BBC News report on Jerusalem planning fails to meet impartiality guidelines

On the afternoon of November 6th the BBC News website published a report headlined “Jerusalem: Israel approves controversial Old City cable car plan” on its ‘Middle East’ page.

The report is illustrated with an image credited to You Tube and captioned “The Old City of Jerusalem is a Unesco World Heritage site” but readers are not informed that it is in fact a “screen capture from a promotional video for the Jerusalem Old City cable car project showing an artist’s impression of cars passing over the Hinnom Valley”.

The report opens with a description of the plan which includes clear framing. [emphasis added]

“A controversial plan to build a cable car network in Jerusalem’s Old City to transport visitors to one of Judaism’s holiest sites has been approved by Israel’s housing cabinet.

The cable cars will ferry up to 3,000 people an hour about 1.4km (0.9 miles) from West Jerusalem to the Western Wall in occupied East Jerusalem.

Israel’s government says the project will reduce traffic congestion.”

It then quickly moves on to present the views of various opponents, including a link to a campaigning video.

“But opponents say it will damage the area’s historic landscape.

They intend to petition Israel’s High Court of Justice to stop it.

Emek Shaveh, an Israeli non-governmental organisation working to defend cultural heritage, has previously warned that the cable car network will alter the skyline of the Old City – a Unesco World Heritage site – and have a detrimental impact on Palestinian residents of the Silwan area living under the proposed route.

It has also alleged that the project “serves a highly political agenda” and that it was “fast-tracked” through the planning process.”

BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality state that: [emphasis added]

“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities and think-tanks) are unbiased. Appropriate information about their affiliations, funding and particular viewpoints should be made available to the audience, when relevant to the context.”

Readers are however told nothing of that foreign funded political NGO’s “affiliations, funding and particular viewpoints” before the report moves on to promote a link to an as yet uncorrected BBC backgrounder from 2014 and highlight additional objections.

“The Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government – the custodian of the compound behind the Western Wall, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount – have also expressed concern about the impact on the Old City.”

Readers then see an edited version of a problematic video made by the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell in 2017 and at the end of the report they are told that:

“The status of Jerusalem goes to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided” capital, while the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem – occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war – as the capital of a future state.”

As is overwhelmingly the case in BBC reporting, while the corporation adopts and uses PLO approved language such as “occupied East Jerusalem”, audiences are told nothing of the Jordanian occupation of parts of the city or of the fact that until June 1967 – as shown in Article 24 of the original PLO charter from 1964 – the Palestinians specifically stated that they had no claim to territory occupied at the time by Jordan, including the Old City of Jerusalem.

The result is that, as usual, BBC audiences are fed a politically partisan account which deliberately omits relevant context.

Related Articles:

BBC News redesigns Jerusalem’s Old City

Inaccuracy and omission in BBC backgrounder on Jerusalem

BBC promotion of PA narrative on Jewish heritage sites

The statement “history is written by the victors” is often attributed to Winston Churchill – although he may well have changed his mind about that had he lived to see some of the modern-day inversions and distortions of Middle East history which are becoming increasingly commonplace. 

We previously addressed here the subject of archaeological excavations in Area C when Yolande Knell conscripted herself to the Palestinian Authority’s publicity campaign on the subject of Herodion, but it is necessary to now revisit that subject  in light of an April 15th article by Raffi Berg entitled “Israel heritage plan exposes discord over West Bank history“. 

Berg heritage

First, the facts. In February 2010 the Government of Israel announced a much-needed long-term plan to invest in the conservation of hundreds of archaeological and heritage sites all over Israel.

“Today, we are due to approve a comprehensive plan, the largest ever, to strengthen the national heritage infrastructures of the State of Israel. We will do four things:

We will rehabilitate archaeological and Zionist heritage sites. We will build and enrich archives and museums. We are talking about approximately 150 sites.

We are due to invest almost NIS 400 million, with the assistance of 16 Government ministries. We will create two trails: An historical trail of archaeological sites from the Biblical, Second Temple and other eras in the history of the Land of Israel and a trail of the Israeli experience that joins the main sites which relate the history of a people’s return to its land.”

