BBC Complaints makes it up as it goes along

Back in August listeners to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme heard a report from Yolande Knell on the topic of property transactions carried out by the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.

Inaccurate and partial BBC Radio 4 report from Jerusalem’s Old City

In his introduction to the item presenter Justin Webb told audiences that: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

“The development’s taking place amid a recent increase in settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank…”

We noted here at the time that:

“Webb provided no evidence to support that misleading claim of “a recent increase in settlement building”. Even if his intention was to comment on construction within existing communities rather than to assert that an increased number ‘settlements’ had been recently built, the basis for that claim is unclear because the available statistics run only until the end of March 2019 and they show a decrease in construction completes in Judea & Samaria.

Both Justin Webb and subsequently Yolande Knell told BBC audiences that the story is about “the sale” of properties owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. That is not the case: the story is actually about 99-year leases for three properties (rather than two as claimed by Webb).”

BBC Watch submitted a complaint concerning those issues on August 28th. On September 5th we were informed by BBC Complaints that “it may take a little longer before we can reply”. On September 24th we received a message informing us that “we’ve not been able to reply to your complaint within the time period we aim for”.

On October 2nd we received the following response from BBC Complaints:

“Thank you for contacting us regarding the Today programme, broadcast on Thursday 22nd August.

Firstly, we’re sorry about the delay in getting back to you. We know people appreciate a prompt response and unfortunately we’ve taken longer to reply than usual – please accept our apologies.

We have spoken with the Today programme team about your concerns. In the intro to Yolande’s report we said, “Church leaders and Palestinians in Jerusalem are calling for international pressure on Israel to stop Jewish settlers from taking over two historic properties at the main entrance to the city’s old Christian quarter. The Greek Orthodox Church has filed a new lawsuit trying to overturn a Supreme Court ruling on the sale of their hotels saying it was clear proof of corruption. The developments are taking place amid an increase in settler building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as Yolande now reports.”

While it is correct that the disputed sale of the Imperial Hotel happened around 15 years ago, we consider it was made clear both in the report and in the intro that this report was specifically focussing on the current lawsuit. Yolande also made it clear within her report that Walid Dajani has been renting the lease on the hotel, rather than being the owner of this building.

On your point about the size of the settler population, it is an established fact that number has been increasing over the past decade. The phrasing used is perfectly acceptable in a short intro, where not every detail can be explained.

We hope this has clarified the issues being raised within this report. We don’t consider that this report contained any inaccuracies on these points.”

BBC Watch then submitted a second (Stage 1b) complaint pointing out that although Knell did indeed state that Dajani had been renting the lease on the hotel, in contrast to that one statement, listeners heard three references to the “sale of the hotels”, “bought the building” and “sale of the property” which are inaccurate and misleading.

We also pointed out that although it was claimed in the reply that Justin Webb referred to “an increase in settler building” he did not – he in fact used the words “a recent increase in settlement building” – and we noted that:

“There is a difference between settlers (people) and settlements (places). While the number of people the BBC brands “settlers” may have “been increasing over the past decade” the number of communities of the type the BBC labels “settlements” has not. Webb referred to “settlement building” which reasonable members of the audience would take to mean the building of settlements rather than the number of people living in such communities. Listeners would therefore understand – erroneously – that the number of communities had increased recently and would therefore be misled.”

On October 15th we received a reply which BBC Complaints took it upon itself to declare a Stage 1a response, thereby making up the rules as it goes along.

“Thank you for taking the time to contact us again. We are sorry to learn that you were not satisfied with our earlier response.

I’m sorry you had to come back to us and I appreciate why. We always aim to address the specific points raised by our audience and regret any cases where we’ve failed to do this. Your [sic] previous reply didn’t tackle the exact issue you raised and we’d like to offer you a new response here. The following should now be considered your first reply.”

BBC Complaints then admitted that it had misrepresented Webb’s words in the previous reply.

“We have spoken further with the Today programme about your concerns. They would like to respond with the following:

“We have listened again to the broadcast and you are right to say that the introduction spoke of “a recent increase in settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank” not “an increase in settler building.” We’re sorry for the misquotation in our reply.

