The bias of expertise

The bias of expertise
Comment: "Middle East experts" featured on news channels often defend a pro-Israel agenda, argues Hilary Aked
6 min read
30 Apr, 2015
The BBC was widely criticised for its coverage of the 2014 Gaza war
As Israel commenced its bombing of Gaza in November 2012, during what became known as "Operation Pillar of Defence", BBC News repeatedly presented a man named Jonathan Sacerdoti as a neutral commentator, providing him with an unchallenged platform to defend Israel's violence.

I wrote about this travesty, exposing the fact that Sacerdoti was in fact a former spokesperson for the Zionist Federation - and, over the course of the next year, slogged through the BBC's complaints procedure. Eventually the BBC Trust admitted the broadcaster had breached its own rules on impartiality.

Yet how had a man with a record of pro-Israel advocacy managed to establish himself as the BBC's "go-to man" on Gaza?  

And what do his current activities and those of his former colleagues say about the legitimacy of "Middle East expertise" in the public sphere today?

Institutionalised prejudice

Although BBC producers made considerable failings in their coverage in 2012, it was also Sacerdoti's then-role as director of the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy (Imed) that allowed him to appear as an objective and expert commentator.

By exploring the older content of the Imed site, we can see it was originally quite transparent about its pro-Israel stance.  

The site originally provided links to the Conservative Friends of Israel, Labour Friends of Israel and the anti-boycott Fair Play Campaign Group. Two other short-lived campaigns - the "British Israel Coalition" and "British Muslims for Israel" (only one member of which has ever been identified) - were launched under the Imed name.  

There was even a page dubbed the "Israel Solidarity Campaign", which called for the buying of Israeli goods to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Imed's website was consequently transformed; analysis concering the wider region replaced explicit support for Israel. While an informed reader might still detect a Zionist-sympathetic perspective, its output began to appear more objective, in line with other Middle East research institutes.

As the organisation slowly gained credibility in the media, director Sacerdoti began to be welcomed into the BBC studios. 

Building an 'expert'

However, Imed's pro-Israel bias remained. The expertise of its young staff was questionable, and its publications arguably lacked substance. It certainly never deserved to be called an "institute" - a protected term in the UK, which Companies House says should only be used by organisations "carrying out research at the highest level".

Imed was never transparent about its funding and did not have an office address. Indeed, it never produced much more than a website.

The Imed site has also not been updated since 2012, after its name was discredited during the BBC fall-out, and is all that remains of the "institute" that the BBC treated as a credible research body.  

However, the people behind it are involved in new projects and are making the headlines once again.

As well as working as a journalist for Israeli news site i24, Jonathan Sacerdoti continues to appear on media as a "political and cultural commentator" with a special interest in the Middle East.  He is also director of communications at a new group, named the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA).
     In the age of the internet, a website is a cheap and easy way to for sub-standard organisations to gain legitimacy in the public sphere.


The CAA was founded in mid-2014, as Israel was massacring thousands in Gaza in what it dubbed "Operation Protective Edge". Sadly, there was also an unjustified spike in anti-Semitism in the UK that summer. It is also important to note two things:

First, despite claiming to have held rallies "enthusiastically backed by the full gamut of the Jewish community", CAA has been sharply criticised by several established - and indeed pro-Israel - Jewish communal bodies.

The Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Campaign and Community Security Trust have all noted methodological flaws in CAA's work that serve to exaggerate the extent of anti-Semitism.

Yet the CAA still managed to secure an audience with Home Secretary Theresa May in January this year and gained considerable media attention. This is worrying due to the second notable aspect of CAA's work: its conflation of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel.

One of CAA's earliest campaigns discouraged donations to London's Tricycle Theatre until it agreed to accept film festival sponsorship from the Israeli embassy.  

Confusing BDS with anti-Semitism does not help prevent the latter, although it can often inhibit criticism of Israel. Accordingly, Professer Moshe Machover and other leading Jewish figures critical of Israel slammed the CAA, saying it was set up "not to fight anti-Semitism, but to counter rising criticism of Israel's murderous assault on Gaza".

Jonathan Sacerdoti was contacted several days ago via his website and asked to respond to the points in this article but did not reply.

'Stand for Peace'

Meanwhile, Sam Westrop who, like Sacerdoti, was an Imed director and appeared on the BBC in that capacity, has also abandoned the "institute".  

Possessing an undergraduate degree in music, Westrop's credentials as a "Middle East analyst" were also rather flimsy. However, he soon reinvented himself.  

Westrop appeared on Canadian television as a spokesman for the British Israel Coalition (Bic). Bic existed in order to "highlight the virtue of Israel", showing where Westrop's real passion lies. It claimed at various points to have membership numbers of between 75 to "in excess of 5,000".  

But despite this allegedly large community of followers, Bic also disappeared soon after it began - again, its website is all that remains.

Westrop appears to have thrown all his energies into heading up a group calling itself "Stand for Peace" (SFP), and now styles himself as an "anti-extremism" campaigner. SFP brands numerous people "extremists".

It is not immediately clear how SFP defines "extremism" but, notably, many advocates of Palestinian rights - from mainstream NGOs such as Defence for Children International to small charities like the Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA) - have found themselves profiled on its website.  

SFP also links to a mini-site called "Exposing the PSC" which reproduces material originally put together as an Imed briefing and aims to smear Britain's Palestine Solidarity Campaign.   

As such, much of Westrop's work is still clearly geared towards trying to "highlight the virtue of Israel" - and the unreasonableness of those who defend Palestinian rights - by using the new language of "counter-extremism".

But despite Westrop's history with the discredited Imed, SFP has been granted a platform in many media outlets, including The Daily Telegraph and BBC News.

In 2012, he was pictured in The Jewish Chronicle, lobbying Julian Brazier MP, as part of a the Shomron Liaison Office - a delegation that included representatives of illegal settlements.  

Ironically, SFP received funding for a report called Don't Fund Extremism from New York;s Gatestone Institute, a think tank that has published the work of numerous writers, offten accused of Islamophobia, including Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and Peder Jensen,  aka the far-right Norwegian blogger "Fjordman".  

The SFP itself downplays Islamophobia in an article titled The Real Islamophobia, which started life on Westrop's Gatestone blog. 

Sam Westrop was contacted several days ago via Stand for Peace, and asked to respond to the points raised in this article - but did not reply.

Legitimacy in the public sphere

In the age of the internet, a website is a cheap and easy way for sub-standard organisations to gain legitimacy in the public sphere.

Within media outlets, over-worked, high-pressured journalists seem content to accept guests with an opinion and a grandiose self-styled title as credible. One television appearance can be used to legitimise others in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Therefore, confident and persistant pro-Israel advocates are able to present themselves as "experts", and consequently distort the lens through which Israel-Palestine politics is filtered in the British media.

Hilary Aked is a researcher into Britain's Israel lobby and is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath. Follow her on Twitter: @hilary_aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of a-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.