BBC’s ME Editor misrepresents the Hussein-McMahon correspondence

The first episode in Jeremy Bowen’s new BBC Radio 4 series of programmes about the Middle East was aired on May 15th.

The programme – titled “The Giant Awakens” – is ostensibly about the build-up to the First Gulf War in 1991. However, around a third of the episode is actually devoted to other topics and a transcript of most of that section of the programme was also uploaded to the programme’s webpage under the title “The three most significant foreign interventions in the Middle East“.

Bowen tells Radio 4 listeners and website visitors that: [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]

“Big powers have intervened in the Middle East to reshape it to their requirements since ancient times.

It’s strategically placed, connecting Europe with Asia and Africa. It’s the home of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. And for the last 100 years or so, great powers have needed its oil reserves – the biggest in the world.

Two imperial grandees created – and some say cursed – the modern Middle East when they carved up the Ottoman Empire at the height of the First World War. One was a French diplomat, Charles Francois Georges Picot; the other, Sir Mark Sykes, was British.

The Sykes-Picot agreement was designed to win the peace for Britain and France. It defined zones of influence in the Middle East for the two imperial powers. Borders of new states came later.

But to win the war, the British had already made promises to the Arabs.

The Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. In return, he believed the British had promised him an independent Arab kingdom across much of present day Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Hussein kept his word. The duplicitous British did not.

The requirements of Empire came first. The promise of Arab self-determination was part of the collateral damage.”

Bowen is of course referring to the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. However, as has been previously noted here on several occasions, Sir Henry McMahon himself pointed out in a letter to the Times in 1937 that the claim that Hussein was promised all of the territory described by Bowen is incorrect.

That point had earlier been clarified in the British government’s White Paper of 1922.

“With reference to the Constitution which it is now intended to establish in Palestine, the draft of which has already been published, it is desirable to make certain points clear. In the first place, it is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty’s Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty’s High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty’s Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir Henry McMahon’s pledge.” [emphasis added]

Nevertheless, the BBC – and the man whose job it is to “make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience” – continues to promote that politically motivated myth.

Bowen continues:

“Within 20 years, a Palestinian scholar called Sykes-Picot a shocking document – the product of greed, stupidity and double-dealing.”

That “Palestinian scholar” was George Antonius and he was actually born in 1891 in Lebanon to an Eastern Orthodox Christian family. Having graduated from Cambridge, Antonius became a civil servant in the British Mandate administration in Palestine. The phrase quoted by Bowen appears in Antonius’ 1938 book ‘The Arab Awakening’ and it was refuted by Efraim Karsh in his book ‘Rethinking the Middle East’ (from page 58).

Bowen continues:

“Another vision of the future cut across Hussein Ibn Ali’s hopes: Zionists lobbied Britain, successfully, to support the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine.

In November 1917, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour declared that Britain would “view with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people”. Britain also promised “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Making promises to both sides built a deadly contradiction into the Balfour Declaration. By the early 1920s, Arabs and Jews in Palestine were killing each other. They are responsible for what they’ve done. But Britain started the fire.

For Palestinians the Balfour Declaration was a milestone on the road to catastrophe. For Israelis it led to statehood.

A century on it’s still politically resonant – triumphant or toxic, depending on your view of history.”

Bowen’s promotion of the notion that the Balfour Declaration includes “a deadly contradiction” is of course the product of his own chosen political narrative. Notably, he fails to inform BBC audiences that the principle expressed in the Balfour Declaration was given the unanimous stamp of approval by the League of Nations in 1922 and that in the same year, 77% of the territory originally designated to the Jewish homeland was given over to the Hashemites when Transjordan was created.

In the audio version listeners next hear Bowen say:

“Earlier this year Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, showed Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu round his grand corner office overlooking St James’ Park.”

A recording of the British Foreign Secretary showing Arthur Balfour’s desk is then heard before the report goes on:

“The deals made in World War One were designed to strengthen the British and French empires. The Ottoman Empire was breaking up after nearly 500 years and the European imperial powers were creating a new order in the Middle East.”

Jeremy Bowen’s presentation of this topic is far from accurate and impartial and it is clearly motivated by the political narrative he has chosen to adopt and advertise. Unfortunately, there is nothing new about that: the politicised misrepresentation of this subject by the gatekeeper of the BBC’s Middle East content goes back many years. However, that misrepresentation is all the more egregious at a time when political campaigns concerning the Balfour Declaration are in the news

Related Articles:

BBC Radio 4 launches a new ME series by Jeremy Bowen

Reviewing BBC portrayal of the Balfour Declaration

The BBC and the myth of the ‘twice promised land’

Resources:

How to complain to the BBC

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Weekend long read

On May 16th an article by the BBC’s Beirut-based correspondent Jim Muir appeared in the ‘Features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “Sykes-Picot: The map that spawned a century of resentment“.Muir Sykes Picot

In his opening lines, Muir tells readers that:

“Reaching its centenary amidst a general chorus of vilification around the region, the legacy of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 has never looked more under assault.”