You suggest there is a difference “between settlers (people) and settlements (places)” but in this case we think this is a distinction without a difference.

Settlements invariably expand on their existing sites, and last month, for example, the AP news agency reported that in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, authorities had approved 1,861 housing units in East Jerusalem settlements, a 60% increase from the 1,162 approved in the previous two years. The figures, obtained by ‘Peace Now’, showed that 1,081 permits for settler housing were issued in 2017 alone, the highest annual number since 2000.

More generally, the Israeli government has approved approximately 6,100 settlement housing units this year, according to the UN. By comparison, it approved 5,600 housing units in all of 2018.
https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24881&LangID=E
 
Rising Violence, Settlement-Expansion Continue to Spark Israeli-Palestinian Tensions as Talks Remain Stalled, Top Official Tells Security Council
https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/sc13930.doc.htm

As we see the BBC not only cites the notoriously biased UN Human Rights Council and its highly controversial ‘special rapporteur’ but also the partisan political NGO ‘Peace Now.

We also see that the BBC cites third party reports of on-paper-only building permits as ‘proof’ of an increase in building, rather than actual construction completes. As we have noted here in the past, that long existent practice denies audiences of accurate information essential for proper understanding of the topic.

The BBC’s inaccurate and misleading representation of Israeli building – part one

The BBC’s inaccurate and misleading representation of Israeli building – part two

Data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics last month concerning construction in Area C of Judea & Samaria clarifies that the BBC’s claim of “a recent increase in settlement building in…the West Bank” – even if one takes that to mean construction in existing communities – is questionable.

Notably the second response received from BBC Complaints did not address the issue of audiences being misled by Webb’s claim of “a recent increase in settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank”. One would of course expect the BBC (of all media outlets) to have sufficient command of the English language to prevent confusion between three different topics: the size of the ‘settler’ population, the rate of housing construction in existing communities and the number of new ‘settlements’ established.

The BBC Complaints response continues:

“Let me now turn to your previous points about the report itself.
 
It was clear from the report that Mr Dajani’s family were not the owners of the hotel but had been renting the building for decades – it stated that “his father started renting this hotel in 1948 but now Jewish settlers have bought the building” – and that it was in this respect that they would be affected by the sale.  It was also made clear that they had landlords, the Greek Orthodox Church.  Again, we think it is a distinction without a difference to suggest we should have emphasised more than we did that the sale of a lease was involved. The practical impact of the sale of a long-term lease is the same as that of a freehold. In terms of the date of the original, disputed, transaction in 2004, our report clearly focused on the current lawsuit to try to overturn the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the legality of the sale, as the introduction made clear.”

The response then repeats the inaccurate claim of sale of properties:

“You are right to suggest that the sale of Greek Orthodox-owned properties to settlers involved three properties.  But our introduction in fact said “Church leaders and Palestinians in Jerusalem are calling for international pressure on Israel to stop Jewish settlers from taking over two historic properties at the main entrance to the city’s old Christian quarter.” This was correct.  The two, former regal, properties are the New Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hotel, which are both in the Jaffa Gate plaza.
 
There was, as you imply, a third property involved in the lawsuit, a house in the Muslim Quarter, which was bought for $55,000 in 2004 (as opposed to $1.75 million for the two hotel leases).

We do not believe this makes a material difference to the story, and as you know the report clearly focused on the New Imperial Hotel.  The battle is over the two hotels at the entrance to the Old City, and the symbolism of their being occupied by settlers.”

In other words it is clear that the BBC is far more concerned that audiences should understand the politicised “symbolism” of this story than it is with giving them an accurate account of events – or running an efficient and professional complaints system which responds on time and without trying to fob off complainants by misquoting its own content and relying on irrelevant data.

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Inaccurate and partial BBC Radio 4 report from Jerusalem’s Old City

Over the past two years listeners to BBC Radio 4 religious programming have heard a couple of inaccurate and misleading reports on the topic of property transactions carried out by the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.

