Ex-Zionist Federation activist poses as neutral expert – and BBC taken in
Who is Jonathan Sacerdoti, the BBC’s Go-To Man on Gaza?
By Hilary Aked, NLP
16 November, 2012
As Israel’s ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ was beginning on 14-15 November a man called Jonathan Sacerdoti appeared four times as a guest on different BBC television news programmes, asked to comment on Israel’s actions in Gaza. On 14 November he claimed that Israel was acting with ‘restraint’; in the first of three appearances the next day at 09:41 he talked about Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’; on BBC World later that day he alleged that Hamas was ‘embedding itself in civilian areas’; and on the 19:30 news programme that evening he stated that most Palestinian casualties in Gaza have been ‘terrorist bodies’, ignoring the many civilians including at least 3 children killed by Israel in the past days and weeks.
Each of his appearances was unchallenged. On one occasion he was joined by another commentator, Shashank Joshi of the military oriented think thank the Royal United Services Institute, but Joshi offered an almost identical perspective. The BBC presented Sacerdoti as a neutral Middle East commentator, the director of an innocuously named organisation called the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy; this neutrality was clearly implied by the lack of any alternative perspective offered and the failure to identify him as affiliated to either the Israeli or Palestinian ‘camp’. Each time he appeared, the news anchor introduced him with some variant of “we can get more on this now and speak to Jonathan Sacerdoti of the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy”.
But Sacerdoti is exactly the opposite of a disinterested ‘expert’ voice on the ongoing violence. Just two years ago he was Director of Public Affairs for the Zionist Federation, perhaps the loudest and most shrill pro-Israel lobby group in the UK.
The day after Israel killed nine activists on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, he appeared defending that attack on Al Jazeera and on Sky News. In August 2011 he spoke at a pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square organised by the British Israel Coalition and supported by the Israeli government-linked StandWithUs.
On 6 July 2010 he met Israeli President Shimon Peres and uploaded an entire album on to Flickr documenting the occasion. He captioned a photo of him shaking hands with Peres,‘Jonathan Sacerdoti, of Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.
The following February he met Ron Prosor, Israel’s former ambassador to the UK, and had his picture taken with him, alongside pro-Israel advocates Gili Brenner of StandWithUs UK and Chas Newkey-Burden, a pro-Israel blogger and good friend of Sacerdoti’s, according to Newkey-Burden’s blog. In this photo, all four are wearing yellow ribbons as a sign of their support for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (since released in a prisoner swap.)
Sacerdoti has worked with Brenner to make a ‘Buy Israeli Goods Day’ video intended to counter the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement’s call not to buy goods made in Israel or by companies complicit in the occupation. He was also elected to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ International Division, a committed pro-Israel body. In May 2010 Sacerdoti reportedly spoke publicly about ‘ways to use Facebook, Twitter and other online resources to advocate for Israel’ at a Zionist Federation Israel advocacy event called ‘Talk for Israel’.
It is clear that Sacerdoti is a committed pro-Israel activist. But viewers were given a distorted impression about his background by BBC news.
Sacerdoti has a right to defend Israel’s assault on Gaza if he wants. But the BBC has a duty to ‘inform and educate’. At minimum, this means telling the truth and not passing off propaganda as informed, ‘objective’, analysis.
Perhaps the BBC did not make detailed enough enquiries about their interviewee. This might be partly explained by the gaps in Sacerdoti’s LinkedIn profile, where his current role at the Board of Deputies and his previous employment history at the Zionist Federation should appear.
Instead the LinkedIn page mentions his consultancy and his newly created think tank the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, which sounds a little more like the affiliation of an independent ‘Middle East analyst’. He was called exactly this by the BBC in January 2011. Yet only five months before that, in a September 2010 interview, the BBC explicitly noted Sacerdoti’s role at the Zionist Federation (though he was still their only interviewee). In another appearance in January 2010 the BBC even saw fit to ensure fairness by inviting Sarah Colborne of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to give an opposing view. When he is featured on Al Jazeera, they have sensibly also invited Ghada Karmi or Ali Abunimah to offer a balancing perspective.
The ‘Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy’
Even if Sacerdoti’s views had been balanced with a pro-Palestinian perspective, it is strange that the BBC should have turned to the largely unknown ‘Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy’ to offer comment.