However, just four paragraphs later he acknowledges that:

“In fact, virtually none of the Middle East’s present-day frontiers were actually delineated in the document concluded on 16 May 1916 by British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.”

Muir’s overall messaging is clear:

“But the spirit of Sykes-Picot, dominated by the interests and ruthless ambitions of the two main competing colonial powers, prevailed during that process and through the coming decades, to the Suez crisis of 1956 and even beyond.

Because it inaugurated that era, and epitomised the concept of clandestine colonial carve-ups, Sykes-Picot has become the label for the whole era in which outside powers imposed their will, drew borders and installed client local leaderships, playing divide-and-rule with the “natives”, and beggar-my-neighbour with their colonial rivals.”

And his closing lines reveal a typically simplistic take on the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, a no less quintessential attempt to portray the Arab-Israeli conflict as being at the centre of all regional conflicts and the implication that the Balfour Declaration is disconnected from the topic of self-determination for peoples indigenous to the Middle East.

“The Sykes-Picot agreement conflicted directly with pledges of freedom given by the British to the Arabs in exchange for their support against the collapsing Ottomans.

It also collided with the vision of the US President Woodrow Wilson, who preached self-determination for the peoples subjugated by the Ottoman Empire.

His foreign policy adviser Edward House was later informed of the agreement by UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, who 18 months on was to put his name to a declaration which was to have an even more fateful impact on the region.

House wrote: “It is all bad and I told Balfour so. They are making it a breeding place for future war.””

Some rather less predictable commentary on the Sykes-Picot Agreement has also appeared in the media this week, including an interesting column from the Financial Times’ foreign editor Roula Khalaf titled “An inconvenient truth for the Middle East and a line in the sand“.

“This week it is a century since Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot drew that “line in the sand”. It is, therefore, an opportune time for more fervent debate.

It is an enduring and unfortunate habit in the Arab world to blame outsiders for the ruinous state of the region and to see in every act the sinister hand of foreign conspirators. The alternative — the idea that maybe the Middle East has been ruined by its own people and its leaders — is an inconvenient truth. […]

When Arab youth rose up in revolt in 2011, their slogan was not “the people want the fall of Sykes-Picot”; it was “the people want the fall of the regime”. If ethnic and religious identity now trumps national attachment in many parts of the Middle East, that is the result of collective disenchantment and insecurity, not a harking back to some fictitious past.”

At the American Interest, Adam Garfinkle takes a historical look at the topic.

“Today, May 16, is the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, and inanities and assorted stupidities about it are pouring out of the media woodwork faster than I can keep up with them. Let me get right to the point: Sykes-Picot did not—repeat, did not—establish the borders of the modern Middle East. That ought to make it hard to blame Sykes-Picot for anything, since it never came into effect. And what is falling apart today is not the Sykes-Picot interstate system but increasingly the units themselves; the bloody interstate clatter we see is not the source of the core problem in the region but a symptom of it. This is a lot to get wrong, and certainly it is foul fare to pass around to the uneducated like so many weird-tasting cocktail hour hors-d’oeuvres.”

Tim Marshall offers a typically realistic view:

“However, even if Sykes-Picot is useful shorthand for the problems bequeathed to the peoples in the region, it is far too broad a brush stroke to explain subsequent events.

Turkish history neither ended nor began with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey has never stopped being a player in the Middle East.

The various Ottoman vilayets, in what was known in geographical terms as ‘Natural Syria’, stretched from Aqaba in the south up to the Taurus mountains in the north, and from the Mediterranean in the west, across to the desert heading towards Mesopotamia. They divided it many ways. Even within the area we now know as Syria there were several geographic, linguistic, and cultural divisions. The idea that with the end of Turkish colonialism, but without Sykes-Picot, they would all have naturally formed into states with agreed borders, and an equitable division of natural resources, is fanciful.”

Related Articles:

BBC WS radio promotes Avi Shlaim’s historical misrepresentations – part one

BBC’s Kevin Connolly erases Iranian patronage of terror, distorts history

 

BBC Monitoring uses Sykes-Picot anniversary to promote conspiracy theory

The 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement this week produced a rash of journalistic commentary, much of which succumbed to the fashion of lazily blaming that agreement for the Middle East’s contemporary ills.