BBC Radio 4, ‘religious freedom’ and a half-told story

BBC R4 ‘Sunday’ adds more confusion to Jerusalem church story

Listeners to the August 22nd edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme heard another item in that genre which was introduced by presenter Justin Webb (from 43:46 here) as follows:

[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Webb: “Church leaders and Palestinians in Jerusalem are calling for international pressure on Israel to stop Jewish settlers taking over two historic properties at the main entrance to the Old City’s Christian Quarter. The Greek Orthodox Church has filed a new lawsuit to try to overturn a Supreme Court ruling on the sale of the hotels, saying it was clear proof of corruption. The development’s taking place amid a recent increase in settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank as Yolande Knell reports.”

Webb provided no evidence to support that misleading claim of “a recent increase in settlement building”. Even if his intention was to comment on construction within existing communities rather than to assert that an increased number ‘settlements’ had been recently built, the basis for that claim is unclear because the available statistics run only until the end of March 2019 and they show a decrease in construction completes in Judea & Samaria.

Both Justin Webb and subsequently Yolande Knell told BBC audiences that the story is about “the sale” of properties owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. That is not the case: the story is actually about 99-year leases for three properties (rather than two as claimed by Webb).

Knell’s report commenced as follows:

Knell: “There’s a rush of tourists entering Jerusalem’s walled Old City through Jaffa Gate. They’re here to visit the sacred sites of three faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Over the centuries this place has been the crucible of conflict. Today the struggle is between Israelis and Palestinians and I’m looking up at the impressive façade of a nineteenth century landmark which is now on the front line of that. Wow! So this is the Imperial Hotel.”

Knell then introduced her report’s main protagonist – again inaccurately claiming that “the building” has been “bought”.

Knell: “Abu Walid Dajani’s family has lived in Jerusalem for generations. His father started renting this hotel in 1948. But now Jewish settlers have bought the building and he could soon be thrown out.”

The transaction did not occur “now” as claimed by Knell but a decade and a half ago in 2004.

Dajani: “The only thing I wish that God would give me the help and for my children to continue the battle of my life. We’ve been here for the last 600 years and inshallah we will continue.”

Knell then once again inaccurately referred to “the sale of the property” and told audiences of “a corrupt official” despite the fact that in 2017 the Jerusalem District Court ruled that “the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate was unable to establish that the deals, made in 2004 […] were fraudulent or involved bribery” and in June 2019 the Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

Knell: “During a long court battle the landlords – the Greek Orthodox Church – argued the sale of the property for just over a million dollars was carried out by a corrupt official. But Israel’s Supreme Court found it was legal. Mr Dajani says the buyers were driven by ideology.”

Dajani: “Distorted history. Where this is the land that God give. Who gave you? God was never a real estate man. All right; you can buy but you can do a deal in an honest way.”

Knell next claimed that Jerusalem’s Old City is “East Jerusalem”.

Knell: “Outside the hotel local church leaders pray for peace. They’ve appealed to the Vatican, to Moscow and Washington to intervene to stop a Jewish take-over of Christian properties in the Old City. For Palestinians this is also about protecting their presence in East Jerusalem and the idea of creating the capital of their hoped-for future state here.”

Listeners then heard an unidentified man claim that:

Man: “Every small land here in Jerusalem for Palestinians is very important but here is very like main area for tourists to come in so they see the flag, they see like returns to Israeli but it’s not – it’s Palestinian.”

Failing to clarify to listeners that there has never been a Palestinian state – let alone one which had sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem – Knell went on:

Knell: “But come down to the Western Wall – this crowded spot which is the holiest place where Jews can pray – and Israelis have a very different perspective. They see a united Jerusalem as their eternal capital.”

Listeners then heard two vox pop interviews with people who barely speak English replying to Knell’s question “you wouldn’t give up part of Jerusalem for peace with the Palestinians?”.

The Old City is of course not just any old “part of Jerusalem” but Knell made no effort at all to inform listeners of the fact that it is a location where Jews lived for centuries until they were ethnically cleansed by Jordan for a period lasting nineteen years.

Moreover, Knell then went on to promote a politically motivated narrative long embraced by the BBC: the notion that any and all Jews living in the Old City are ‘settlers’ and their homes ‘illegal settlements’.

