Yolande Knell’s annual politicisation of Christmas on Radio 4

As usual during the festive season, BBC content on and around Christmas Eve included several politicised reports from Yolande Knell about Christmas celebrations in Palestinian Authority controlled areas.

Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ on December 23rd heard a report (from 10:00 here) about St Nicholas Day which, according to presenter Emily Buchanan “is still widely celebrated and nowhere more so than among the Christians of the Palestinian town of Beit Jala.”

During that report listeners were told by Yolande Knell that:

Knell: “Over the centuries some town’s people claim that St Nicholas has protected them, including in 1948 during the fighting that followed the creation of the State of Israel and the violence of two Palestinian uprisings.”

Although her examples “over the centuries” were limited to events connected to Israel, Knell did not bother to inform listeners that during the Second Intifada Palestinian terrorists used Beit Jala as a position from which to repeatedly attack Israeli civilians in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighbourhood with gunfire and mortars.

In addition to Mishal Husain’s politicised report from the Gaza Strip, listeners to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on December 24th heard a report (from 35:41 here) from Yolande Knell in Bethlehem. [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Justin Webb: “Christian pilgrims from around the world will be attending a Christmas Eve mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity today, built on the site where they believe Jesus was born. Yolande Knell is our correspondent there. What kind of numbers, Yolande?”

Having stated that “thousands of people” were expected to visit, Knell went on:

Knell: “Tourism here has recovered from a big fall that really began in late 2015 after that series of stabbings and car-ramming attacks. According to the Palestinian tourism ministry this has been the busiest year on record for Bethlehem…”

Later on Webb asked:

Webb: “How easy is it for people to get to it if they want to?”

Knell: “Well on Christmas it does become much easier but of course…ehm…for the Palestinians this is one of their great problems especially when it comes to developing tourism as they’re very reliant on Israel…”

Having reported that Bethlehem’s hotels are fully booked, Knell went on:

Knell: “Things are pretty bleak politically for Palestinians. But the message from officials and from regular people alike is that after some tough years – remember last year there was a lot of unrest that marred the Christmas celebrations, led to a lot of parties being cancelled, after President Trump decided to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without recognising Palestinian claims to the east of the city: the part that they want as the capital of their promised future state.”

Similar messaging from Knell was heard by listeners to BBC Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ on December 24th (from 6:04 here) in a news bulletin.

Newsreader: “Thousands of pilgrims have joined Palestinians in Bethlehem for the start of Christmas Eve celebrations. A parade was held in Manger Square with carols sung in Arabic played through speakers. Our Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell sent this report from Bethlehem.”

Having described that parade, Knell told listeners that:

Knell: “Tourism here is often hit by flare-ups in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year many parties were cancelled after President Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without acknowledging Palestinian claims to the eastern part of the city which they want as the capital of their promised future state. This year the political outlook remains bleak but the message from Palestinian officials and locals alike is that this should be a joyful Christmas.”

As documented here last December – 2017’s non-religious festivities were cancelled on the orders of Palestinian officials.

“Church and political officials in Bethlehem and Gaza canceled all non-religious Christmas celebrations in protest over the recent decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“We decided to limit the Christmas celebrations to the religious rituals as an expression of rejection and anger and sympathy with the victims who fell in the recent protests,” said Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman. […]

Christmas celebrations were restricted to religious rituals across the Palestinian territories in protest, the official Palestine TV reported Monday.”

As ever Yolande Knell’s annual Christmas messaging obscures Palestinian actions which affect seasonal tourism in the Bethlehem area. While listeners heard of a “series of stabbings and car-rammings” in 2015 and that tourism is “often hurt by flare-ups in violence”, they were not told who instigated those events, just as they were not informed who ordered the cancellation of Christmas parties last year or of the terrorism launched from Beit Jala in the Second Intifada.

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Documenting BBC amplification of an UNRWA campaign

Among the topics (see ‘related articles’ below) that the BBC chose to promote during 2018 in a manner that went beyond ordinary reporting both in terms of the amount of content produced and adherence to standards of ‘due impartiality’ was that of cuts in US aid to Palestinians – particularly via the UN agency UNRWA.

Nearly two weeks before any official US announcement was made the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ was already framing the topic for listeners in an item that purported to examine the question of “who would lose out the most if President Trump followed through on his threat to cut funding to the Palestinians?”

January 3rd, ‘Newshour’, BBC World Service radio:

BBC WS listeners get a homogeneous view of US aid to Palestinians – part one

BBC WS listeners get a homogeneous view of US aid to Palestinians – part two

“As we see, listeners to this item heard three views in all – two from Palestinians and one from a think-tank fellow with a record of being less than neutral. No American or Israeli views were sought by the programme’s producers. Audiences were told that any cut in US aid to Palestinians would cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse with detrimental results for Israel, European and American interests and the Middle East peace process. They were twice told that the US president is ‘blackmailing’ the Palestinians.”

On January 16th the BBC News website reported that:

“The US is withholding more than half of a $125m (£90m) instalment destined for the UN relief agency for the Palestinians, American officials say.

It will provide $60m in aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) but will hold back a further $65m.”

January 16th, BBC News website:

BBC News report on UNRWA funding story omits relevant background (see also here)

“While…relevant background was withheld, the BBC’s article did amplify reactions from former UN official Jan Egeland and the PLO. […] Obviously BBC audiences cannot reach informed opinions on this particular story so long as the BBC continues to refrain from providing them with the relevant background concerning the long-standing debate surrounding UNRWA that they have been denied for so many years.”

