Watchdog has no bite or sight

When a leading newspaper omits to correct its misinformation about Israel’s capital city, the body to tell is the PCC, is it not? Yes, it is not


On June 11, the JC Diary included an item about a submission I had made to the Press Complaints Commission. As some of you have been kind enough to contact me about this, I'm going to explain why I complained to the PCC, and what its rejection of my complaint means for what the media here in the UK choose to report about Israel.

In its issue of March 28, the Sunday Times carried an opinion piece by Andrew Sullivan, an Oxford educated Catholic who is said to live in the USA and to be a "political conservative".

I must confess that I had never before come across this gentleman, an inhabitant of what I believe is termed the "blogosphere" a virtual world that I visit only when professional duty calls, or by electronic accident.

Sullivan certainly does not seem to like Israel very much. The columns he writes for the Sunday Times have in recent months been full of encouragement to the Obama administration to end America's "love affair" (Sullivan's phrase) with the Jewish state.

The Press Complaints Commission was ‘not in a position to come to a definitive view’

Frankly, I am not very interested in these rants, but I should add that last January Leon Wieseltier, the much respected American Jewish writer and literary editor of the New Republic (and also, like Sullivan and me, an Oxford alumnus) published an erudite and devastating critique of Sullivan, whom he accused of harbouring a "venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews."

It was not, however, the content of Sullivan's March 28 column that attracted my attention, but the sub-heading, which declared: "It used to be above US reproach, but Tel Aviv is now in the firing line, writes Andrew Sullivan."

Now although I know nothing about the "blogosphere", I do know a little about newspapers, and it occurred to me that the sub-heading is unlikely to have been written by Sullivan himself, but by an ignorant sub-editor. Nonetheless, I wrote to the paper pointing out that if Sullivan wished to refer to the government of Israel by reference to the seat of government, he should use the correct proxy, namely Jerusalem. I added that, although Tel Aviv is Israel's largest city, it is not, "as a matter of indisputable fact", its capital.

How do I know this, "as a matter of indisputable fact"? Because I have visited both cities and seen for myself that Israel's legislature, its supreme court, its central government offices, and indeed the official residence of its head of state, are all located in Jerusalem.

These are the vital signs by which a capital city is identified - to say nothing of the fact that the State of Israel itself declares its capital to be that very city. It is for identical reasons that Canberra (and not Sydney) is the capital of Australia, that Washington DC (and not New York) is the capital of the USA, and that Brasilia (and not Sao Paulo) is the capital of Brazil.

That neither the UK nor the USA recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital is an interesting irrelevance in this context. When an incoming ambassador wishes to submit his "letters of credence" to the Israeli head of state (as he must), he is obliged to travel to Jerusalem in order to do so.

But my letter to the Sunday Times correcting its error in describing Tel Aviv as Israel's capital was not published, nor was the error corrected. So I complained to the PCC. And, after duly deliberating upon this matter, the PCC took the coward's way out, rejecting my complaint on the grounds that "it was not in a position to come to a definitive view".

I cannot for the life of me understand why, because applying the commonsense (and universally accepted) criteria that I have outlined above, it certainly was in a position to come to a definitive view. But it chose not to.

In an interesting sequel to this story, the PCC's "complaints officer", Elizabeth Cobbe, has admitted to me that the Commission does not in fact "have a working definition of what constitutes a capital city" adding that "it assesses each case on an individual basis".

So there you have it. The Sunday Times and Andrew Sullivan are free to continue peddling the lie that Tel Aviv is Israel's capital. Do not look to the PCC for redress. For there is none to be had.

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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