Exposed: UK university student claiming bias works for project of Israel pressure group

Nicola Pratt (photo courtesy of University of Warwick)

A worker at an Israeli media pressure group used her low dissertation mark as a post-graduate student at University of Warwick to smear a professor involved in Palestine solidarity activism this month.

Smadar Bakovic claimed that Professor Nicola Pratt had unfairly graded her dissertation. She told a pro-Israel journalist that the same dissertation was passed with a distinction after being re-marked by a second professor. But the paper running the story failed to mention that Bakovic works for MediaCentral in Jerusalem, an agency affiliated with pro-Israel media pressure group HonestReporting.

The article appeared in The Jewish Chronicle (a pro-Israel paper), first published on their website on 22 December. It drew heavily on Bakovic as its source, but portrayed her merely as an Israeli student, without mentioning her MediaCentral affiliation. A university spokesperson told The Electronic Intifada that the article contained multiple inaccuracies, which he had alerted the paper to but they still ran their version (“Anti-Zionist professor’s low marks for Israeli - now a distinction,” 22 December 2011).

University spokesperson Peter Dunn said Bakovic’s claims were false. It is “not true that she made repeated requests for a supervisor change,” he said. She asked to change supervisors only once, and, despite that, said she was happy with Pratt’s supervision. It was only when she received her low mark that she asked the university to change.

Nicola Pratt is associate professor of international politics of the Middle East at the University of Warwick in the midlands of the UK. She is reportedly active in Palestine solidarity campaigns, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

“I did it for Israel”

The Electronic Intifada contacted Professor Pratt who referred us to Dunn. He said the Jewish Chronicle journalist had also told him Bakovic admitted to being happy with Pratt’s supervision. Dunn said Bakovic had to resubmit her dissertation to the second professor with “substantial changes” for the higher mark. Dunn said he had confirmed with her new supervisor that Bakovic’s claim this second version was only “tweaked” was untrue. In order to protect Bakovic’s privacy, Dunn could not name the second professor.

The Electronic Intifada wrote to Bakovic to ask her to reveal the name of the second professor in order to verify this, but she declined to respond. “I did it for Israel,” she told The Jewish Chronicle, referring to her year-long campaign to be allowed to redo her dissertation. The Jewish Chronicle claimed it had seen emails (presumably from Bakovic) showing the second dissertation contained “no major changes” from the one marked by Pratt.

Dunn said he had not been shown these emails, and the journalist was making an unjustified inference, probably based on an early stage in the process. Dunn said: “the first mark was also matched by an external examiner as well as Nicola. The university stands by both marks for both pieces of work and the complaints panel found Nicola’s supervision to be exemplary.” The Electronic Intifada asked Bakovic to prove the second version was not substantially different, but she failed to reply.

University’s disappointment

Bakovic is listed as the media services coordinator on the website of MediaCentral. Based in Jerusalem, the group says it is a “free or low-cost” fixer agency that immerses foreign journalists in Israeli perspectives.

The group is a project of HonestReporting, which once described itself on its website as “an organization dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the media” (“Our Mission”).

Its managing editor, Simon Plosker, is a reservist soldier in the Israeli army’s press office. He previously worked for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) and NGO Monitor, another Israel lobby group (“Meet the editors”).

Asked to comment on Bakovic’s membership of MediaCentral, Dunn said he knew nothing about her beyond the academic issues, and that the university’s concern was only to defend its academic reputation. It was unusual for the university to allow a student to redo her dissertation in this way and they had thought Bakovic would be grateful, and were disappointed to be depicted like this, he added.

The Electronic Intifada put Dunn’s claims to Bakovic via email, and asked whether or not she had informed The Jewish Chronicle she works for MediaCentral. She declined to reply.

Bakovic told The Jewish Chronicle that she monitored the university’s Palestine solidarity movement: “I knew Prof Pratt because whenever there was an anti-Israel event at the university I went along and she was often there,” she stated.

Professor Pratt was one of many academic signatories to a seminal letter in The Guardian during the 2008-09 Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, which asserted that “if we affirm the right to resist military aggression and colonial occupation, then we are obliged to take sides … against Israel, and with the people of Gaza and the West Bank” (“Growing outrage at the killing in Gaza,” 15 January 2009).

In the Reut Institute’s now-infamous 2010 report on how to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, the influential think tank advised Israel to “sabotage” the movement of solidarity with Palestine.

One of the many examples it gave of possible counter-strategies was “Mobilizing and training civil society partners … for example students and faculty in academia” (“The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall, March 2010, p. 71).

If this was another attempt to “sabotage” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, it was an especially clumsy one.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who writes about Palestine.