The next morning the top story in the various editions of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newsday‘ was described as follows:

“The US is withholding more than half of a $125m (£90m) instalment destined for the UN relief agency for the Palestinians, American officials say. It will provide $60m in aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) but will hold back a further $65m.”

January 17th, ‘Newsday’, BBC World Service radio:

BBC WS Newsday coverage of UNRWA aid story – part one

BBC WS Newsday coverage of UNRWA aid story – part two

Falsehoods go uncontested on BBC World Service – part one

Falsehoods go uncontested on BBC World Service – part two

The interviewees heard by listeners were as follows:

05:06 edition: Jan Egeland (Norwegian Refugee Council), Chris Gunness (UNRWA)

06:06 edition: Antonio Guterres (UN), Mustafa Barghouti (PLC, PLO)

07:06 edition: Mustafa Barghouti (PLC, PLO), Jonathan Schanzer (FDD)

08:06 edition: Mustafa Barghouti (PLC, PLO), Jonathan Schanzer (FDD)

09:06 edition: Jonathan Schanzer (FDD), Chris Gunness (UNRWA)

10:06 edition: Chris Gunness (UNRWA)

“The majority of the opinions heard…were strongly critical of the [US] decision and the sole exception was in the contributions from Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. […] Obviously that imbalance in itself compromises the BBC’s claim to produce impartial reporting “reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion“. Moreover, listeners heard numerous inaccurate and misleading claims from both Gunness and Barghouti that presenters made no attempt whatsoever to challenge or correct. No attempt was made to raise any of the serious issues surrounding UNRWA’s functioning and agenda despite their clear relevance to the story.” 

The BBC News website published two additional reports on the same story:

January 17th & January 26th, BBC News website:

Three BBC articles on US aid promote an irrelevant false comparison

Four days later, an article by Yolande Knell appeared in the ‘features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page.

January 30th, BBC News website:

BBC’s Yolande Knell amplifies UNRWA’s PR campaign

“…just 72 words in Yolande Knell’s 882 word report were devoted to the provision of superficial background information on UNRWA. […]  While content provided by UNRWA staffers Najwa Sheikh Ahmed and (former BBC employee) Chris Gunness makes up nearly half of Yolande Knell’s 882 word article, once again this PR item amplifying UNRWA’s campaign against the US administration’s reduced donation fails to provide BBC audiences with the full range of impartial information concerning the UN agency that is needed for broader understanding of the story.”

In February UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, was given a long slot on BBC WS radio.

February 19th, ‘Newshour’, BBC World Service radio:

BBC WS facilitates UNRWA PR yet again – part one

BBC WS facilitates UNRWA PR again – part two

“Obviously this interview was not intended to provide BBC audiences with information which would enhance their understanding of the criticism of UNRWA’s mission and performance. Rather, the BBC chose – not for the first time – to provide the UN agency’s head with a friendly platform from which to promote his PR campaign in a near monologue that went unchallenged in any serious manner.”

In May BBC WS radio audiences heard Yolande Knell interview the Jordanian minister of information.

May 9th, ‘Newshour’, BBC World Service radio:

BBC’s special report on Palestinian refugees avoids the real issues

UNRWA’s role in keeping millions of Palestinians in refugee status was not explained to listeners and neither was that of the Arab League.”

The following month listeners to the same programme heard Nada Tawfik promoting UNRWA PR.

June 13th, ‘Newshour’, BBC World Service radio:

Unbalanced promotion of UNRWA PR on BBC World Service radio

“To be honest, it is difficult to imagine how this report could be more unhelpful to BBC audiences trying to understand either the situation in the Gaza Strip, the reasons behind the US decision to withhold part of its voluntary funding of UNRWA or the role and record of UNRWA itself.”

In late August the BBC WS radio programme ‘Newshour’ once again presented preemptive framing of a US announcement that had not yet been made in a long item that included an interview with the Jordanian foreign minister.

August 30th, ‘Newshour’, BBC World Service radio:

An eleven minute BBC WS report on UNRWA funding – part one

An eleven minute BBC WS report on UNRWA funding – part two

“This interview with a senior minister from a country where some 40% of UNRWA clients live could obviously have been employed to provide BBC audiences with much-needed enhancement of understanding of the background to the ‘UNRWA in financial crisis’ story that the BBC has been reporting since January. Unsurprisingly given the corporation’s record on this story, once again that opportunity was passed up.”

The US announcement on August 31st was covered in a written report published on the same day in which readers saw quotes from the Palestinian Authority, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness and the then PLO representative in Washington.

August 31st, BBC News website:

BBC News reporting on US aid cut to UNRWA – part one

“Once again BBC audiences did not see an explanation of the changes to UNRWA’s mission over the years which have created the situation in which the number of people registered as refugees has grown rather than diminished in 70 years.”

That report was replaced by another one the next day.

September 1st, BBC News website:

BBC News reporting on US aid cut to UNRWA – part two

“…16.3% of the report’s word count was given over to criticism of the US decision from various Palestinian factions, including the PLO (together with a link) and the Hamas terror group. An additional 48 words were used to describe Palestinian denunciation of previous unrelated US Administration decisions. A further 13.7% of the report’s word count was devoted to amplification of statements from UNRWA’s spokesman Chris Gunness, meaning that in all, 30% of the article was devoted to informing BBC audiences of condemnations of the US move.”

Listeners to BBC WS radio on the same day also heard from UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.  

September 1st, ‘Newshour’, BBC World Service radio:

BBC WS listeners get more unchallenged UNRWA narrative

“…BBC World Service audiences heard unchallenged UNRWA messaging together with promotion of Palestinian talking points in a long item which once again did little to contribute to their understanding of the background to this story.”

