Israel. Ensuring that its journalists report on Palestine and Israel in a manner which reflects Israel’s agenda would appear to be the priority for this taxpayer-funded broadcaster.
In her email about Connolly’s Today report, Buckle quotes the view of an unnamed BBC advisor, saying: “The advisor acknowledged that Israel’s sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem was not recognized under international law. 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.”
And so, because the Israeli authorities make no distinction between East and West in the city, neither will the BBC. It would appear that Israel’s illegal attempts to create facts on the ground have been accepted in BBC newsrooms and by its most senior executives.
Once again, the occupation, which has caused and continues to cause such immense suffering to Palestinians, has been airbrushed by the BBC. The occupation of East Jerusalem, Buckle appears to be saying, does not exist. There is only Jerusalem, and it is all Israeli.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the BBC’s acceptance that Israel’s “de facto control over the entire city” means that all of Jerusalem is therefore Israeli, and can be referred to as such, is the implication that this supposedly independent organization has recognized the validity of the 1980 Jerusalem Law.
This Israeli law claims that: “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” Another clause asserts that: “Jerusalem is the seat of the president of the state, the Knesset, the government and the supreme court.”
When the law was passed in Israel in July 1980, there was immediate outcry in the international community and the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 478, which declared the law “null and void” and said it “must be rescinded.”
Thirty-three years later, the BBC appears to be standing with Israel and against the international community in its acceptance of the spirit of the Jerusalem Law.
Buckle has said she will not pass PSC’s complaint to the BBC Trust, the highest level at which a complaint can be heard, and has thrown it out of the complaints system. This fate will also no doubt fall on other similar complaints PSC is pursuing, where BBC presenters have referred to Jerusalem, in its entirety, as being an Israeli city.
The BBC’s overall reporting on Jerusalem falls into its general pattern of reporting on the occupation, with the facts of Israeli atrocities and violence being kept from its audiences.
In the last week, for example, 50-100 strong groups of Israeli settlers, escorted by armed police spraying pepper gas, have stormed the al-Aqsa compound which contains the Dome of the Rock Mosque, attacking Palestinian worshippers, including children, and shouting slogans such as “Death to Arabs” and “Jerusalem is Ours.”
Some of the settlers, whose latest attack was carried out on Wednesday, the anniversary of the Nakba — the ethnic cleansing ahead of Israel’s establishment in 1948 — have been wearing provocative T-shirts bearing images of the Dome of the Rock being demolished. On 7 May, an Israeli court approved the demolition of part of the Muhammad al-Fatih Mosque in Jerusalem in what the UK-based campaign group, Friends of al-Aqsa, describes as “a move designed to prepare the ground to gauge the reaction upon the destruction of the al-Aqsa sanctuary.”
The BBC has run a single report on the last week’s events in Jerusalem, in an online article on 8 May. Not a single one of the events mentioned above was reported on. There was no description of the Israeli police, army or settler violence which led to the Jordanian Parliament voting that same day to expel the Israeli ambassador to Jordan.
Instead, the BBC looked for Palestinian violence that it could report on. What it found was this: “During Tuesday’s clashes, Muslim worshippers are reported to have thrown chairs at Jewish visitors to the compound.”
The settlers storming the compound are “visitors” and the BBC considers a few chairs reportedly thrown by Muslims to be more newsworthy than the vicious attacks on Palestinian children and journalists, and more important than the actual storming of the compound by armed police and settlers, and their racist chanting while Palestinians were attempting to pray. All this Israeli provocation is reduced by the BBC to “clashes between Muslim and Jewish worshippers.”
By withholding the facts from its audiences, the BBC not only restricts their knowledge of the Israeli occupation, it also prevents them from gaining any real understanding of it, or of the occupier, Israel. To this misreporting, is added straightforward pro-Israeli propaganda.
Viewers of BBC Two’s Israel: Facing the Future, broadcast on 17 April, were able to witness this propaganda in action. The hour-long documentary, which posed the question of Israel’s survival, featured a segment on Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which leads the opposition to Israel’s attacks on al-Aqsa and Jerusalem.
Against a soundtrack of menacing music and footage of Salah speaking at a rally, the presenter John Ware said of the sheikh: “He frequently accuses Israeli political leaders of plotting to destroy Islam’s third holiest site, the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Inflammatory accusations like this raise fears amongst Israelis that their fellow Arab citizens could become a fifth column.”
The Islamic Movement was described by Ware as “a pretty radical movement.”
It is clear how Ware wanted his audience to perceive Salah: a crazed, irrational sheikh — hence the menacing music and use of the words “plotting” and “inflammatory language” — who, like other Palestinians living in Israel, is the enemy within, the “fifth column” not to be trusted.
It was based on such misinformation that Salah was arrested while on a visit to the UK in 2011, based on an exclusion order by Home Secretary Theresa May. After a ten-month legal battle, Salah won total vindication in the courts when the exclusion and deportation orders were thrown out on “all grounds.”
Israel, of course, is portrayed as the victim of such radical fanatics. None of the actions of the Israeli government, its army or its settlers against al-Aqsa, as outlined above, were presented to the viewers of Israel: Facing the Future. Nor were they told that Israeli political leaders, such as Likud’s Moshe Feiglin, regularly call for the demolition of al-Aqsa and that a number of Israeli groups openly work for its destruction and replacement with a Jewish temple.
For Ware to have indulged in responsible journalism and reported these facts would have resulted in an abject failure of his attempts to demonize Salah. Viewers would no longer see the sheikh as a madman throwing around conspiracy theories of Israeli “plots” to destroy al-Aqsa, but as a Palestinian desperately trying to save his heritage from the Israeli bulldozers, his language no longer “inflammatory,” but perfectly reasonable. Was it to avoid this interpretation by the viewers that the BBC journalist chose to hide the facts and to misreport?
Nothing can be proved, but Ware’s portrayal of a crazy sheikh forming part of a “fifth column” within Israel would certainly have gone down better with Israelis than with Palestinians, who would have seen nothing resembling the truth in his report.
Add to this the BBC’s withholding of the full facts of the recent armed Israeli assaults on al-Aqsa, while reporting on chair-throwing incidents by Palestinians, and a disturbing picture of what the BBC considers to be journalism begins to emerge.
This picture is completed by Buckle’s email. It would take nothing for BBC journalists to add the word “West” to Jerusalem when referring to the one part of the divided city and “occupied East” when referring to the other part.
So why are they adamantly refusing to do so? It is this willingness to sacrifice its Royal Charter commitment to accuracy and to impartiality in favor of bowing to the Israeli agenda — that Jerusalem, and all of Jerusalem, is “Israeli” — that really says it all about the BBC’s reporting from this region.