That trend was not however confined to Western commentators and BBC Monitoring produced a report titled “Sykes-Picot marked with bitterness and regret by Arab media” which appeared on the BBC News website on May 16th.

Not for the first time, readers found BBC Monitoring using its platform for the amplification of baseless conspiracy theory.

BBC monitoring Sykes Picot

One of course presumes that before deciding that the above comment was worthy of translation and amplification to audiences worldwide, BBC Monitoring exercised due diligence and took the time to check out that Twitter feed. If so, then it would have realised that the so-called ‘Pencil192’ has something of a pathological obsession with ‘Zionists’.

pencil tweet 5 promoted

Pencil tweet 1

pencil tweet 2

pencil tweet 3

pencil tweet 4

Whilst that may not be much of a surprise coming from a social media user who appears to be a Baathist history buff and Saddam Hussein fan, what should raise eyebrows is the fact that BBC Monitoring apparently believes that the amplification of unchallenged conspiracy theories from an obscure social media account in some way contributes to meeting the corporation’s remit to “[b]uild a global understanding of international issues”.

BBC WS radio promotes Avi Shlaim’s historical misrepresentations – part one

Visitors to the BBC News website’s Middle East page on June 1st were presented with an article in its features section by Owen Bennett-Jones titled “Middle East map carved up by caliphates, enclaves and fiefdoms“. There, they found the reasons for the past four or so years of violence and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa explained as follows:OBJ written

“There are many explanations for the winds of change sweeping through the Middle East.

Depending on their point of view, analysts cite the failure of Arab nationalism; a lack of democratic development; post-colonialism; Zionism; Western trade protectionism; corruption; low education standards; and the global revival of radical Islamism.” [emphasis added]

Readers who ventured to the end of Bennett-Jones’ piece discovered that it is based on an edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour Extra’ – titled “Borders, Oil and Power in the Middle East” – which he hosted on May 31st. What they are not told in the written article is that the main reason for the bizarre appearance of Zionism on his list of “explanations” for the ongoing violence in the Middle East is the inclusion of Oxford University’s Avi Shlaim on Bennett-Jones’ guest list for that programme.

According to its synopsis the fifty-five minute programme supposedly set out to discuss the following topics:

“The map of the Middle East, established after World War One almost 100 years ago, is crumbling. Islamic State militants now control large parts of Iraq and Syria including the border region that divides the two countries, and their territorial ambitions have not ended there. Is Islamic State permanently re-drawing the map, or can the traditional regional powers retain their dominance? What are the consequences for the people who live within those borders and for control of the region’s vast mineral wealth?”

Those familiar with Avi Shlaim’s political activism (albeit often thinly disguised with an academic veneer) will not have been surprised by his ability to repeatedly bring the focus of the programme back to his pet topic of Israel. Listeners may have been equally unsurprised to find that the programme’s host and editors indulged his hobby, particularly after the tone was set in Bennett-Jones’ introduction.

“…this week looking at the future of the Middle East. Syria, Yemen, Libya and parts of Iraq are in violent chaos. The status of Gaza and the West Bank remain contested. The Arab Spring has failed. Some of its leaders face the death penalty and the forces in the ascendant: theocrats, rebels, nationalists, gangsters, arms dealers and opportunists. What on earth is going to happen?”

From around 04:30 listeners heard the following supposedly objective and academic account of the background to the topic under discussion from Avi Shlaim.

“…Britain’s behavior during the First World War is a prime example of pure opportunism because in the course of fighting the First World War, Britain was desperate to gain allies and it made three major promises that were contradictory and couldn’t be reconciled and this should have been clear during the war. The first promise was to Hussein the Sharif of Mecca – to support an independent Arab kingdom under his rule in return for mounting an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. The second promise […] is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This was a secret agreement between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East between themselves at the expense of the Arabs. And the third and most famous promise was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which Britain undertook to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. So Palestine was the twice-promised land – first it was promised to Hussein the Sharif of Mecca and then it was promised to the Zionists. And after the end of the war the chickens came home to roost. The Arabs demanded an independent Arab kingdom – not a system of mandates – and the Zionists, who at the time of the Balfour Declaration were only 10% of the population, laid a claim to the whole of Palestine. So Britain – through its imperialist diplomacy – created a new order, a new political system – territorial system – which lacked legitimacy. The borders lacked legitimacy, the rulers who were imposed on the local Arabs by the colonial powers lacked legitimacy. So the whole mark of the post-World War One territorial and political system was that it was illegitimate….” [emphasis added]