Also in September an edition of a BBC Radio 4 “ethical and religious” programme included an item billed “where politics and morality clash – Edward discusses the cut in funding for Palestinian projects by the US Administration”.

September 23rd, ‘Sunday’, BBC Radio 4:

More to a BBC Radio 4 item on ‘morality’ of aid to Palestinians than meets the eye

“Yet again BBC audiences were denied information concerning UNRWA’s problematic record and were given no insight into the background to its politically motivated perpetuation of the refugee issue. Yet again BBC audiences heard no discussion of why citizens of the Gaza Strip and PA controlled areas are classified as refugees and deliberately kept dependent on foreign aid.

However, in this item Radio 4 listeners heard more than an academic discussion. They heard a significant contribution from the “head of marketing and fundraising” at an NGO that is raising money for this particular cause – a cause that was repeatedly portrayed to the Sunday morning audience as the right “moral” choice.”

As the above examples show, the BBC’s coverage of this story was both generous and blatantly one-sided. While repeatedly providing platforms for UNRWA officials and supporters, the corporation made no effort to explain the issues at the root of the long-standing debate surrounding UNRWA that are the context to the story.

In other words, the BBC’s approach to this story, which ran for much of 2018, was to self-conscript to a political campaign rather than to provide audiences with the full range of information necessary for them to reach their own informed opinions on the topic.

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More to a BBC Radio 4 item on ‘morality’ of aid to Palestinians than meets the eye

The September 23rd edition of the BBC Radio 4 “ethical and religious” programme ‘Sunday‘ included an item (from 19:23 here) described in its synopsis as follows:

“And where politics and morality clash – Edward discusses the cut in funding for Palestinian projects by the US Administration with Nigel Varnell [sic] of Embrace the Middle East and Sarah Elliott from Republicans Overseas.”

The charity representative is actually called Nigel Varndell.  Listeners were not provided with any information concerning the “particular viewpoint” of the charity ‘Embrace the Middle East’ as required under BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality.

Right at the beginning of the programme presenter Edward Stourton told listeners:

Stourton: “Charities are trying to plug the gap left by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw funding for Palestinian refugees. We’ll debate the morality of that decision with one of the charities involved and a Trump supporter.”

The long item itself was introduced by Stourton as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Stourton: “A group of charities have declared they’re trying to plug the funding gap left by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw American support for the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees. Nigel Varndell is head of marketing and fundraising for the charity ‘Embrace the Middle East’ and Sarah Elliott chairs the London-based group ‘Republicans Overseas’. Nigel Varndell told me how his charity is trying to help.”

After Varndell had told listeners about his own charity’s £25,000 contribution to a “Catholic health development” project run in “some of the poorest areas of Gaza” by the Vatican-run NGO ‘Caritas‘, Stourton asked:

Stourton: “What do you think the overall impact of the Trump administration’s policy is going to be?”

Varndell: “Well if you look at the overall impact, we’re talking about $200 million potentially of US aid cuts. Also cuts into UNRWA – the United Nations agency – that could be hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re already hearing of cuts to hospitals in East Jerusalem that deal with Palestinians and also money for co-existence projects. Now if you begin to look at the impact of that purely in somewhere like Gaza, that might mean something like 500 to 600 schools closing. That could be 22 health centres in Gaza that might be forced to close. That might be cuts to employment for people who work for UNRWA – maybe another 10 to 12 thousand jobs in an area that already suffers from huge unemployment. It’s going to be very significant.”

Stourton then asked his second contributor:

Stourton: “Sarah Elliott; given what we’ve just heard how do you possibly justify this policy?”

Sarah Elliott mentioned the possibility of other donors stepping up before going on to bring up a topic usually avoided by the BBC – Palestinian Authority funding for terrorists and their families.

After Stourton stated that “the vast majority – all this money – goes to legitimate aid projects, doesn’t it?”, Elliott brought up the topic of UNRWA textbooks, to which Stourton retorted “can you give me evidence for that?”. Elliot’s subsequent mention of weapons discovered in UNRWA schools produced no reaction from Stourton, who went on to ask Varndell for his input.

Stourton: “Well I want to hear from Nigel Varndell now. Well what is your response to the suggestion that this money doesn’t always go to legitimate purposes and is – I suppose contaminated seems to be the accusation – by the political nature of the region?”

Varndell told Radio 4 listeners “that money’s not going astray” and that “we’re talking about education for children, health care for sick people”.

Notably, neither he nor Stourton brought up the fact that aid provided to what Varndell termed “development organisations” frees up the Palestinian Authority’s budget for rewarding terror and Hamas’ budget for expansion of its terror capabilities such as cross border tunnels.

After Sarah Elliott had spoken about transparency and American priorities, Stourton brought up the topic of ‘morality’.

Stourton: “Do you think it’s moral to take money back from various projects that have been…people have got used to, providing them with health, education and so forth?”

He went on to interrupt Elliott’s answer to that question:

Stourton: “Can I…can I just…ahm…point out to you one area where people are suspicious about this, which is the fact that a lot of the money that’s being withdrawn is going to the refugee agency and there is a view that actually this is political; this is about trying to remove the issue of Palestinian refugees and their right of return from the political process.”

Listeners heard nothing on the relevant topic of unique automatic hereditary status for Palestinian refugees or that the so-called ‘right of return’ actually means eradication of the Jewish state and scuppers any chance of a two-state solution to the conflict.

They did however hear Nigel Varndell opining that “it’s deeply immoral to try and use the poorest and the most vulnerable people in Gaza as pawns in a political game” before he went on to make a problematic claim.