Among the sites and projects selected for investment, a handful are located in Area C which, according to the Oslo Accords signed willingly by the representatives of the Palestinian people, remains under Israeli control until the outcome of negotiations stipulates otherwise. Most of those sites are located in areas which according to any reasonable appraisal of the possible outcome of final status negotiations (if and when they ever come about) would remain under Israeli control. 

In his article about this comprehensive conservation project, Raffi Berg chose to ignore well over 90% of the projects, focusing only upon those considered ‘controversial’ by the Palestinian Authority and a politically motivated NGO. The core of Berg’s article bears eerie resemblance to a publication put out in June 2012 by that NGO – ‘Emek Shaveh’ – which was written by Yonatan (Yoni) Mizrachi.

Mizrachi is also featured extensively in Berg’s report, where his organization is given the brief anodyne description of being one which “opposes the “politicisation” of archaeology”.  Perusal of Mizrachi’s above-mentioned publication will quickly bring readers to the understanding that any opposition by ‘Emek Shaveh‘ to the “politicization” of archaeology is, to put it mildly, very selective. In fact, that NGO’s entire raison d’etre is to promote a particular political standpoint through the use of archaeology, as can be seen on its campaigning website and in its contributions to politically motivated campaigns on the subject of Jerusalem

Berg’s failure to accurately inform BBC audiences of the political motivations of ‘Emek Shaveh’ represents yet another in the growing collection of instances in which the BBC advances the agenda of a political NGO, thus compromising its own editorial guidelines on impartiality which clearly state: [emphasis added]

“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

Berg’s article also includes quotes from the PA Ministry of Tourism’s Hamdan Taha.

“The West Bank is an integral part of the history of Palestine,” says Hamdan Taha, director of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. “Netanyahu’s heritage plan is an aggression against the cultural right of Palestinian people in their own state,” as the West Bank’s status is considered to be by many Palestinians.

Mr Taha says the Israeli government’s emphasis on the Jewish historical aspect of some sites is “an ideological misuse of archaeological evidence”.

“Jewish heritage in the West Bank – like Christian or Islamic – is part of Palestinian heritage and we reject categorically any ethnic division of culture.”

Raffi Berg chooses to ignore some of Mr Taha’s more colourful past statements on the subject of archaeology, including his belief that “archaeology can put Palestine on the map, literally and figuratively” and his concurrent and presumably not unrelated denial of Jewish history in Judea and Samaria which is often expressed in less than ministerial terms.

“In Shiloh the settlers pretended to have found the tabernacles,” he [Taha] proclaimed. “They can find the chicken bone my grandfather ate 50 years ago and say it was a young calf for ancient sacrifice.”

Whilst it is not made clear in the article whether or not Raffi Berg is also responsible for the interactive graphic featured under the heading “Israeli national heritage sites in the West Bank”, that graphic includes two historic sites which even the ‘Emek Shaveh’ document from June 2012 does not pretend are included in the project, although they were among the hundreds of additional sites originally proposed. Of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb, ‘Emek Shaveh’ states:

 “However, after reevaluation it was decided not to include the two sites on the list.”

Despite that, the BBC’s graphic inaccurately informs readers otherwise.

Rachel's Tomb

Cave of the Patriarchs

Whilst Berg’s article does nod to the required impartiality by including quotes from a resident of Shiloh, a representative of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the head of the archaeology department of the Civil Administration, the very choice of subject matter and the presentation of heritage projects as having political motivations indicates that the intent of the article is to advance a specific political narrative, ironically by seemingly highlighting an opposing one and by promoting the idea of moral – and historic – equivalence. 

By lending oxygen to the long-existing Palestinian Authority campaign to distort history and deny Jewish connections to what objectively (whatever one’s opinions of the desired form a negotiated settlement to the conflict should take) cannot be seen as anything other than a geographical area steeped in Jewish heritage, Berg is severely compromising the BBC’s reputation for impartiality.