Knell: [shouting] “A Palestinian woman screams after she’s evicted from her Old City home earlier this year so Jewish students can move in. Settlements are seen as illegal by most countries but Israel disagrees and in East Jerusalem one group – Ateret Cohanim – is behind a lot of the house purchases. Its director Daniel Luria recently told me he hopes to see many more Jews living here.”

Following that short and obviously carefully edited interview, Knell closed her report.

Knell: “Back at the Imperial Hotel an Israeli court worker serves Abu Walid Dajani with a new lawsuit, freezing his assets. The pressure on him from the settlers is mounting. At the heart of this deeply contested holy city, real estate has much more than just a financial value. It has an emotional and political one too.”

Not only did this report repeatedly promote inaccurate information concerning the properties which are ostensibly its subject matter but Yolande Knell has clearly exclusively embraced the Greek Orthodox Church’s narrative.

More gravely, Knell unquestioningly promoted the partisan political narrative she long since adopted with her framing of Old City houses inhabited by Jewish Israelis as ‘illegal settlements’, the inhabitants as ‘settlers’ and her uncritical amplification of the claim that the location is “Palestinian”.

Clearly this report does not meet the standards of either accuracy or impartiality laid down in the BBC’s editorial guidelines.  

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BBC R4 ‘Sunday’ adds more confusion to Jerusalem church story

Listeners to the March 4th edition of the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme ‘Sunday‘ heard a report (from 01:07 here) billed “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopens”. However, not until the very end of that four-minute item did they discover who closed the church in the first place.

Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Stourton: “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was shut for three days earlier this week because of a row between Christian churches and the Israeli authorities. Jordana Miller is based in Jerusalem and reports for ABC News in the United States. […] And this of course is the church which is said to include the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial so shutting it down is a pretty big deal, isn’t it?”

Miller: “Absolutely. This is one of the most visited churches. I mean 2 million Christians visit Israel each year. The vast majority of them are thought to pass through this church. It is where the tomb of Jesus was just renovated this past year. So always on people’s list as one of the kind of spiritual peaks of their visit to the holy land and closing it was heartbreaking. I was reporting outside the church and people came, some were crying saying that they had, you know, waited years and years to visit Israel and to come into this church and they had to pray actually at its wooden doors instead of going inside.”

Stourton: “And as I understand it one of the sources of dispute between the churches and the authorities is the taxes that the church pays on its properties.”

That dispute is of course about taxes that the church has not paid on its properties for years. Listeners were then led to believe that “Israel” – rather than the Jerusalem municipality, as is actually the case – has demanded payment of those taxes.

Miller: “That’s right. The dispute – there are two – one revolves around Israel’s decision to begin to tax the commercial properties of the church. And now this is done in cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa but for a long time there was an exemption on commercial properties that the church operated in Jerusalem – hotels, restaurants – that may be attached to religious institutions and the city decided to start to tax those institutions. Part of the problem is that there doesn’t seem that there was a lot of communication with the church heads and suddenly priests started getting notices, bills and get visits from, you know, tax authorities from the city. So they decided this was unacceptable.”

Obviously that account does not adequately clarify that – as in the UK – the property tax does not apply to “religious institutions” that are places of worship.

Edward Stourton then gave unqualified amplification to messaging put out by church leaders while inaccurately claiming that the proposed bill is “being debated” when in fact the debate had already been postponed nearly a week before this item was aired.

Stourton: “And at the same time there is this legislation being debated which has an impact on the sales of church land. Can you unpack that for us?”

Miller: “Right. This is such a complicated issue but essentially the Greek Orthodox Church has sold lands – they’re actually leases on lands and they were previously held by the Israeli government for let’s say 75, 85, 99 years.”

In fact the Greek Orthodox Church has sold lands – rather than leases – and the related leases were held by the Jewish National Fund rather than “the Israeli government”.

Miller: “And those leases are about to run out in about 30 years and they sold these leases to a private company. We don’t even know that much about the buyers but the problem is that the lands – there are, you know, thousands of Israeli residents that sit…that own…they think they own their homes because even though they technically didn’t buy the land, they assumed it was going to be held in perpetuity by the church.”

The people concerned do own their properties but pay leasehold fees on the land on which they are built.