Varndell: “This is an area – one of the few areas in the world where under-5 child mortality is not going down in spite of the millennium development goals and everyone’s commitment to those.”

Listeners were not told that Varndell’s claim concerning child mortality rates is sourced from UNRWA itself or that since 2015 UNRWA has been making spurious claims of a connection between child mortality and Israeli counter-terrorism measures which do not stand up to scrutiny. He continued:

Varndell: “What we’re talking about is punishing those people and I was in Gaza in May. I was talking to children, women who have no access to healthcare other than that provided by aid agencies. And to try and say to them that they need to be political pawns in this is completely immoral and I would say wrong.”

Stourton: “And that is what you’re doing, Sarah Elliott, isn’t it?”

Elliott: “No, no, no. It’s what their political leaders are doing. There’s no reason why that region should have 80% of their people on aid. And I think that their political leaders are keeping them down in order to push their own agenda.”

Rather than relating to the issue of why people who live under the rule of fellow Palestinians should be classified as refugees and why the Palestinian Authority and Hamas do not provide education and healthcare for those people, Stourton steered the focus back to the micro:

Stourton: “But the impact of what’s happening at the moment is indeed about people on the ground. […] Let me put this to you please: the people who Nigel Varndell has been talking about are the ones who are going to suffer as a result of this policy, aren’t they?”

Following Elliott’s response, Stourton gave the last word to Varndell who praised the “moral leadership” of British government departments in relation to a pledge of increased funding to UNRWA before closing with threatening speculation:

Varndell: “…it must be moral to keep funding these kind of aid development projects. We need to keep doing that or people like those I met in Gaza in May will lose their lives, their healthcare, their education and their hope. And arguably that will drive them into the hands of extremists and make this worse and more unstable for Israel, for Palestinians, for everyone.”

Given that the BBC’s coverage of the topic of the US decision to cut donations to UNRWA and other projects has been uniformly superficial, it would be easy to dismiss this item as more of the same.

Yet again BBC audiences were denied information concerning UNRWA’s problematic record and were given no insight into the background to its politically motivated perpetuation of the refugee issue. Yet again BBC audiences heard no discussion of why citizens of the Gaza Strip and PA controlled areas are classified as refugees and deliberately kept dependent on foreign aid.

However, in this item Radio 4 listeners heard more than an academic discussion. They heard a significant contribution from the “head of marketing and fundraising” at an NGO that is raising money for this particular cause – a cause that was repeatedly portrayed to the Sunday morning audience as the right “moral” choice.

Obviously it would therefore have been appropriate for Edward Stourton to have explained to BBC Radio 4 audiences listening to this item why a PR firm that describes ‘Embrace the Middle East’ as one of its clients claims to have been involved in the item’s production – and what that entailed.

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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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The BBC’s Christmas message: Trump ruined it – part one

As documented here earlier this month, the BBC began telling its audiences that the US president had ruined Christmas for Palestinians just hours after his announcement recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was made on December 6th.

At the same time, multiple BBC platforms promoted copious numbers of reports and news bulletins claiming that the US statement would spark violent reactions that were portrayed as being inexorable and irresistible. When reporting on rioting and other acts of violence, including missile fire at civilian communities in Israel, the BBC made sure that audiences were told that ‘reason’ for the violence was Donald Trump’s announcement – rather than the choices made by the people who chose to engage in such acts of violence. 

Two and a half weeks later, we see that the BBC is still perpetuating those themes in its Christmas reporting from Bethlehem.

Listeners to the December 24th edition of the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme ‘Sunday‘ heard a report from the Jerusalem bureau correspondent Yolande Knell (from 14:47 here) that was introduced by presenter Edward Stourton with a dollop of political messaging.

Stourton: “Later this morning the head of the Latin Catholic church in Jerusalem will, in accordance with tradition, set off on a journey to Bethlehem where he’ll celebrate midnight mass tonight. Bur these days the route means he’ll have to go through Israel’s West Bank separation barrier: a reminder that even at Christmas the politics of the place aren’t far away.”

Yolande Knell told listeners that:

Knell: “Santa hat sellers are out in force and all around me there’s a riot of multi-coloured lights. But something is missing: the tourists. Many have cancelled their planned visits here in just the past few weeks because of growing unrest. There have been days of clashes by an Israeli military watchtower built into the high wall at the edge of Bethlehem: part of Israel’s separation barrier. Young Palestinians throw stones and Israeli soldiers fire tear gas. Similar scenes have unfolded at other flashpoints across the West Bank.

While Israel welcomed Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as its capital, saying this reflected Jewish history and the modern reality, Palestinians are furious. They want occupied East Jerusalem to be the capital of their promised future state and say the US has disqualified itself as a mediator for peace talks.

[sound of church bells] Back by the Nativity Church I’ve been talking to local Christians. One woman spoke of her frustration after her son and his family – who live overseas – decided at the last minute not to come home for Christmas, fearing trouble. And a hotelier complained that Bethlehem got all dressed up for Christmas and all of a sudden the streets are empty.”

In a filmed report that appeared on the BBC News website on December 24th under the title “Bethlehem celebrates Christmas amid heightened tensions” Jerusalem bureau correspondent Tom Bateman told audiences:

Bateman: “Well the crowds have turned out in their hundreds for the day but the numbers are much lighter than in previous years. And that’s because tourism has taken a severe dent here because of fears over clashes that have taken place in the last few weeks in the occupied West Bank ever since Donald Trump announced that the US officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

The synopsis to another filmed report – “Bethlehem Christmas: Church of the Nativity hosts pilgrims” – posted in the early hours of December 25th tells BBC audiences that:

“Fewer people than usual were in the West Bank town because of increased tensions between Palestinians and the Israeli army since US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

Interestingly, BBC Christmas reporting from Bethlehem has in previous years also included comment on the number of tourists visiting the town. BBC audiences have repeatedly been told sad tales of dwindling crowds that have been attributed to a variety of (inevitably Israel related) factors.

