Who is Jonathan Sacerdoti, the BBC’s Go-To Man on Gaza?
As Israel’s ‘’ 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 that Israel was acting with ‘restraint’; in the first of three appearances the next day at 09:41 about Israel's 'right to defend itself'; on BBC World later that day that Hamas was 'embedding itself in civilian areas'; and on the 19:30 news programme that evening that most Palestinian casualties in Gaza have been 'terrorist bodies', ignoring the many including at least 3 children 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 , 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 ; 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”.
The day after Israel killed nine activists on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, he appeared defending that attack and . In August 2011 he in Trafalgar Square organised by the British Israel Coalition and supported by the Israeli government-linked .
The following February , 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 , 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 intended to counter the's call not to buy goods made in Israel or by companies complicit in the occupation. He was also , a committed pro-Israel body. In May 2010 Sacerdoti 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 , 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 by the BBC in January 2011. Yet only five months before that, , the BBC explicitly noted Sacerdoti's role at the Zionist Federation (though he was still their only interviewee). In 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 or to offer a balancing perspective.
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. gives no information about how it is funded, nor does it list an address. It was founded by Sacerdoti with 'co-director' , a right-wing supporter of Israel who also founded a group called the . InstMED's 'Associate Director' is a man called who—with Westrop—created '', an organisation which, the , '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— in the . British press coverage amounts to a couple of letters from Sacerdoti published in the and . Sacerdoti's qualifications as a Middle East analyst, meanwhile, appear to consist of an from Balliol College, Oxford. His 'co-director' Westrop's credentials are even weaker. Now in , 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'.
Something has been profoundly wrong with the BBC’s coverage of Israel for at least the last ten years. Research by , comparing the time allotted to different voices and analysing how causalities on each side of the Israel-Palestine conflict are reported, has shown that the BBC's reporting systematically favours Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. Nor is this the first time the BBC has presented a partisan for Israel as an objective analyst. Former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn to have it accurately label , who formerly worked for Obama's National Security Council, as pro-Israel. Llewellyn was informed that there was no evidence of Ross's Zionism, despite a wealth of connections to pro-Israel groups like the , which he , and the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank established by the .
If the British public is to be well informed about the current assault on Gaza, the BBC must start doing its homework, balance its coverage properly and stop presenting committed propagandists as expert analysts.