No attempt was made by Owen Bennett-Jones to balance Shlaim’s predictably selective presentation of events by mention of all-important additional factors such as the creation in 1921 of the Emirate of Transjordan (ruled by one of Hussein’s sons) out of land previously designated for the Jewish National Home. Neither was it clarified to listeners that no mention was made of Palestine in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence or that as was reported in The Times in 1937 – Sir Henry McMahon later clarified:

“I feel my duty to state, and I do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving this pledge to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised. I also had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in my pledge was well understood by King Hussein.”

The most striking aspect of Bennett-Jones’ failure to relieve listeners of the misleading impressions provided by Shlaim, however, is that the BBC had every reason to be capable of anticipating exactly how he was going to frame the issue because he had done it before on BBC Radio 4 in October 2013. No less interesting is the fact that despite Shlaim’s obvious and repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for Kurdish independence as promised in 1920, Bennett-Jones refrained from asking him why in his opinion the Treaty of Sèvres should be considered any less “illegitimate” than the Balfour Declaration or the Sykes-Picot Agreement.OBJ radio

From around 16:35 listeners were further misled by the following statement from Shlaim:

“It seems to me that the post-World War One territorial order, for all its shortcomings and limitations that I talked about before, had one merit and that is it set out very clear international borders and despite all the turmoil of the last century, all the violence, all the conflicts, these borders still stand – with one exception: the border between Israel and Palestine. But all the other borders are almost sacrosanct.”

Of course it is inaccurate and misleading to suggest that a “border between Israel and Palestine” existed under “the post-World War One territorial order”.

Towards the end of the programme (at around 41:30), Bennett-Jones informs listeners that the discussion will “look ahead to what’s going to happen to various groups in the Middle East”. If listeners thought that they were finally going to get to hear some information about the situation of Christians, Yezidis, Druze, Armenians, Baha’is or any of the many other Middle East minorities unmentioned so far, they would have been disappointed. Instead, a full five minutes is spent discussing the topic introduced by Bennett-Jones at the start of that segment.

OBJ: “…on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; is it right to say that when we talk about borders changing  – Professor Shlaim made the point that the Israel-Palestine situation is one of the few fluid situations in terms of borders – but does it connect with the rest of the Middle East or is that dispute….”

At that point Bennett-Jones is cut off – apparently by some over-enthusiastic editing – but listeners do hear BBC regular Rosemary Hollis telling them that:

“…having a number of Palestinian scholarship students as I do, they see this chaos in Iraq and Syria and this hideous machine called IS as potentially the only game changer that might ultimately call all the borders into question in a way that might benefit the Palestinians. Otherwise they see their future as miserable and they see Gaza as a place where you die slowly and, as of 2020 when life is unsustainable in Gaza according to the UN, you die more quickly – if there’s not another Israeli-Palestinian war in the meanwhile.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, life expectancy in the Gaza Strip in 2014 was 74.64 years – higher than that in one hundred and thirteen other countries or territories and higher than that for males in Blackpool or Glasgow, which BBC audiences would of course be unlikely to hear described as places “where you die slowly”.

Following that (from around 45:25), listeners hear Avi Shlaim telling them that there will be no peace or stability in the Middle East until Jews lose their right to self-determination.

“To answer your regional question, I don’t think that Israel-Palestine is a separate discrete conflict. It’s part of the whole Middle East set-up and it’s the most fundamental and lasting and enduring conflict in the region and there can be no peace, no stability and no security in the Middle East until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. How can it be resolved? I used to be a great supporter of the two state solution but […] it is no longer viable. Why is it not viable? Because Israel, under right-wing governments, has systematically destroyed the basis for a two state solution. And therefore today I support and advocate a one state solution: one state which is for all its citizens with equal rights for all its citizens be they Arab or Israeli, Muslim, Christian or Jewish.”

No attempt is made by the programme’s host to inform listeners of the significance and consequences of the ‘solution’ to all the Middle East’s troubles as put forward by Shlaim and likewise no effort is made to relieve them of the ridiculous notion that ISIS jihadists are slaughtering Yezidis, Kurds and Christians (among others) and Bashar al Assad is killing his own people because the Arab-Israeli conflict has yet to be resolved.

Amazingly, this is what passes for objective, impartial, factual and accurate analysis of the Middle East as far as the BBC World Service is concerned, but Avi Shlaim’s historical misrepresentations had not finished there – as we shall see in part two of this post.