For example, in 2012 BBC audiences heard that:

“We understand around 70,000 people will have visited Bethlehem by the end of the day – those numbers actually down on last year, we think, by around 40,000 or so. So some concerns about the economy and tourism here…” 

“And Christmas is also big business here – or it should be. But this year not everyone is buying. The Palestinian economy is struggling.”

“Actually Bethlehem is not doing well economically. It suffers from a high rate of unemployment, suffers from the occupation.”

In 2015 BBC audiences were told of “dampened” celebrations that were attributed to a wave of Palestinian terrorism that was portrayed by the BBC in euphemistic language – with no mention of the Palestinian Authority’s instructions to limit celebrations.

“Celebrations are taking place in the West Bank town where it is believed that Jesus was born. However this year they are overshadowed by the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence that shows no signs of abating. […] Like many Palestinian Christians, Mary thinks the holiday spirit is dampened this year and that festivities will be relatively low-key.”

And:

“Even as visitor numbers continue to dwindle Christmas upon Christmas, this year the reason is pretty clear: the tensions that have washed over Israel and the occupied territories show no sign of abating.”

However this year it’s not ‘the occupation’, ‘the wall’ or ambiguous ‘tensions’ that have caused allegedly low numbers of visitors to Bethlehem at Christmas: this year the BBC has decided that the blame should be laid at the door of Donald Trump.  

However, one BBC programme went a little off message– as we will see in part two of this post.

Related Articles:

Documenting five years of BBC politicisation of Christmas

Palestinian falsehoods on Christianity amplified by BBC’s Plett Usher

The BBC, violence and promotion of linkage – part one

The BBC, violence and promotion of linkage – part two

 

 

Another BBC report on Iraqi Jews omits the Farhud

The December 3rd edition of the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme ‘Sunday’ included an item (from 16:05 here) described as follows in the synopsis:

“The story of what happened to the last Jews of Iraq is the subject of a new documentary “Remember Baghdad”. Edward talks to David Dangoor about his great grandfather who was a former Chief Rabbi of Baghdad.”

However, as was the case in a previous BBC World Service radio item on the same topic, listeners expecting to get an answer to the question of what happened to the ancient Iraqi Jewish community would have been disappointed. Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item:

Stourton: “The story of the last Jews of Baghdad is told in the documentary which is being screened in selected cinemas from tomorrow to mark the 100th anniversary of Britain’s seizing control of the city. It was one of the great world centres of Judaism from the days of Nebuchadnezzar right up to the 1940s and 50s. The film – Remembering [sic] Baghdad – explores that history through the eyes of some of the Jews who left. David Dangoor was one such and he told me how he remembers the city.”

Listeners heard Mr Dangoor’s portrayal of a “good life” with a “rich cultural tapestry” before Stourton went on to ask about “relations with the city’s Arabs” and to what extent Jews were “integrated”. Mr Dangoor told of joint business ventures between Jews and Arabs before saying that:

“During the troubles, many Jewish people were given refuge and protection by their Muslim friends.”

Listeners did not however hear what those “troubles” actually were.

After Stourton had asked questions about Mr Dangoor’s great-grandfather and his mother – the first ‘Miss Baghdad’ – he went on to inaccurately claim that the idyllic life portrayed so far had ended because of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Stourton: “You, I think, were born in the year that the State of Israel came into being. What began to change then?”

Dangoor: “We need to remember that Zionism, which is Jewish nationalism, grew at the same time as Arab nationalism in the early part of the 20th century. So it became a point of contention in many Arab countries between Jewish people in Arab countries and their Muslim neighbours. There were clashes from time-to-time and that began to become a bigger problem until of course in 1948, as you say, the Jewish state was formed and the enmity grew. Jews were seen as potential spies for what they called the Zionist entity and there was some hostility.”

In the rest of the item listeners heard how Mr Dangoor’s family left Iraq in 1958 after the murder of the royal family, of his nostalgia for Baghdad and how he believes Jews will one day return to Iraq.

Nowhere in this item, however, did listeners hear a proper explanation of the Farhud pogrom that took place seven years before Israel came into being and was the real turning point that triggered the demise of the Jewish community in Iraq.

Once again we see that on the rare occasions when the BBC does produce content relating to the topic of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands, it fails to tell a complete story.

Related Articles:

BBC WS claims Israeli ‘pressure’ and ‘incentives’ led Jews to flee Iraq

 

 

 

An overview of BBC coverage of the Balfour Declaration centenary

On October 24th 2017 the PLO’s negotiations affairs department put out a document titled “A Century of Injustice: Q and A on Palestine and the Balfour Declaration”. As well as the theme of ‘injustice’ promoted in its title, the document promotes additional messaging aimed at advancing the PLO’s narrative by portraying the Balfour Declaration as:

  • a ‘colonialist’ act that brought about the ‘colonisation’ of Palestine.
  • a ‘promise’ Britain had no right to make and for which it has not assumed responsibility.
  • ignoring the existence of an Arab majority in Palestine at the time and violating their right to self-determination.
  • having caused the Palestinian refugee issue termed the ‘Nakba’.
  • having brought about a situation in which there is allegedly one state (Israel) with two separate systems and no equal rights for non-Jews.
  • a document Britain is wrong to celebrate and for which it must atone by recognising a Palestinian state and taking a stand against ‘settlements’.

