The second item (see the first here) relating to the Balfour Declaration centenary aired on the November 2nd edition of BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme ‘Today‘ was described in the synopsis thus:
“The Balfour Declaration – signed 100 years ago – is reviled by those who campaign for the rights of the Palestinian people and celebrated by supporters of Israel. Nick Robinson reports on the events which led to the declaration and its consequences.”
The item was introduced by co-presenter Nick Robinson (from 01:17:28 here) as follows:
[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Robinson: “Tonight Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli prime minister will join Theresa may at a dinner in London to celebrate the centenary of a letter sent by Lloyd George’s foreign secretary in 1917. His name: Arthur Balfour. Now it may be just 67 words long but the Balfour Declaration as it’s known is not of mere historical interest. To this day it is reviled by many of those who campaign for the rights of the Palestinian people but celebrated by supporters of Israel.”
After listeners had heard a recording from an unidentified event celebrating the Balfour Declaration, Robinson went on to inaccurately paraphrase the document – airbrushing the words “civil and religious” from his portrayal as has been seen on multiple occasions in additional BBC coverage of this story.
Robinson: “One paragraph in one letter written a hundred years ago, here in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, continues to divide people now as much as it did then. That promise of a national home for the Jewish people alongside another – to protect the rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine: was it a masterpiece of ambiguity by Foreign Office mandarins schooled in the art? Or was it a calculated deceit by a colonial power from which the Middle East has yet to recover?”
Robinson’s first interviewee was the current Lord Rothschild whose great-uncle was, as pointed out, “the recipient of that letter”.
Rothschild: “It had been the yearning of the Jewish community for two thousand years to get back to Jerusalem and Palestine and therefore the moral authority of Great Britain at that time was so great that even though this letter is somewhat ambiguous, I think the Jewish community and my forebear believed that this would lead to a national home for the Jews and many Jews would therefore go there.”
Robinson: “You say the document was ambiguous. Some argue that it was deceptive.”
Rothschild: “I mean I don’t think it’s deceptive, no. I think you know that the Jews took over a land, as Mark Twain said, had been a dreary, desolate place in 1867 and through dint of hard work and labour, they made a huge success of it. But they did feel, the Arabs, that they were being dispossessed.”
Robinson then in effect told listeners – inaccurately – that the land on which Israel was later established was in fact Arab/Palestinian.
Robinson: “You say they did feel that they were dispossessed. The truth is they were dispossessed.”
He subsequently introduced the totally irrelevant and materially misleading theme of ‘colonialism’.
Robinson: “So what do you say to those who say that the British government should apologise for it; that this was an act in effect of colonialism?”
Robinson went on to showcase another event relating to the Balfour Declaration centenary organised by a group set up to specifically campaign on the topic.
Robinson: “…something Britain can be proud of. Not the views of those gathered this week in Westminster’s Central Hall to mark what they call Britain’s broken promise.”
Listeners then heard yet another BBC misrepresentation of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.
Robinson: “His Royal Highness Prince el Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. Like Lord Rothschild he’s the descendent of someone who received a letter from a British diplomat a century ago. He’s the great-grandson of the Sherif of Mecca who was told back in 1915 that Britain would support Arab independence in return for their support in the fight against the Ottoman Empire.”
Bin Talal: “While one set of promises was being made to the Arabs, another was obviously being made correspondingly to the international Jewish movement. The Emir Faisal recognised the importance of a pluralist Arab state provided – and here’s the caveat – the Arabs obtained their independence as demanded in earlier memorandum. Sadly, the influence from outside to try and create some semblance of a state and a Jewish home; the desire from those within the region, both Jews and Arabs, to live together was confounded by the pressures of demography from Russia on the one side and from Europe.”
At no point did Robinson explain to listeners that – as clarified in the 1922 White Paper and by Sir Henry McMahon himself – “[t]he whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was […] excluded from Sir Henry McMahon’s pledge”.
Neither were audiences told anything of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement or that bin Talal’s own country – and with it Arab self-determination – was established on 77% of the land originally assigned to the creation of a Jewish national home, after Britain activated Article 25 of the Mandate for Palestine.
Bin Talal went on to claim that the two World Wars “resulted in the importance of making space for others without consulting the main issue of how those others could live side-by-side with the indigenous inhabitants”.
Robinson then asked:
Robinson: “Is it right for the Balfour Declaration to be celebrated as many Jews want it to be, to be marked as the British government says, or is it something that Britain should be ashamed of?”
With apparently no sense of irony – considering that his own country (with considerable British help) attacked the nascent Israeli state the day after its creation and subsequently occupied areas assigned to the Jewish national home by the League of Nations – bin Talal replied:
Bin Talal: “I would rather suggest with all due respect that celebrating is – against the background of the bloodshed in this region on an almost daily basis – rather a strong word.”
Robinson’s next interviewee was the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran who was introduced as someone who “says it’s time the British government recognised Palestine”.
Moran: “I think rather than say apology I’d rather see recognition for the part that Britain played and I think the first step in reparation to that would be recognition of the second state in the two-state solution which is Palestine. The idea that we can achieve real peace without equal players sitting at that negotiation table are…are ridiculous.”
Once again no effort was made to inform listeners of the fact that the Palestinians have turned down repeated opportunities to have their own state alongside the Jewish state.
Listeners next heard from the former Guardian journalist Ian Black who promoted the notion of Jews as a “religious group” rather than an ethnicity or a people.
Black: “The Zionist movement used the language of modern nationalism to say we are one people and we need a land of our own. It had of course the religious and the biblical, the spiritual link to the Holy Land and the tragedy of the story is that that land was claimed and occupied by another people which did not accept that claim. It saw it as an incursion by foreigners who had no right to be there. And those fundamentals remain at the heart of the conflict today.”
Robinson returned briefly to his Jordanian interviewee before closing with messaging implying that the Balfour Declaration has not been implemented.
Robinson: “When Arthur Balfour the foreign secretary wrote his letter – the letter that became the Balfour Declaration – he knew it was controversial. After all, it had been through draft after draft. What he couldn’t know is that a hundred years later the diplomats and the ministers that work in these offices here at the Foreign Office would still be trying to make a reality of his promises.”
And so in this item listeners heard a majority of views from one side of the debate, with Robinson’s own opinions made amply clear. They also again heard inaccurate representation of the Balfour Declaration’s specific reference to the “civil and religious rights” of non-Jewish communities, misleading references to Palestinian ‘dispossession’ and an inaccurate portrayal of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, while all mention of the Jordanian part of the story of the Mandate for Palestine was erased from view.
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BBC report on UK Balfour dinner follows standard formula
More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part one
More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part two
BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part one