Miller: “Now suddenly it’s going to transfer into the hands of private companies and they fear they’re going to get evicted, they’re going to have to re-buy the land. So the Israeli government really is trying to step in and buy these leases from the private companies and the church is saying listen, this infringes on who we can sell our property to and so that was another reason they decided to close the church.”

As has been clarified here previously, the proposed bill would mean that:

“…deals to sell the land would have to be approved by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice committee, that buyers would have to be Israeli citizens or Israeli-owned companies, that lease extensions would be dealt with by a national body, the cost of extensions would not be passed onto residents, and in cases where a national institution was not involved in a church land transaction, the state would use the tools at its disposal to protect the residents against losing their homes.”

Stourton continued:

Stourton: “Well clearly a bit of a tangle there and it’s going to take some sorting out. The church is now open again – does that reflect a better relationship or at least an attempt to sort things out?”

Miller: “Well absolutely. I mean the prime minister actually had to step in because he potentially had on his hands a crisis with the Christian world. I mean this is really the most important Christian holy site – one of them – in the world. To keep it closed would have, you know…he would have had a real crisis on his hands. So essentially he carved out a deal where he set up two adminis…two committees basically that will work on sorting both the tax and the land issues. They’re government ministries that will be set up now so under that arrangement the church agreed to reopen its doors.”

In fact no “government ministries” will “be set up”: a government committee has been established to resolve the issue.

This is the second time that Radio 4’s religious affairs programme ‘Sunday’ has covered this subject in just over three months but neither of the two reports have given listeners a clear, accurate and impartial account of the story.

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BBC News amplifies church leaders’ Nazi analogy yet again

The re-opening of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after a three-day closure was the topic of a report that appeared on the BBC News website on February 28th under the headline “Jerusalem: Christianity’s ‘holiest site’ Holy Sepulchre reopens after protest“.

“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has reopened, three days after Christian leaders closed it in protest at plans to tax Church properties in the city. […]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday there would be negotiations to try to resolve the dispute, prompting the mayor [of Jerusalem] to suspend changes.”

The report goes on to mislead readers by stating that:

“Church officials also objected to a bill the Israeli government was considering, which they feared would let the state claim Church-owned land.” [emphasis added]

The bill concerned does nothing of the sort. As the Times of Israel explains, it relates to land already sold by the Church and hence no longer “Church-owned” – as inaccurately claimed by the BBC.

“After the church was shuttered, lawmakers on Sunday postponed for a week a Knesset committee debate on a bill that would allow Israel to confiscate land sold by the churches to private developers in cases where homes had been built on the lands.

The advancement of the legislation, initiated by Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria and backed by the Justice Ministry, is fiercely opposed by church leaders, who have decried what they see as attempts by Israel to limit their ability to buy and sell their only real assets — real estate.

Azaria says her bill seeks to protect hundreds of Israelis, largely in Jerusalem, whose homes are located on land that, until recently, was owned and leased to them by the churches, principally the Greek Orthodox Church — in most cases under 99-year contracts signed in the 1950s between the church and the state, via the Jewish National Fund.

The contracts state that when the leases run out, any buildings on them will revert back to the church. Residents expected that the leases would be extended. But in recent years, in order to erase massive debts, the Greek Orthodox Church has sold vast swaths of real estate to private investors, and nobody knows whether they will renew the leases, and if so, under what conditions.”

As readers may be aware, an issue similar to the one MK Azaria’s bill is intended to tackle currently affects many UK home-owners.

However, as was the case in a previous BBC report on this story, we see later on in the article that the BBC is aware that the statement alleging that the Israeli state would be able to “claim Church-owned land” is inaccurate – once again raising the question of why the corporation elected to knowingly amplify that inaccuracy.

“Supporters of the bill say it is meant to protect Israelis living on former Church land sold to private developers from the risk that these companies will not extend their leases.

Christian leaders say the proposed law would make it harder to sell Church land, a key source of funds.”

Equally remarkable is the fact that the anonymous writer of this BBC report elected to re-amplify a Nazi analogy previously promoted by church leaders even though it did not appear in the statement they put out after Israel announced that a committee would be set up to resolve the issues.

