Who is Jonathan Sacerdoti, the BBC’s Go-To Man on Gaza?

by Hilary Aked

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”. 

Interested 'expertise'

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.

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First published: 16 November, 2012

Category: Media, Terror/War

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14 Comments on "Who is Jonathan Sacerdoti, the BBC’s Go-To Man on Gaza?"

By Acacia, on 16 November 2012 - 20:11 |

Today on BBC Radio 1 they had a piece which claimed that it would ‘hear from both sides’ - it went on to give a minute to a woman called Natalie in Tel Aviv and Israeli govt spokesman Mark Regev - not one Palestinian account all day. How can they get away with this bias and why are they now so pro-Israel?

By David, on 16 November 2012 - 21:26 |

Comment from NLP ed, Jamie Stern-Weiner:

“On the BBC’s woeful performance over the past couple of days, see also here and <a href=“http://medialens.org/index.php?opti>here</a>.”

By Hilary Aked, on 16 November 2012 - 21:31 |

And also here http://newsunspun.org/article/siding-with-the-powerful-uk-media-coverage-of-the-assault-on-gaza (sadly examples abound)

By Mil, on 17 November 2012 - 02:59 |

Have you asked the BBC to comment on this?

By F Callen, on 17 November 2012 - 03:36 |

Does it matter whether there is a pro-Palestinian voice or not? Who would defend rockets against civilians being fired from civilian areas? That’s two war crimes in one. Good riddance, no?

By dwighttowers, on 17 November 2012 - 08:06 |

If your organisation is basically leaderless, and your organisation is also under a huge cloud (the initially Newsnight story about Savile being spiked) and then the events leading up to them paying out £185,000 to Ashcroft), then the last thing you want is to be accused of “anti-Semitic bias”.  That, on top of the stuff that Philo and Berry mention, explains (to me at least) why the BBC’s reporting has been even more egregious than usual.  What - beyond letters to MPs and the BBC itself - is to be done?

By Chris, on 17 November 2012 - 10:48 |

The establishment, unfortunately is naturally pro-Israel. It’s a continuation of the colonial mentality and is similar to the way so many people loved South Africa, back in the day. Israelis, rightly or wrongly, are perceived as being like us. The Palestinians less so.

By m, on 17 November 2012 - 12:00 |

Well this is non too subtle!

https://www.facebook.com/samwestrop?ref=ts&fref=ts

By Acacia, on 17 November 2012 - 12:44 |

People make it sound like rockets are slaying Israelis left and right but the Israeli  forces have killed more Palestinian children in the last few days than rockets have killed Israelis in past five years. 

And not to mention the blockade, calorie controls by Israel, not allowing those who need medical treatment to leave Gaza etc. its never been a fair fight between two sides. Its stupid to make it look like that.

And never mind Gaza - why is the West Bank still occupied if Hamas is the problem?

By m, on 17 November 2012 - 13:27 |

Jacob Campbell, who is a Research Fellow at IMED, is also Press Officer for UKIP Friends of Israel and is a StandWithUs fellow…not seeming that neutral!

By Vicky ayech, on 17 November 2012 - 17:01 |

I saw the piece on the Gaza Israel conflict and thought the BBC coverage biassed towards the Gaza side. The coverage of the Israeli woman showed a well-off one with panic room, safe in Tel Aviv about to fly to the UK to safety. The Gaza one showed ruins and injured people. It is usually biassed that way I think.

By Hilary Aked, on 17 November 2012 - 18:37 |

i’m not sure that that’s an example of bias - i’d say that was an accurate reflection of reality

By Ali, on 20 November 2012 - 09:12 |

Sign up to this call for ‘The BBC Trust: Hold a Public Inquiry into Pro-Israeli Bias’ and will find out if the were/are.

http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/the-bbc-trust-hold-a-public-inquiry-into-pro-israeli-bias?utm_campaign=action_box&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=share_petition&h=TAQFjZInH

By Michael , on 25 November 2012 - 23:51 |

The BBC have Jonathan Sacerdotal on to comment ..but they also have Abdel Bari Atwan to comment on the same Gaza conflict and many time on other BBC news  programs.In June 2007, Atwan stated, “If the Iranian missiles strike Israel, by Allah, I will go to Trafalgar Square and dance with delight.” One of the problems with this conflict is that commentators who have a  good knowledge of it will also be emotionally involved. that goes for both sides of the conflict.

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