‘InstMED’ was founded in 2009 and calls itself a ‘think-tank’ but is not well-established in any field.Its website gives no information about how it is funded, nor does it list an address. It was founded by Sacerdoti with ‘co-director’ Sam Westrop, a right-wing supporter of Israel who also founded a group called the British Israel Coalition. InstMED’s ‘Associate Director’ is a man called Hasan Afzalwho—with Westrop—created ‘British Muslims for Israel’, an organisation which, the Jerusalem Post reports, ‘is under the umbrella of The Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy’.
The grandiloquently named ‘Institute’ has produced a grand total of eight publications, one of which is an attack ‘dossier’ which attempts to present the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as racist and homophobic. A quick search of the press database Nexis reveals that only one of its publications gained any coverage in the mainstream media—a single mention in the Jerusalem Post. British press coverage amounts to a couple of letters from Sacerdoti published in the Telegraph andGuardian. Sacerdoti’s qualifications as a Middle East analyst, meanwhile, appear to consist of anundergraduate English degree from Balliol College, Oxford. His ‘co-director’ Westrop’s credentials are even weaker. Now in his early twenties, Westrop graduated from York University with a degree in music. Sacerdoti does seem to have worked in the media briefly, including for ITV, and perhaps here he made contacts that have helped him get on to prime time news.
Sacerdoti himself has been pleasantly surprised at how eager the BBC has been to provide a him a platform. On Thursday 15 November he joked on Facebook that he ‘may as well move in’ at the Beeb after yet another interview was lined up. Under a video of one of his earlier appearances, one of his Facebook ‘friends’, comparing him to Richard Kemp (a British army colonel who defended Israel’s conduct during its 2008-9 assault on Gaza despite never having been there), commented: ‘I’m genuinely surprised that they keep asking you back’.
By Hilary Aked, NLP
November 17, 2010
Yesterday, we documented that BBC News repeatedly invited Jonathan Sacerdoti, former director of public affairs at the Zionist Federation, to offer unchallenged analysis of Israel’s continuing attacks on Gaza (‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’). Moreover BBC News presented Sacerdoti as a neutral Middle East expert, rather than a professional partisan for Israel.
Following the publication of that article, Sacerdoti has attempted to scrub the evidence on which it was based from the internet.
Having previously appeared on the BBC as a Zionist Federation spokesperson, Sacerdoti (now director of a ‘think tank’ with an innocuous name but questionable legitimacy—the ‘Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy’) appeared four times on BBC News between 14 and 15 November defending Israel’s actions in Gaza, without viewers ever being informed of his history of pro-Israeli activism.
The BBC appears to have been satisfied that this constituted fair and balanced journalism, even though previous appearances by Sacerdoti were counterbalanced by guests with opposing views, such as Sarah Colborne of the Palestine Solidary Campaign. Perhaps the producers were under the impression that Sacerdoti was a ‘neutral’ Middle East expert?
Apparently keen to maintain this façade, Sacerdoti began removing videos, photos and written evidence of his former role with the pro-Israel group hours after our article questioning his BBC appearances appeared. (His cat Herzl, named after the founder of Zionism, appears to be less concerned).
First to disappear was his LinkedIn profile (which we made a screengrab of here). It contained details of his consultancy firm Sacerdoti Creative Consultancy and work at InstMed but no reference to the Zionist Federation or the Board of Deputies of British Jews, another influential pro-Israel group to which Sacerdoti was recently elected.
Next to go was a picture of Sacerdoti meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres (preserved here) which Sacerdoti had uploaded to Flickr and captioned ‘Jonathan Sacerdoti, of Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.
Sacerdoti scrambled to hide the video evidence of his previous appearances for the Zionist Federation in the media—such as his defence of Israel’s May 2010 attack on a Gaza aid flotilla the day after it happened on Sky News and Al Jazeera—by changing the settings of the incriminating videos on his YouTube channel, MrJonSac, to private. He also removed a video he produced with Gili Brenner of Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, promoting a pro-Israel campaign.
Fortunately, Powerbase / Spinwatch researchers had already made copies of all these videos. Moreover still publically accessible is this video of Sacerdoti on the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’, in which he is clearly identified as representing the Zionist Federation.
