As Israel’s ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ was beginning on 14-15 November a man called Jonathan Sacerdoti appeared four times as a guest on different BBC television news programmes, asked to comment on Israel’s actions in Gaza. On 14 November he claimed that Israel was acting with ‘restraint’; in the first of three appearances the next day at 09:41 he talked about Israel's 'right to defend itself'; on BBC World later that day he alleged that Hamas was 'embedding itself in civilian areas'; and on the 19:30 news programme that evening he stated that most Palestinian casualties in Gaza have been 'terrorist bodies', ignoring the many civilians including at least 3 children killed by Israel in the past days and weeks.
Each of his appearances was unchallenged. On one occasion he was joined by another commentator, Shashank Joshi of the military oriented think thank the Royal United Services Institute, but Joshi offered an almost identical perspective. The BBC presented Sacerdoti as a neutral Middle East commentator, the director of an innocuously named organisation called the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy; this neutrality was clearly implied by the lack of any alternative perspective offered and the failure to identify him as affiliated to either the Israeli or Palestinian ‘camp’. Each time he appeared, the news anchor introduced him with some variant of “we can get more on this now and speak to Jonathan Sacerdoti of the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy”.
But Sacerdoti is exactly the opposite of a disinterested ‘expert’ voice on the ongoing violence. Just two years ago he was Director of Public Affairs for the Zionist Federation, perhaps the loudest and most shrill pro-Israel lobby group in the UK.
The day after Israel killed nine activists on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, he appeared defending that attack on Al Jazeera and on Sky News. In August 2011 he spoke at a pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square organised by the British Israel Coalition and supported by the Israeli government-linked StandWithUs.
On 6 July 2010 he met Israeli President Shimon Peres and uploaded an entire album on to Flickr documenting the occasion. He captioned a photo of him shaking hands with Peres,‘Jonathan Sacerdoti, of Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.
The following February he met Ron Prosor, Israel’s former ambassador to the UK, and had his picture taken with him, alongside pro-Israel advocates Gili Brenner of StandWithUs UK and Chas Newkey-Burden, a pro-Israel blogger and good friend of Sacerdoti’s, according to Newkey-Burden’s blog. In this photo, all four are wearing yellow ribbons as a sign of their support for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (since released in a prisoner swap.)
Sacerdoti has worked with Brenner to make a ‘Buy Israeli Goods Day’ video intended to counter the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement's call not to buy goods made in Israel or by companies complicit in the occupation. He was also elected to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ International Division, a committed pro-Israel body. In May 2010 Sacerdoti reportedly spoke publicly about ‘ways to use Facebook, Twitter and other online resources to advocate for Israel’ at a Zionist Federation Israel advocacy event called 'Talk for Israel'.
It is clear that Sacerdoti is a committed pro-Israel activist. But viewers were given a distorted impression about his background by BBC news.
Sacerdoti has a right to defend Israel’s assault on Gaza if he wants. But the BBC has a duty to ‘inform and educate’. At minimum, this means telling the truth and not passing off propaganda as informed, 'objective', analysis.
Perhaps the BBC did not make detailed enough enquiries about their interviewee. This might be partly explained by the gaps in Sacerdoti's LinkedIn profile, where his current role at the Board of Deputies and his previous employment history at the Zionist Federation should appear.
Instead the LinkedIn page mentions his consultancy and his newly created think tank the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, which sounds a little more like the affiliation of an independent 'Middle East analyst'. He was called exactly this by the BBC in January 2011. Yet only five months before that, in a September 2010 interview, the BBC explicitly noted Sacerdoti's role at the Zionist Federation (though he was still their only interviewee). In another appearance in January 2010 the BBC even saw fit to ensure fairness by inviting Sarah Colborne of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to give an opposing view. When he is featured on Al Jazeera, they have sensibly also invited Ghada Karmi or Ali Abunimah to offer a balancing perspective.
The 'Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy'
Even if Sacerdoti's views had been balanced with a pro-Palestinian perspective, it is strange that the BBC should have turned to the largely unknown 'Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy' to offer comment.
'InstMED' was founded in 2009 and calls itself a 'think-tank' but is not well-established in any field. Its website gives no information about how it is funded, nor does it list an address. It was founded by Sacerdoti with 'co-director' Sam Westrop, a right-wing supporter of Israel who also founded a group called the British Israel Coalition. InstMED's 'Associate Director' is a man called Hasan Afzal who—with Westrop—created 'British Muslims for Israel', an organisation which, the Jerusalem Post reports, 'is under the umbrella of The Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy'.
The grandiloquently named 'Institute' has produced a grand total of eight publications, one of which is an attack 'dossier' which attempts to present the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as racist and homophobic. A quick search of the press database Nexis reveals that only one of its publications gained any coverage in the mainstream media—a single mention in the Jerusalem Post. British press coverage amounts to a couple of letters from Sacerdoti published in the Telegraph and Guardian. Sacerdoti's qualifications as a Middle East analyst, meanwhile, appear to consist of an undergraduate English degree from Balliol College, Oxford. His 'co-director' Westrop's credentials are even weaker. Now in his early twenties, Westrop graduated from York University with a degree in music. Sacerdoti does seem to have worked in the media briefly, including for ITV, and perhaps here he made contacts that have helped him get on to prime time news.
Sacerdoti himself has been pleasantly surprised at how eager the BBC has been to provide a him a platform. On Thursday 15 November he joked on Facebook that he 'may as well move in' at the Beeb after yet another interview was lined up. Under a video of one of his earlier appearances, one of his Facebook ‘friends’, comparing him to Richard Kemp (a British army colonel who defended Israel's conduct during its 2008-9 assault on Gaza despite never having been there), commented: 'I'm genuinely surprised that they keep asking you back'.
Something has been profoundly wrong with the BBC’s coverage of Israel for at least the last ten years. Research by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, comparing the time allotted to different voices and analysing how causalities on each side of the Israel-Palestine conflict are reported, has shown that the BBC's reporting systematically favours Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. Nor is this the first time the BBC has presented a partisan for Israel as an objective analyst. Former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn had to fight the corporation to have it accurately label Dennis Ross, who formerly worked for Obama's National Security Council, as pro-Israel. Llewellyn was informed that there was no evidence of Ross's Zionism, despite a wealth of connections to pro-Israel groups like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he co-founded, and the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank established by the Jewish Agency.
If the British public is to be well informed about the current assault on Gaza, the BBC must start doing its homework, balance its coverage properly and stop presenting committed propagandists as expert analysts.
Hilary Aked is a freelance researcher and writer, an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a doctoral candidate at the University of Bath.
Update: Shortly after the publication of this article Sacerdoti tried to delete evidence of his pro-Israel activities from the internet. Read our follow up here.