“Branding the bill “abhorrent”, Christian leaders released a joint statement saying it reminded them “of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe”.”

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism – adopted by the British government in 2016 – states that one manifestation of antisemitism is “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”.

The fact that those “Christian leaders” chose to make such an unfounded and abhorrent analogy is of course deeply worrying. The fact that the BBC chose to uncritically amplify that statement twice in the space of three days is of no less concern.

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BBC again amplifies church leaders’ PR hyperbole

Back in November 2017 the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme Sunday presented a highly partisan and inaccurate account of a story involving Israel and the Greek Orthodox Church which listeners were erroneously led to believe is about ‘religious freedom’.

On February 25th 2018 the BBC News website published an article relating to the same story under the headline “Jerusalem: Christianity’s ‘holiest site’ closed in protest” which opened with amplification of a baseless claim that is part of a PR campaign launched by church leaders last November.

“Christian leaders in Jerusalem have taken the rare step of shutting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in protest against a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed property law.

Church leaders have described the legislation as an attack on Christians in the Holy Land.” [emphasis added]

Additional PR messaging – complete with a poorly veiled Nazi analogy – was amplified later on in the report.

“In a joint statement, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church leaders said the church would be closed until further notice.

The protest was launched because Church officials object to a bill the Israeli government is considering, which they fear would let the state claim church-owned land.

Branding the bill “abhorrent”, the leaders said it “reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe”.”

As was explained here last November, the proposed bill is intended to safeguard the rights of residents living in properties constructed on land that was formerly owned by the church but which the church has sold to a third party.

“The main initiative to advance legislation to protect residents is being driven by lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu). Just before the start of the Knesset’s summer recess, she signed 40 MKs onto a private members’ bill to allow the state to confiscate land that has been sold. The confiscation would take effect from January 1, 2018, and the private investors would be compensated.”

Ms Azaria’s bill would mean that:

“…deals to sell the land would have to be approved by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice committee, that buyers would have to be Israeli citizens or Israeli-owned companies, that lease extensions would be dealt with by a national body, the cost of extensions would not be passed onto residents, and in cases where a national institution was not involved in a church land transaction, the state would use the tools at its disposal to protect the residents against losing their homes.”

In other words, although the claim that the bill “would let the state claim church-owned land” is false, the BBC chose to amplify it anyway. Moreover, later on in the report we see that the BBC understands full well that the allegation is baseless.

“Supporters of the bill say it is meant to protect Israelis living on former Church land sold to private developers from the risk these companies will not extend their leases. […]

The legislator promoting the bill, Rachel Azaria, told the BBC: “I understand that the Church is under pressure, but their lands will remain theirs, no-one has any interest to touch them ever.

“My bill deals with what happens when the right over the lands are sold to a third party.””

The BBC’s report goes on to mention another component of the dispute: a disagreement over what would in the UK be classified as the requirement to pay council tax on church-owned property that is not registered as a place of public religious worship.

“They [Church leaders] are also angry about attempts to tax Church property which authorities in Jerusalem view as commercial.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has said the city is owed 650m shekels ($186m; £133m) in uncollected taxes on Church assets.

He said all churches were exempt from the tax changes, and that only Church-owned “hotels, halls and businesses” would be affected.”

The Times of Israel explains:

“…local churches are also protesting being charged millions of shekels in back taxes they say are illegitimate.

That dispute revolves around whether tax exemptions for the churches extend to properties, such as schools and residences, that are not used directly for worship. […]

On Sunday, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat defended efforts to force the churches to pay millions in back taxes to the city. He said that it wasn’t fair that businesses on church property have traditionally been exempt from paying taxes.

“Why should the Mamila Hotel pay taxes and the Notre Dame Hotel, which is just opposite it, be exempt?” he posted on Twitter.”

Obviously the BBC News website’s amplification of church leaders’ PR hyperbole such as claims of an “attack on Christians in the Holy Land” in this ‘he said-she said’ account of the dispute does not contribute to audience understanding of the real – and rather more mundane – background to this story.