Sacerdoti’s friend, the pro-Israel blogger Chas Newkey-Burden, today removed a post from his website called ‘Talk for Israel report’ (5 May 2010), which was linked to in our original article. This screengrab shows why it was of interest: it details Sacerdoti’s talk, at a Zionist Federation event, on how to use social media to ‘advocate for Israel’. At the time of writing Newkey-Burden’s website was littered with numerous other references to Sacerdoti’s involvement in pro-Israel activism. Here, for instance, Sacerdoti writes fondly about his week at a ‘Diplomatic Seminar for Young Jewish Leaders’ run by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Another blogger, Richard Millett, seems to have been contacted, or has taken it upon himself, to remove a video of Sacerdoti at a pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square on 28 August last year. Several photos attest to Sacerdoti’s presence however, including one of him draped in the Israeli flag.
Jonathan Sacerdoti on the right
Since the publication of our original article, it has emerged that Sacerdoti worked for the BBC through his firm Sacerdoti Creative Consultancy. The BBC logo is displayed in his list of clients along with ITV, Channel 4 News, ITN News, Channel 5 and others. He claims to have worked ‘as a consultant development producer and writer for TV production companies, developing factual, entertainment, and reality TV formats.’ It could be that this TV background gave him the contacts to get on prime time news presented as an objective expert on the Middle East, despite being no such thing.
The absence of significant details from Sacerdoti’s LinkedIn profile and his subsequent attempts to wipe the proof of his pro-Israel partisanship from the internet beg the question of whether he misrepresented his position to the BBC.
Even if this is the case, it does not excuse the BBC, which should have known or found out that he was not an impartial commentator. It suggests either that they have a worryingly short institutional memory, a lack of producers able to perform basic research on guests or a poor grasp of what journalistic ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ really mean. Sacerdoti’s misleading appearances, moreover, ought to be considered in the context of other failures in recent BBC coverage of Gaza, all of which appear to err in the same direction, as well as a longer BBC history of systematic bias in favour of Israel.
Hilary Aked is a freelance researcher and writer, an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a doctoral candidate at the University of Bath.
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Retrieved from powerbase.com, December 3, 2012
Jonathan Sacerdoti Director is the Director of The Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy (IMED), a ‘think-tank and pressure group advocating liberty and democracy in the Middle East’
It was formed, according to its own website, in response to ‘the visceral rhetoric that dominates the discussion of the Middle East in this country [UK].’
IMED was founded in 2009.
According to its own website, IMED ‘works to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East’, to ‘provide a platform for the rational discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict’, ‘to advocate freedom, justice and equality’ and to ‘bring to light the horrors of despotism, hatred and ideology in the region and to combat religious or political supremacism and hate speech’.
The group has ‘highlighted AQA’s[Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, Britain's largest school examination body] A-level geography textbook which compared the Israeli security barrier to the Berlin Wall’ and ‘exposed through Sky News, the Independent and the Guardian, how St Andrews University was being funded by the Syrian government and Exeter University by the Muslim Brotherhood’.
Opposing ‘extremists’, garnering far-right support
In June 2012 IMED and Stand for Peace – another group founded by Sam Westrop – were among the groups involved in pressuring the Grand Connaught Rooms in London to cancel a Ramadan conference organised by the Al-Muntada Trust since they claimed it featured ‘extremist’ speakers. Stand for Peace director Hasan Afzal claimed victory when the conference was cancelled but he also acknowledged that far-right groups had joined the campaign. The English Defence League, Casuals United and British National Party all lent their support to the campaign, the latter republishing a Stand for Peace briefing approvingly. It is not clear whether the venue’s safety concerns which prompted it to cancel the conference on the advice of the police were connected to the scheduled speakers or in fact to the possibility of opposition from these far-right groups.
Jonathan Sacerdoti, director of InstMed, appeared on BBC news programmes four times in two days between 14 and 15 November 2012 and was described as being from the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy giving the impression that he was a neutral expert on the region. Each time he defended Israel’s attacks on Gaza and each time no alternative perspective was given by the BBC.
The institute does not reveal its key funders but states that it receives no money from any government and relies on individual donations. [It has no registered office address]
Mis-educating Our Children: Is AQA’s Account of the Arab-Israeli Conflict Misleading and Biased?, Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, May 2010.
An Evening with the PSC: Examining Racism, Extremism and Homophobia within the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, November 2011.
Soft Islamism in the University of Birmingham – BRIEFING PAPER, Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, November 2011.