There is of course nothing new about those talking points; as PMW director Itamar Marcus has explained, they have been promoted by the Palestinian Authority for years.

“For the PA, the Balfour Declaration is a necessary component of the Palestinian narrative. The two foundations of Palestinian ideology, both fictitious, are that a Palestinian nation existed for thousands of years and that there never had been a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. But this left one problem: The PA needed to explain to its people why millions of Jews had immigrated from Europe and all over the world, if they had no connection to the land.

The PA’s answer is colonialism, and Balfour is the “proof.”

According to the PA’s adjusted narrative, Balfour and Britain’s support were not one step in the growing Zionist movement, but the beginning of all Jewish history in the land. […]

Defining Israel as a European colony is a fundamental and essential component of PA myth-building, and has been part of the PA narrative since the early years of the PA. […]

In honor of the 100th anniversary of this important document, the PA decided to make the Balfour Declaration and denial of Israel’s right to exist its primary messaging this year.

Mahmoud Abbas is taking the lead with public statements such as: “It must be emphasized that the historical injustice that was caused to our people, and which continues to accumulate, began in fact with the ominous Balfour Promise. Therefore, we call on the government of Britain to bear its historical and moral responsibility and not mark and celebrate the 100th anniversary of this invalid promise. Instead, it must submit an apology to our Palestinian people…””

Between October 1st and November 2nd 2017 the BBC broadcast and published remarkably generous coverage of the Balfour Declaration centenary on its various platforms that included the following:

1) October 1st, BBC Radio 4, ‘Sunday’:

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part one

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part two

2) October 8th, BBC Radio Wales, ‘All Things Considered’:

BBC Radio Wales on the Balfour Declaration – part one

BBC Radio Wales on the Balfour Declaration – part two

3) October 28th, BBC Radio 4, ‘The Week in Westminster’:

MEMO Balfour event participant hosts BBC Radio 4 discussion on Balfour Declaration

4) October 31st, BBC Two, “The Balfour Declaration: The Promise to the Holy Land”, Jane Corbin:

BBC’s Corbin sidesteps prime issues in Balfour reports – part one

BBC’s Corbin sidesteps prime issues in Balfour reports – part two

5) October 31st, BBC News website, “The Balfour Declaration: My ancestor’s hand in history“, Jane Corbin:

BBC’s Corbin sidesteps prime issues in Balfour reports – part one

BBC’s Corbin sidesteps prime issues in Balfour reports – part two

6) November 1st, BBC News website, “Balfour Declaration: Banksy holds ‘apology’ party for Palestinians”:

More Balfour Declaration agitprop promotion on the BBC News website

7) November 1st, BBC World Service radio, ‘Newshour’, Yolande Knell:

More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part one

More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part two

8) November 2nd, BBC News website, “Balfour Declaration: The divisive legacy of 67 words“, Yolande Knell:

More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part one

More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part two

9) November 2nd, BBC News website and BBC television, “‘Er… Sorry’: Banksy’s new West Bank work”:

More Balfour Declaration agitprop promotion on the BBC News website

10) November 2nd, BBC News website and BBC television, “Palestinians call for Balfour Declaration apology”, Tom Bateman:

BBC’s Bateman amplifies PLO’s Balfour agitprop

11) November 2nd, BBC News website and BBC television, “Balfour Declaration: 100 years of conflict”, Yolande Knell:

BBC News portrays propaganda installation as a “museum”

12) November 2nd, BBC News website, “Balfour Declaration: Theresa May hosts Israeli PM for centenary“:

BBC report on UK Balfour dinner follows standard formula

13) November 2nd, BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’:

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part one

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part two

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part three

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part four

14) November 2nd, BBC World Service radio, ‘Newshour’:

BBC WS ‘Newshour’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part one

BBC WS ‘Newshour’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part two

Most of that BBC content adopted and amplified PLO framing of the Balfour Declaration as an ‘injustice’ and advanced the notion that Britain should apologise for the century-old document.

Only five items out of the fourteen accurately informed BBC audiences that the Balfour Declaration’s ‘second part’ – which was for the most part presented as being ‘incomplete’ and ‘unfinished business’ – specifically refers to the “civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities” rather than, as was inaccurately claimed in the rest of the content, rights in general.

With the exception of two of the items, the fact that the vast majority of the Palestinians living in Judea & Samaria and the Gaza Strip do so under Palestinian rule and hence have political rights under that system was erased from audience view.

The narrative of the Balfour Declaration as ‘colonialism’ and an act that Britain had no right to carry out was repeatedly advanced in many of these items, as was the claim that the British government should take a stand against ‘settlements’. The anti-Israel BDS campaign was promoted in two of the items.

The notion that Palestinians were ‘dispossessed’ of ‘their land’ by the Balfour Declaration and that the document was the cause of the ‘Nakba’ was repeatedly promoted in many of these reports. In four of the items BBC audiences were given inaccurate portrayals of the McMahon correspondence and the false notion that the land assigned to creation of a homeland for the Jewish people had already been promised to the Arabs by the British was promoted.

In only one item did BBC audiences hear a reference (not from a BBC journalist) to the significance of Jordan as a location in which the political rights of Arab communities in the area known as Palestine at the time were fulfilled. The part of the Balfour Declaration safeguarding “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” was erased from BBC coverage, along with the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands.

Sadly for the BBC’s reputation as an ‘impartial’ media organisation, it is all too obvious that the editorial approach adopted throughout the corporation’s remarkably generous coverage of the Balfour Declaration centenary bears an uncanny resemblance to the PLO’s political narrative concerning that topic.