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BBC Radio 4, ‘religious freedom’ and a half-told story

 

 

 

 

 

BBC Radio 4, ‘religious freedom’ and a half-told story

The November 19th edition of the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme ‘Sunday‘ included an item described in its synopsis as follows:

“Madeline Davies from The Church Times tells Edward why the Greek Orthodox Church is selling it’s [sic] land in Israel.”

However, as listeners quickly found out, it in fact developed into a story about a draft bill currently awaiting debate in Israel’s Knesset.

Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item (from 14:00 here).

[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Stourton: “In the holy land nothing stirs passions like the land itself. The Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem – Theophilos III – seems to be selling off an awful lot of it. Madeline Davies of the Church Times has been following the story and told me what’s happening.”

Davies: “The Greek Orthodox Patriarchy owns a large amount of land in Israel and it’s really the only source of income that the Patriarch has. They’ve got a lot of costs to cover and they have sold some land in order to cover those costs. There’s really a dispute over some of those sales; whether some of those sales were done with the full permission of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and whether some of them were actually done without the approval of the church and should never have gone through.”

Stourton: “And why is it such a sensitive issue?”

Davies: “It’s really a question about the co-existence in Jerusalem. There’s a desire to ensure that the church is able to control its own land; to make its own decisions about whether it sells it and who to, or whether the government can really intervene in who owns land in the area.”

Stourton then promoted extremely partisan – and inaccurate – framing of the story:

Stourton: “So this to some extent is an issue of religious freedom; it’s about the Patriarch’s ability to act independently.”

Davies: “Yeah. There’s a lot of concern about a draft bill which is before the Israeli parliament which would give the Israeli government the power to confiscate land which the Patriarch has sold to third parties. That’s really one of the big concerns and concern has been expressed by other church leaders in the region about what that would mean for them as well. The bill wouldn’t just apply to the Greek Orthodox Church; it would apply to all churches in the region.”

Stourton: “The other issue for Christians, surely, is the risk that by selling off land the Patriarch diminishes the Christian presence in the holy land.”

Davies: “Yeah. So I think what the Patriarch is arguing is that they own quite a large amount of land and they’ve done this in a very planned and strategic way. They haven’t just flogged land sort of left, right and centre to cover their costs.”

Stourton: “Is everybody happy with that or are there some Christian groups who are…who are still concerned?”

Davies: “So he…ehm…the Patriarch is facing controversy within his own church. There’s particularly some Palestinians concerned land has been sold to Israelis by the church. I think what the Patriarch would argue is that land has also been used to build housing and residences for Palestinian Christians and so it’s not only that, sort of, land has been sold to one particular group.”

Listeners were not told that in fact there is criticism of the Patriarch from Palestinians on additional grounds:

“The protests expose long-standing tensions in the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land. For years, the Greek Orthodox community in Israel has felt the church prevented its local Arab clergy from reaching senior positions, and the leadership of the church has thus remained firmly in Greek hands. The protesters are demanding that the church make major changes and allow Arab clergy to reach the most senior ranks.

Some of the demonstrators even called for an end to Greek patronage of the local Orthodox Church. But the Greek Orthodox Church has yet to show any signs of meeting these demands or deposing Theophilis.”

Stourton continued:

Stourton: “Some of the criticism is not just about the fact of the sale of land but the way he’s doing it.”

Davies: “In, I mean, in the past this land has been leased to Israelis for extremely low sums. And I think the idea is that to by either giving the lease to Israeli property developers or actually giving them the freehold, will actually generate a lot more income than those leases were and that that can really fund some of the core activities of the Greek Orthodox Church.”

Stourton: “Now he’s been here in this country talking to the Archbishop of Canterbury. How does he get wrapped up in all this?”

Davies: “Basically the Patriarch has gone on a tour to drum up support for his case. There’s a lot of concern about the Israeli government’s bill and he’s come over to the UK to try and get Justin Welby and other church leaders to support him and to issue a statement that really says we support the coexistence that exists within Israel and we support the church’s rights to control what it does with its own land.”

Stourton: “And did he get that?”

Davies: “Yeah, so both the Roman Catholic leader Vincent Nichols and Justin Welby have issued statements saying they want to support the status quo, which is really sort of a catch-all term that means we support the right of the church to control its own lands.”

