Campaigners are taking the BBC to a tribunal in a bid to find out why the corporation insists on promoting Jerusalem as an "Israeli city."
An appeal was filed last week with the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights), part of the UK court system, by two UK-based human rights organizations.
The two groups, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Friends of Al Aqsa, are attempting to force the release of BBC documents which would reveal how the BBC Trust reached a decision in 2013 that BBC journalists are can refer to the whole of Jerusalem as "Israeli."
Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has been challenging the BBC since 2012 over its reporting on its online pages and radio broadcasts that Jerusalem is an "Israeli city," with no distinction being made between East Jerusalem, considered by the United Nations to be occupied Palestinian territory, and West Jerusalem.
These challenges led to the BBC Trust confirming in May 2013 that the BBC is justified in referring to Jerusalem as an Israeli city, because of the facts on the ground created by Israel. At that time, the Trust wrote to PSC saying it had sought advice from its senior editorial strategy advisor, Leanne Buckle. Buckle concluded that there was no inaccuracy or bias in the BBC preferring to use the Israeli government's territorial claims to the whole of Jerusalem in its reporting.
The Trust wrote: "The advisor [Buckle] acknowledged that Israel's sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem was not recognized under international law. However, she considered that Israel had de facto control over the entire city in a political, administrative and military sense. She also noted that Jerusalem was administered as a single entity by the Jerusalem municipal authority which made no distinction between East and West."
BBC overrides international law
Buckle's over-riding of international law in order to accept Israel's illegal facts on the ground as a basis for BBC reports on Jerusalem led Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Friends of Al Aqsa to investigate how and why her decision was made.
With the support of CorporateRegister.com, PSC and Friends of Al Aqsa submitted a Freedom of Information request to the BBC, asking the corporation to disclose all documents relating to Buckle's decision and the subsequent Trust decision, sent to PSC in May 2013.
"To make reference to either East or West Jerusalem, while reporting, would be so easy, and would result in accurate journalism," PSC's director, Sarah Colborne, told The Electronic Intifada. "However, the BBC seems to be more concerned with portraying the Israeli line on the status of Jerusalem, at the expense of accuracy and impartiality, and we want to find out why."
The BBC rejected the Freedom of Information application on the basis that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 only covers information held by the BBC and other public service broadcasters if that information is held for "purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature."
The BBC argued that "journalism, art or literature … seems to be intended to cover the whole of the BBC's output in its mission (under article 5 of its Royal Charter) to inform, educate and entertain the public."
Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Friends of Al Aqsa then took their challenge to a higher level, appealing to the Information Commissioner's Office. The organizations said that the BBC's policy of referring to Jerusalem as an Israeli city neither "educates" nor "informs" the public.
In fact, by reporting that the whole of Jerusalem is an Israeli city when it is not, the BBC is actually and actively misinforming the public, and therefore should not be protected by the derogation clause of the Freedom of Information Act.
Propaganda or journalism?
At the end of last month, the Information Commissioner's Office responded to PSC in a written letter – and upheld the BBC's right to be excluded from the Freedom of Information Act, concluding that "if the information is held for the purpose of journalism, art or literature, it is caught by the derogation."
Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Friends of Al Aqsa have now lodged an appeal with the First-Tier Tribunal. The appeal will be heard in the fall.
In the grounds for appeal, submitted last week to the Tribunal, the organizations write:
The view of Jerusalem as a wholly Israeli city is one that is held only by Israel in the international community. Israel attempts to promote this view as a form of propaganda, and an attempt to create facts on the ground. When the BBC also promotes this view, it becomes complicit in Israel's propaganda. The view being promoted by the BBC is not, therefore, journalism, but it is propaganda.
…The BBC is well aware of international law and international opinion on the subject of Jerusalem. It knows that Jerusalem is not, in its entirety, an Israeli city. Therefore, when it refers to Jerusalem as an Israeli city in its output, it is knowingly reiterating Israeli propaganda. This is contrary to all the principles of journalism.
…To find out what led to this decision is in the public interest. The BBC is a public body and, if it is broadcasting and publishing information which it knows to be false, the public has a right to know why.
Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Friends of Al Aqsa conclude by pointing out that the definition of propaganda "accurately applies to the BBC in the instance of its determination to refer to Jerusalem, in its entirety, as an Israeli city, which it is not, but which the Israeli government wishes the public to believe it is, as part of Israel's attempts to secure Jerusalem for itself with or without a negotiated settlement."
This is the definition of propaganda which PSC and FOA have presented to the Tribunal in their grounds for appeal:
Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position. Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis.
In the fall, the judge of the First-Tier Tribunal will decide whether the BBC's misreporting on the status of Jerusalem constitutes propaganda aimed at influencing its audiences towards the Israeli position, or whether it is, in fact, accurate and impartial journalism.
If the judge decides on the former, and orders the release of the documents explaining the BBC Trust's ruling, those documents will make interesting reading indeed.
This article was first published on The Electronic Intifada
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.