 

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.

 

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part two

In part one of this post we saw how an item by Trevor Barnes relating to the Balfour Declaration that was aired in the October 1st edition (from 18:14 here) of the BBC Radio 4 ethics and religion show ‘Sunday‘ promoted assorted historical inaccuracies.  

Trevor Barnes’ fourth interviewee likewise began by promoting an inaccurate claim, suggesting (from 21:10) that “Israel and Palestine” were British colonies.

“I think Britain doesn’t come out of any of the colonial history of Israel and Palestine in that good a light.”

Barnes: “Chris Rose – director of the Amos Trust; a Christian organisation working in the West Bank and Gaza.”

That description of the Amos Trust is grossly inadequate and fails to inform listeners of that NGO’s political agenda and anti-Israel activities as BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality require.

Rose: “Even Balfour himself a couple of years later on said that Zionism be right or wrong is more important than the wishes of the 700,000 Arabs. Our call is to the British Government now, if it is determined to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, to do so in the only real meaningful way by working tirelessly for full equal rights for everybody who calls it home.”

The statement by Lord Balfour shoddily paraphrased by Chris Rose (who has in the past attributed Palestinian terrorism to “high unemployment and poor amenities“) comes from a memorandum written by Balfour in 1919 and its context – the question of the selection of mandatories in various regions of the Middle East – is important. 

“Without further considering whether the political picture drawn by the Covenant [of the League of Nations] corresponds with anything to be found in the realms of fact, let us ask on what principle these mandatories are to be selected by the Allied and Associated Powers

On this point the Covenant speaks as follows:—

‘The wishes of these communities (i.e., the independent nations) must be a principal consideration in the selection of a mandatory.’

The sentiment is unimpeachable; but how is it to be carried into effect? To simplify the argument, let us assume that two of the ‘independent nations’ for which mandatories have to be provided are Syria and Palestine? Take Syria first. Do we mean, in the case of Syria, to consult principally the wishes of the inhabitants? We mean nothing of the kind. According to the universally accepted view there are only three possible mandatories—England, America, and France. Are we going ‘chiefly to consider the wishes of the inhabitants’ in deciding which of these is to be selected? We are going to do nothing of the kind. England has refused. America will refuse. So that, whatever the inhabitants may wish, it is France they will certainly have. They may freely choose; but it is Hobson’s choice after all.

The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the ‘independent nation’ of Palestine than in that of the ‘independent nation’ of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are. The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Referring to Chris Rose, Trevor Barnes continued – with noteworthy use of the word Jewish rather than Israeli:

Barnes: “His claim is that the second half of the declaration has still to be honoured. While the first half favoured a Jewish homeland, the second reassured explicitly – quote – ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’ which Chris Rose says hasn’t happened in practice, though for the Board of Deputies Richard Verber defends the Jewish record on religious freedom post-Balfour.”

Verber: “Well there are many cases in Israel proper where religions do indeed co-exist in harmony. Jerusalem has its flash-points but you go and you see Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bahai, Druze walking around. Many have their own areas and places of worship. Israel is of course the only place in the Middle East where Christians are free to worship without persecution.”

Rose: “If you live in Bethlehem you may well not be able to go up to Temple Mount to pray, to worship. If you want to go and worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you pretty won’t be able to do that and so while yes there’s religious freedom in that respect, there has to be recognised that there’s also major constrictions on freedom of movement which restricts people from having their religious freedom.”

Unsurprisingly Chris Rose did not bother to tell listeners that residents of Bethlehem and other areas that have been under Palestinian Authority control for over two decades can apply for permits to visit religious sites in Jerusalem (among other reasons) or that “constrictions on freedom of movement” are the unfortunate outcome of Palestinian terrorism. While Trevor Barnes did tick the impartiality box by paraphrasing the Israeli view, he too failed to make any reference to Palestinian terrorism. Listeners were then told that Jewish self-determination is a “hotly contested concept”.

Barnes: “Chris Rose of the Amos Trust. For its part the Israeli government has repeatedly said that such restrictions as there are are driven solely by security concerns and by the imperative legitimately to ensure the country’s survival. And in essence, says Richard Verber, the right of Israel to exist in the first place is at the heart of any religious definition of that hotly contested concept Zionism.”

Verber: “Zionism is a religious imperative. It’s a core belief in Judaism today. The word Zionism is clearly a newer invention – we’re talking here 19th century – but the idea of there being a desire among the Jewish people to have autonomy in their own homeland dates back 3,300 years when the Jewish people first entered what was then the land of Canaan – Cna’an. I think Jewish people have long understood the importance of living alongside their religious brethren; whether that be Christian or Muslim or indeed any other stripe or people of no faith at all.”

Barnes: From its inception Zionism itself did not have the backing of all Jews – especially religious Jews who argued that a return to the land of Israel was to be the work of the Messiah and couldn’t be engineered by any human agency. Events of the Second World War and the Holocaust, however, put paid to many reservations and the promise of the Balfour Declaration was made actual in 1948. Indeed Richard Verber for the Board of Deputies argues that the founders of the State of Israel referenced the Balfour Declaration, repeating and reinforcing a commitment to civil and religious freedom. The Amos Trust, however, isn’t convinced and they’ve launched a campaign ‘Change the Record’ calling for equal rights for all in the holy land.”

Listeners then heard a recording promoting that political campaign currently being run by the inadequately presented political NGO: a campaign which aims to persuade the British government that “the seeds of today’s injustice, inequality and violence were sown by the Balfour Declaration in 1917”. 