With no effort made to inform listeners that Madeline Davies’ employer, the Church Times, is an Anglican publication Stourton continued: 

Stourton: “And just returning to the bill in Jerusalem; is that something that the government there supports or is this an independent movement?”

Davies: “This has been brought by a number of parliamentarians but it’s unclear yet whether it will actually go through. I think there are concerns that it’s actually being used within coalition, sort of, politics with the government as sort of perhaps to appease certain groups. So it’s still unclear really whether it will go through.”

Stourton: “So he’s really in a very tight position isn’t he? On the one hand he’s facing criticism from – as you say – within his own church and from some other Christians about the whole land process and on the other side he’s under pressure from Israeli politicians.”

Davies: “Yeah. He’s in a really difficult position and I think that’s really why he’s trying to gather solidarity from Christians in the West just to try and say no; this is about more than just a property dispute. This is actually about the church’s rights in the region, their ability to coexist with other groups.”

So what is the story really about and did BBC Radio 4’s presentation of it give listeners an accurate and impartial view?

The story actually began some months ago when it emerged that the Greek Orthodox Church had sold tracts of land in Jerusalem to undisclosed buyers.

“The Greek Orthodox Church — the second biggest owner of land in Israel after the Israel Lands Authority — acquired some 4,500 dunams (1,110 acres) of real estate in the center of Jerusalem during the 19th century, primarily for agriculture. In the 1950s, just after Israel’s independence, it agreed to lease its land to the JNF for 99 years — with an option to extend. […]

Somehow, the church managed to secretly sign contracts — the first in 2011, and another in August 2016 — to sell the land to groups of companies about which very little is known […]

The deal came to light when the Greek Orthodox Church petitioned the Jerusalem District Court last week [July 2017] to have the Jerusalem City Council exempt it from payments relating to the 500 dunams it has sold off.”

The sale creates problems for the owners of properties located on that land. 

“The deal has plunged more than 1,000 homeowners into uncertainty because they sublease the land on which their homes are built from KKL-JNF, which currently holds the primary leases. […]

“There is no doubt that the government of Israel cannot allow a situation in which veteran residents are at the mercy of a group of private investors (whose identity is not completely known), without any regulation of the matter,” A KKL-JNF spokesperson told The Times of Israel. […]

If the leases are not renewed when they run out in the early 2050s, the homeowners who have not sold by then risk being forced to leave, to pay potentially high prices to extend leases or even to rent their own homes. The prices of their homes have already been negatively affected.”

The bill inaccurately described by Davies in this item as being “the Israeli government’s bill” is in fact a private members bill proposed by MK Rachel Azaria – formerly the deputy mayor of Jerusalem.

“The main initiative to advance legislation to protect residents is being driven by lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu). Just before the start of the Knesset’s summer recess, she signed 40 MKs onto a private members’ bill to allow the state to confiscate land that has been sold. The confiscation would take effect from January 1, 2018, and the private investors would be compensated.”

Ms Azaria’s bill would mean that:

“…deals to sell the land would have to be approved by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice committee, that buyers would have to be Israeli citizens or Israeli-owned companies, that lease extensions would be dealt with by a national body, the cost of extensions would not be passed onto residents, and in cases where a national institution was not involved in a church land transaction, the state would use the tools at its disposal to protect the residents against losing their homes.”

Remarkably, the residents affected by the Greek Orthodox Church’s land sales in Jerusalem did not even get a mention in this BBC item. Obviously that serious omission is highly relevant because the bill currently awaiting reading in the Knesset which was widely discussed in the item is intended to protect those residents rather than – as claimed in this item – to “confiscate” land or “pressure” the church.

As we see, this report presented an entirely one-sided and distorted account of a story that was repeatedly portrayed as being solely about “the church’s rights in the region” and with absolutely no mention of the other side of the story and the rights of the people affected by the church’s actions. One might also question the timing of this story seeing as it actually broke several months ago but BBC audiences heard nothing about it until various church bodies began a PR campaign

As for Edward Stourton’s claim that “religious freedom” includes real estate deals – that one will surely go down as one of the more ridiculous notions promoted by the BBC.