BBC apologises after repeatedly suggesting Tel Aviv is capital of Israel

Israel flags
Israel flags

The BBC has apologised after one of its senior presenters suggested Tel Aviv was Israel’s capital, contradicting its own guidelines.

The broadcaster initially defended the error, prompting accusations of “systemic anti-Israel bias” from one of its former directors, but later apologised.

During a pre-recorded interview for BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, Gary O’Donoghue, the corporation’s Washington correspondent, used Tel Aviv as a metonym for Israel’s government, rather than Jerusalem.

It is a common journalistic practice to use a nation’s capital city as a metonym for its centre of government but Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, is the site of Israel’s parliament and all its main administrative arms.

The status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is disputed internationally, with most countries, including the UK, choosing to base their embassies in Tel Aviv.

In 2021, the BBC issued guidance that stated that: “The Israeli government should not be referred to as Tel Aviv.” According to a report by Camera Arabic, a media-monitoring organisation, it has since made the mistake 34 times.

Following Mr O’Donoghue’s reference to Tel Aviv, a complainant asked if there had been a change in the BBC’s official position. However, the broadcaster did not acknowledge that it had made a mistake.

A BBC spokesman said: “There has been no change to our policy… we have reminded journalists of the position.”

Danny Cohen, a former director of BBC Television, said: “A mistake does not happen 34 times. The BBC has a serious problem with impartiality, which its senior management are clearly unwilling to address.”

Danny Cohen, former director of BBC TV: 'The BBC has a serious problem with impartiality, which its senior management are clearly unwilling to address'
Danny Cohen, former director of BBC TV: 'The BBC has a serious problem with impartiality, which its senior management are clearly unwilling to address' - BBC

Andrew Percy, Conservative MP, said the BBC “has run a consistently biased narrative of hate against the state of Israel since the start of this conflict”.

He added: “It is hardly surprising therefore that it can’t name the correct capital of Israel.”

The incident occurred in mid-April during an item on the reaction from Washington following Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel.

Mr O’Donoghue said: “The events of the weekend, with the close military cooperation involved, have served to bring Washington and Tel Aviv closer together.”

When asked to comment on the presenter’s remark, the BBC complaints team initially said: “BBC News tries to use language that makes sense to our audience, within the context of the story we’re reporting.

“While we report that Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, this isn’t widely recognised by the international community, with most foreign embassies being in Tel Aviv.

“Therefore, in some reports there might be mention of ‘correspondence between Washington and Tel Aviv’, for example.”

Viewed as ‘occupied territory’

East Jerusalem is viewed by the UN as occupied territory, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state of Palestine. It has also been the focal point of Jewish life for more than 1,000 years.

In 2018, the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, officially recognising the city as Israel’s capital. Rishi Sunak described Jerusalem as Israel’s “historic capital” in 2022 and said there was a “very strong case” for the UK embassy to move as well.

The BBC’s Arabic service has frequently referred to Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital. Since it publicly pledged to stop in January 2021, the service has made the error a total of 35 times, Camera Arabic, a media-monitoring organisation, reported.

A Camera Arabic spokesman said: “While the BBC’s practice of falsely naming the Israeli capital and seat of government ‘Tel Aviv’ withered somewhat in English-language coverage in recent years, in Arabic it still occurred at a more-or-less steady pace of once a month since mid-2020.

“Sadly, with an editor of the BBC’s English edition clumsily excusing it in hindsight, it now seems that this bad habit is trickling back into the English-language coverage.”

The corporation’s official guidelines on the subject state: “The BBC does not call Jerusalem the ‘capital’ of Israel, though of course BBC journalists can report that Israel claims it as such.

“If you need a phrase you can call it Israel’s ‘seat of government’, and you can also report that almost all foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv.”

A BBC spokesman said: “Our reference to Tel Aviv in this news bulletin was an error, for which we apologise. We would like to assure you that this wasn’t indicative of any form of bias.

“The point has been raised with senior editors at BBC News, who have reminded our journalists to use language which adheres to the BBC style guide.”