One for Middle East watchers on BBC Radio 4

Readers may have noticed an article which appeared a few days ago in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page titled “Why border lines drawn with a ruler in WW1 still rock the Middle East“.

The writer of that article on the Sykes-Picot agreement – Tarek Osman – also currently has a four-part series running on BBC Radio 4 titled “The Making of the Modern Arab World”. Episode One was broadcast last week and can be heard here

R4 TMOTMAW

Although on the whole the series gets off to an interesting start, listeners will no doubt note the unchallenged promotion by guest Tariq Ramadan of the notion that his grandfather was a “reformer”. They will doubtless note too the appearance of some familiar academic contributors including Eugene Rogan of Oxford University and John Chalcraft of LSE – also known for his BDS promoting activities

BBC gets one of its facts on “Palestine” right

A guest post by Geary

BBC Radio 4 hosts an – often excellent – programme entitled “Analysis”. This week’s episode (July 1st, 2013) “Syria and the New Lines in the Sand” is on why, given five minutes of freedom, so much of the Arab world seems unable to refrain from tearing itself to pieces. Could it be the centuries of bitter sectarian enmities? Or the lack of any legacy of workable institutions after 500 years of Ottoman rule? Of course not; silly me.

This being the BBC, the answer, of course, is that it’s not their fault, it’s ours – or our grandfathers’ anyway. The evil Sykes-Picot (“villains” for the BBC) Agreement. The poshest man alive, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, oddly forgiven for having been Ambassador to Israel, is wheeled on to give gravitas to the argument that ‘It’s All Our Fault’. 

If only in 1920 the British (and a bit the French) had put all the Sunnis in one big country, all the Shias in another and all the Kurds in yet another, then they’d all be getting along like a house on fire (maybe that’s the wrong metaphor, but still). On the other hand these entities might forever be at each other’s throats, but this possibility was not mentioned.

Alternatively, the British should have planned some sort of Balkanisation of the region into a thousand independent enclaves, each a homeland for some minority. Oddly, the one part of this plan which came to fruition – the creation of Israel and the subsequent expulsion by the Arab states of their Jews to populate it – does not seem to enjoy universal popularity amongst the Arab neighbours or, for that matter, at the BBC. 

But imagine my shock when I heard – amid this feast of West-bashing and pandering to Arab grudges – the mention, en passant, of the non-existence of any “Palestine” prior to the 1920s. So unlike the Beeb to let this one slip. At roughly 6 minutes 20 seconds into the programme, the presenter and historian are perusing a pre-World War I map of the Middle East:

Presenter: What was this area called at that time?

Historian: Well, it wasn’t called any of the names we know it as today. It wasn’t Syria and it wasn’t Palestine, particularly. These were Western names, and Roman names sometimes, we used to refer to this part of the world, but at that time it was all just part of the Ottoman Empire. [emphasis added]

Crickey, BBC, you let the cat out of the bag there. The inconvenient historical fact that there was no country called Palestine and had not been since the Roman times, when it was inhabited by, unless the Bible, Gibbon and Mel Gibson are all telling lies, the Jews. No “historic Palestine” and so no “historic Palestinian people” then. Just a mixture of folk all living under the sway of the Ottomans. Indeed it was the British who created the Palestinians after WWI. In fact they very generously created two lots of Palestinians for good measure: Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews. But before that “Palestine” had no legal tender, it was simply a name and an entity dreamt up by British diplomats who’d had a far too classical education. 

So is there hope yet for BBC historical truth-telling on Israel-Palestine, after this slip? I fear not. Later in the programme we get dark mutterings that “if the Kurds were the great losers out of Sykes-Picot” (not sure that was entirely ‘Our Fault’ – neither the Arabs nor the Turks were willing to envisage a Kurdish state) “the big winners were the early Zionists”. Sigh. So Sykes-Picot, and all the mess it created, was nudge, nudge, just another Zionist plot.

Of course no-one can pretend that Sykes-Picot was not a self-interested deal, aiming to ensure Western political interests and safeguard access to Middle Eastern oil (but what’s so bad about that? Access to trade benefits both sides – ask the Egyptians at the moment). And equally of course it denied much of the Arab Middle East self-determination for a generation. But it was also an honest attempt to create viable nation-states out of the defunct, historically retarded Ottoman Empire. And if Arab self-determination is leading to the horrors of the self-Balkanisation of the region we are witnessing now, maybe those two old Anglo-French “villains” were not so stupid or villainous after all.