Yesterday, we documented that BBC News repeatedly invited Jonathan Sacerdoti, former director of public affairs at the Zionist Federation, to offer unchallenged analysis of Israel's continuing attacks on Gaza ('Operation Pillar of Cloud'). Moreover BBC News presented Sacerdoti as a neutral Middle East expert, rather than a professional partisan for Israel.
Following the publication of that article, Sacerdoti has attempted to scrub the evidence on which it was based from the internet.
Having previously appeared on the BBC as a Zionist Federation spokesperson, Sacerdoti (now director of a ‘think tank’ with an innocuous name but questionable legitimacy—the ‘Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy’) appeared four times on BBC News between 14-15 November defending Israel’s actions in Gaza, without viewers ever being informed of his history of pro-Israeli activism.
The BBC appears to have been satisfied that this constituted fair and balanced journalism, even though previous appearances by Sacerdoti were counterbalanced by guests with opposing views, such as Sarah Colborne of the Palestine Solidary Campaign. Perhaps the producers were under the impression that Sacerdoti was a ‘neutral’ Middle East expert?
Apparently keen to maintain this façade, Sacerdoti began removing videos, photos and written evidence of his former role with the pro-Israel group hours after our article questioning his BBC appearances appeared. (His cat Herzl, named after the founder of Zionism, appears to be less concerned).
First to disappear was his LinkedIn profile (which we made a screengrab of here). It contained details of his consultancy firm Sacerdoti Creative Consultancy and work at InstMed but no reference to the Zionist Federation or the Board of Deputies of British Jews, another influential pro-Israel group to which Sacerdoti was recently elected.
Next to go was a picture of Sacerdoti meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres (preserved here) which Sacerdoti had uploaded to Flickr and captioned ‘Jonathan Sacerdoti, of Her Majesty’s Secret Service’,
Sacerdoti scrambled to hide the video evidence of his previous appearances for the Zionist Federation in the media—such as his defence of Israel's May 2010 attack on a Gaza aid flotilla the day after it happened on Sky News and Al Jazeera—by changing the settings of the incriminating videos on his YouTube channel, MrJonSac, to private. He also removed a video he produced with Gili Brenner of Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, promoting a pro-Israel campaign.
Fortunately, Powerbase / Spinwatch researchers had already made copies of all these videos. Moreover still publically accessible is this video of Sacerdoti on the BBC's 'The Big Questions', in which he is clearly identified as representing the Zionist Federation.
Sacerdoti’s friend, the pro-Israel blogger Chas Newkey-Burden, today removed a post from his website called ‘Talk for Israel report’ (5 May 2010), which was linked to in our original article. This screengrab shows why it was of interest: it details Sacerdoti’s talk, at a Zionist Federation event, on how to use social media to 'advocate for Israel'. At the time of writing Newkey-Burden’s website was littered with numerous other references to Sacerdoti’s involvement in pro-Israel activism. Here, for instance, Sacerdoti writes fondly about his week at a 'Diplomatic Seminar for Young Jewish Leaders' run by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Another blogger, Richard Millett, seems to have been contacted, or has taken it upon himself, to remove a video of Sacerdoti at a pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square on 28 August last year. Several photos attest to Sacerdoti’s presence however, including one of him draped in the Israeli flag.
Since the publication of our original article, it has emerged that Sacerdoti worked for the BBC through his firm Sacerdoti Creative Consultancy. The BBC logo is displayed in his list of clients along with ITV, Channel 4 News, ITN News, Channel 5 and others. He claims to have worked ‘as a consultant development producer and writer for TV production companies, developing factual, entertainment, and reality TV formats.’ It could be that this TV background gave him the contacts to get on prime time news presented as an objective expert on the Middle East, despite being no such thing.
The absence of significant details from Sacerdoti’s LinkedIn profile and his subsequent attempts to wipe the proof of his pro-Israel partisanship from the internet beg the question of whether he misrepresented his position to the BBC.
Even if this is the case, it does not excuse the BBC, which should have known or found out that he was not an impartial commentator. It suggests either that they have a worryingly short institutional memory, a lack of producers able to perform basic research on guests or a poor grasp of what journalistic ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ really mean. Sacerdoti's misleading appearances, moreover, ought to be considered in the context of other failures in recent BBC coverage of Gaza, all of which appear to err in the same direction, as well as a longer BBC history of systematic bias in favour of Israel.
Hilary Aked is a freelance researcher and writer, an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a doctoral candidate at the University of Bath.