This article assesses the BBC Board’s arguments not to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee.
1. BBC director general Mark Thomson says: “The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story. When we have turned down DEC appeals in the past on impartiality grounds it has been because of this risk of giving the public the impression that the BBC was taking sides in an ongoing conflict.”
When a dog savages a child, it is not “impartial” to stand back and watch the child bleed. On the contrary – it is to side with the dog. Thompson’s shibboleth of impartiality in reality means siding with Israel against the suffering people of Gaza.
Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk puts it like this:
“I think it is the job of journalists to be impartial on the side of those who suffer most. I was present on the same street when a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem August 2000. When I got to the scene there was a woman with a chair-leg through her, a child with no eyes, Israelis of course in West Jerusalem. I wrote about the victims and the survivors. I did not give equal time, I did not give balance to the article by giving 50% of my report to the spokesman for Islamic Jihad.
“When I was in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut September 1982 where Israel’s militia allies from Lebanon, the Falange, had gone into the camp and murdered and massacred and eviscerated and raped women for two days while the Israelis watched, as we learned from the Israeli report the Kahan commission report the following year, I did not give equal time to the IDF spokesman, I concentrated on the victims and the survivors. That is what our job is to do.
“When we are reporting a football match in the UK we can give equal time to both sides or a public enquiry into new motorway. But the Middle East is not a football match, it is a massive tragedy of blood, sorry and revenge. And we need to reflect that.”
As a former BBC World Service current affairs producer wrote to his colleagues this weekend: “The question of partiality is a red herring. It is for the general public to respond to a humanitarian disaster as they choose.”
2. Mark Thompson again: “The BBC should not broadcast the DEC appeal “because Gaza remains an ongoing and highly controversial news story within which the human suffering and distress which have resulted from the conflict remain intrinsic and contentious elements.”
Other DEC appeals broadcast by the BBC are no less political than Gaza. Any disaster is “controversial” in as much as its root causes are contested. The BBC broadcast the DEC appeal for victims of fighting in the Congo last November, for example. A more “controversial” conflict it is hard to imagine. But the BBC does not deem that war central to its coverage, and so it was permissible to broadcast an appeal for its victims.
The BBC also broadcast the DEC’s Burma cyclone appeal last May. Again, the death toll from that cyclone is a highly political issue, and Western powers are keen to oust the military regime in Burma. But because it could be portrayed as a “natural disaster” the BBC deemed it permissible to broadcast the DEC appeal.
So BBC top management thinks its is legitimate to broadcast disaster appeals if it can get away with ignoring the political roots of disasters or pretending that they are not political at all. In the Gaza case this is impossible, but it does not follow that previous appeals were less political. It is simply that the Congolese and Burmese lobbies are far less influential than the Israeli lobby.
The Gaza decision by the BBC board is not therefore a matter of principle, as Mark Thompson tries to argue, but a matter of political expediency.
Thomson’s number 3, chief operating officer Caroline Thompson, admitted as much when she told al-Jazeera: “We never say never and clearly, if the DEC came to us with another request when things have calmed down and we didn’t have the same worries about the controversial nature of this, we would look at it again in that light.”
“Things calming down” means the restoration of the status quo, when it becomes legitimate in the BBC Board’s eyes to support emergency appeals because they do not raise any fundamental questions about the causes of the suffering.
This goes to the heart of the coverage of the Gaza crisis over the past month. In the eyes of the pro-Israeli camp, the carnage in Gaza is justified by the context. The corollary of this position is that it is not in fact necessary to show the carnage, because the context – Hamas rockets etc – justifies it. For this reason, we have seen far too little of the bloody reality of Gaza on our screens.
However, the sheer scale of the destruction – the DIME weapons, phosphor bombs, targeting of schools and refuges – threatens the Israeli argument. That is why Israel prevented Western journalists from entering Gaza.
The British public needs to see these images of Gaza in order to make an informed decision on the Israeli case. Broadcasting the DEC appeal would in fact restore some balance to the mainstream media coverage since December 27.
4. Chief operating officer Caroline Thompson claims that the BBC refused to carry aid appeals before, for Lebanon and Afghanistan. But in neither case were those appeals made by the DEC, as the Independent on Sunday points out. The fact that a committee of 13 aid agencies is able to agree an appeal ought to be testimony to the degree of consensus that the humanitarian crisis is above politics
5. Mark Thompson says on his blog: “One reason [for turning down the Gaza appeal] was a concern about whether aid raised by the appeal could actually be delivered on the ground.”
Here Thomson is taking issue with the DEC itself, which consists of the foremost charities in the land, namely: ActionAid, British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International, Christian Aid, Concern, Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund World Vision.
The DEC states:
“Gaza has been under a blockage for the past three years. Throughout the shelling some DEC Member Agencies, working directly or through local partners, have managed to continue limited activities, providing food and medical care. The current ceasefire is enabling Humanitarian actors to commence needs assessments. Trucks are now arriving in Gaza, many of which are carrying humanitarian supplies. DEC Member Agencies and the UN are scaling up their response and have applied for additional visas for International staff to enter Gaza.
“The DEC members are committed to humanitarian principles including independence and have confirmed they are able to work without hindrance from the Hamas controlled authorities both to identify who are the most needy and to channel assistance to them directly, either through their own staff or well established local non governmental partners. The DEC members have submitted lists of partners and their banking arrangements, to insure proper systems are in place.”
Thompson is a broadcaster, not an aid specialist, and should therefore confine his remarks to broadcasting.
Jon Snow, Channel 4 News anchor, told the Observer that the BBC should accept the judgment of the aid experts of the DEC. “It is a ludicrous decision. … I think it was a decision founded on complete ignorance and I am absolutely amazed they have stuck to it.”
6. Former BBC director general Greg Dyke has stepped in on the side of the BBC Board: “I can understand why the BBC has taken this decision, because on a subject as sensitive as the Middle East it is absolutely essential that the audience cannot see any evidence at all of a bias.”
But inaction by the BBC means that the audience will see a clear bias in favour of Israel. Why should the BBC be more scared of being accused of pro-Palestinian bias than pro-Israeli bias? It is because Israel is the client state of the UK government’s ally, the United States, is armed by both the US and the UK, and shares strategic interests of these governments.
As a senior BBC news presenter told the Observer: “I’ve been talking to colleagues, and everyone here is absolutely seething about this. The notion that the decision to ban the appeal will seem impartial to the public at large is quite absurd.”
7. Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, said he is “concerned that the level and tone of some of the political comment is coming close to constituting undue interference in the editorial independence of the BBC”.
Let’s be clear: this government doesn’t give a monkey’s about BBC independence. After the government-inspired Hutton Report in 2004 that decapitated the organisation, the BBC’s top management has slavishly toed the government line on the “war on terror”.
The concern of Ben Bradshaw, Douglas Alexander and Hazel blears is rather that the BBC Board’s outrageous decision will undermine public faith in the corporation, which is often a useful tool for the establishment.
Martin Bell, the former BBC foreign correspondent, told the Observer that “a culture of timidity had crept” in at the BBC. “I am completely appalled,” he said. “It is a grave humanitarian crisis and the people who are suffering are children. They have been caught out on this question of balance.”
8. Caroline Thomson, interviewed on Today on Radio 4, said: “From the BBC’s point of view, the most important thing is that we keep our reputation and trust with the audience.”
But the audience’s trust is precisely what the BBC risks losing by banning the Gaza aid appeal.
As a senior BBC news presenter told the Observer: “Most of us feel that the BBC’s defence of its position is pathetic, and there’s a feeling of real anger, made worse by the fact that, contractually, we are unable to speak out.”
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