Sunday, January 25, 2009
No Win Situation
When I joined the BBC as a news trainee in 1973, the first thing our instructor said to us six wet behind the ears young hopefuls was, “I expect one of you to become Director-General in a few years’ time”. I’m sure our newly graduated arrogance caused us to smirk with ambition, and indeed one of us, Tony Hall, nearly pipped Greg Dyke to the top spot a few years back. Today I couldn’t imagine a worse assignment.
Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Mark Thompson decided not to broadcast an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee calling for donations to its Gaza relief fund, and now all hell has broken loose. His logic is that putting out the advert would undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the BBC. The result has been an outcry, with politicians, journalists, and even the BBC’s own staff, calling the decision weak, a serious error, or just plain wrong. Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, who used to be a reporter on Radio 4’s The World At One, said “This is a humanitarian catastrophe and I am afraid the reasons given by the BBC are completely feeble”. Even Phil Harding, the former BBC Controller of Policy (or, as we used to call him, Head of the Thought Police), who actually wrote the BBC’s editorial guidelines, says that although it’s a tough call, Thompson misjudged this one. I have to say, I agree.
Israel is, and always has been, the BBC’s hot potato. Constantly accused of bias on both sides, the BBC actually admitted it got it wrong (together with most of the world’s media) in 2005 over its overemotional (and consequently pro-Palestinian) coverage of the Israel attacks on Lebanon. That’s why this time it’s determined to get it right. The BBC says that by broadcasting the DEC appeal it might be seen to be backing Palestinians rather than Israelis as victims of the Gaza conflict. Consequently it’s now being accused of bias in favour of Israel. The Director-General can do no right.
The BBC’s mistake is that suggesting that broadcasting what is palpably a humanitarian, not a political appeal, might in some way confuse its viewers. This is condescending to the extreme. Does he serious believe that you and I will mistake it as some kind of pro-Hamas rant? This is an appeal by an umbrella group of 13 British humanitarian aid organisations, from Oxfam to Save the Children, to help children and innocent civilians whom, everyone agrees, are enduring the most appalling conditions. The money isn’t for the rebuilding of Gaza: that will presumably be funded by the Syrians and Iranians, who supplied the rockets that Hamas have been firing into undefended Israeli towns for the last six years. Whether or not Israel used disproportionate force against a civilian population, or Hamas used those civilians as human shields, is utterly irrelevant. Urgent aid is needed now, and these organisations need our cash as soon as they can get it.
The DEC was set up in 1963 to respond to extreme humanitarian emergency overseas. That such an emergency now exists is fact: it’s even accepted by the Israelis themselves, which is why organisations like Labour Friends of Israel are calling for the broadcast to go ahead. The scale of suffering is greater than anyone first thought; meanwhile the BBC insults the intelligence of its own viewers by suggesting they cannot distinguish between fact and propaganda.
As the Archbishop of York said at the weekend, this is not a row about impartiality, but about humanity. By the way, if you do want to donate, DEC’s phone number is 0370 60 60 900.