Barnes went on to say:

Barnes: “Those celebrating – rather than mourning – the Balfour Declaration dispute that reading of events. But either way Nicolas Pelham says it changed the religious make-up not just of Palestine but of much of the Middle East.”

Pelham: “Until the Balfour declaration, under the Ottoman Empire religious communities had lived essentially as that – as holy communities – and what the Balfour Declaration does is to transform religious communities into religious national movements so that instead of sharing space they have conflict over space. Instead of having holy communities in the region, we have holy lands and the battle between sects for control of the land.”

Listeners to this unbalanced item heard inaccurate and blatantly politicised ‘history’ and were steered towards the false impression that the Middle East was a region blessed with idyllic inter-religious harmony until the day Arthur Balfour put pen to paper. They were also informed that Jewish self-determination is a “contested concept” and exposed to an ongoing political campaign run by a partisan NGO that engages in delegitimisation of Israel.

How this item by Trevor Barnes can be said to meet BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality is unclear.  

Related Articles:

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part one

Reviewing BBC portrayal of the Balfour Declaration

BBC’s ME Editor misrepresents the Hussein-McMahon correspondence

BBC’s Connolly contorts Israeli – and British – history to fit his political narrative

 

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part one

Despite the fact that it claims to take “a look at the ethical and religious issues of the week”, the October 1st edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday‘ included an item purporting to examine the “impact of the Balfour Declaration on religious communities in the Middle East”.

Presenter Emily Buchanan introduced the segment (from 18:14 here) as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Buchanan: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of a letter that changed the face of Middle Eastern politics forever. The Balfour Declaration – written by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917 at a critical period in the First World War – expressed for the first time Britain’s commitment to a national homeland for the Jews. It paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel 30 years later but what effect did the declaration have on the religious make-up of the region? Trevor Barnes reports.”

Interestingly, neither Buchanan nor any of the five other people from whom listeners subsequently heard talking about this topic bothered to mention the event that was arguably more significant in ‘paving the way’ towards the creation of Israel – the San Remo Conference – and the resulting Mandate for Palestine.

Trevor Barnes introduced his first contributor thus:

Barnes: “Whether you celebrate the Balfour Declaration, merely commemorate it or actively fulminate against it depends on the political and religious position you take. Eugene Rogan: professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Oxford.”

Rogan: “For anybody whose political aspirations are fulfilled by Zionism then obviously the Balfour Declaration was the essential first step in that direction. But for the Palestinian Arab people whose land was being promised away by the British government at the height of the First World War without their consent, without consultation, it’s been an unmitigated catastrophe from the outset.”

At the time that the Balfour Declaration was written the land concerned was of course under the control of the Ottoman Empire and had been for five hundred years. Subsequently that region came under British control during the First World War and later was declared mandate territory. Just last month the BBC acknowledged that the area was not ‘Palestinian land’ but nevertheless we see Eugene Rogan allowed to promote that myth again, even though Barnes went on to reference the Ottoman Empire in the very next sentence.

Barnes: “Precise figures are disputed but in 1917 in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the region is reckoned to have comprised some 85% Muslim, around 10% Christian and 5% Jewish populations. Nicolas Pelham: Middle East correspondent at the Economist.”

Pelham: “It was a region that was remarkably heterogeneous. It had a predominance of Muslims but there were also large Christian communities and Jewish communities – largely sharing the same cities and towns and public space. There was no real distinct sort of Christian Quarter and Jewish Quarter and Muslim Quarter before the Balfour Declaration.”

The staggering inaccuracy of that latter claim from Nicolas Pelham is of course evident in maps such as those appearing in Sir Martin Gilbert’s Jerusalem Historical Atlas.

Trevor Barnes continued, enlisting a British Jewish representative to paint an idyllic picture of Jewish-Muslim co-existence.

Barnes: “Relations, he says, if not always cordial were manageable in the main. Richard Verber: senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.”

Verber: “Pockets of friendship and, unfortunately, pockets of violence. On the other hand, Jewish and Muslim friendships is not a new concept. There were times – across Spain, across North Africa, across parts of the Middle East – where Jews and Muslims lived for decades – and in some places centuries – harmoniously.”

Barnes then made the historically inaccurate claim that it was the Balfour Declaration that brought that supposed ‘harmony’ to an end.

Barnes: “The Balfour Declaration altered that balance, promising favoured status to the Jews at a critical stage in the First World War when Britain was looking for allies; especially those who could help secure post-war influence in this strategically vital part of the world. Nicolas Pelham:”

Pelham: “I think one of the reasons that Britain was so interested in Jews was because – unlike the French and the Russians – they really didn’t have an indigenous community for which they could take responsibility. The French had Catholics and Maronites in the Middle East. The Russians had the Orthodox Church and Britain was really scraping around for a community that it could sponsor and wield influence through.”

The Anglican Church had in fact first begun to establish a presence in the Middle East almost a hundred years before the Balfour Declaration was written, with churches consecrated in Jerusalem and Nazareth in the 19th century and St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem established as the centre of the diocese in 1898.

Barnes: “And Professor Rogan adds that the declaration came about not as a result of religious favouritism but solely in the context of the realities of war.”

Rogan: “I sympathise with the British government of the time in their willingness to promise anything to anyone who might be able to make a material difference in winning the war. The British government was neither pro-Arab nor pro-Zionist. It was pro-British Empire and its only objective in 1917 was to win the war.”

As will be seen in part two of this post, in the second part of this item the focus shifted from promotion of historical inaccuracy to blatant politicisation of its subject matter.  

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