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BBC refuses to air appeal for aid to Gaza

January 23, 2009

This blog entry was going to be about the BBC’s proud history of impartiality. I spent much of yesterday reading about the World Service. How it broadcast the world’s first Arabic service – in 1938. How during the second world war, it’s commitment to honesty and fairness meant that it refused to censor news of allied defeats.

It even had a show that broadcast messages from German prisoners of war back to their families.

But then I got an email from a friend in London. It said that the BBC had decided not to air an appeal for aid to Gaza because it did not want to risk it’s reputation for impartiality.

This was not a politicised advert from an organisation with an axe to grind.

The appeal came from the Disasters Emergency Committtee (DEC,) a coalition of 12 leading charities, including the British Red Cross and Save the Children. The DEC had decided that the situation in Gaza was so severe after the three week Israeli offensive, that it should use it’s collective weight to raise emergency funds.

And, as usual, it then turned to the British media to help it get the word out.

Under a 46 year old agreement, the BBC and ITN help script and produce TV and Radio appeals with appropriate footage.  All  British broadcasting outlets then give two minutes of prime air-time to the appeals, in recognitition of  their importance. The appeal is also supported with free help from the press, the post-office, banks, and BT.

Through this rapid response network the DEC is usually able to raise around £10 million.

But if one broadcaster refuses, they all refuse. And it seems that in this case, the BBC has led the way in turning down the appeal.

In a statement, the BBC said: “The BBC decision was made because of question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation and also to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story.

“However, the BBC will, of course, continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza.”

Was this the right decision?  I thought of the proud history I had been reading about yesterday. There was the sense of fair play that gave air-time to German prisoners of war. But there was also the courage to use the airwaves as a tool to help the victims of war.

“Bulletins in Danish and Norwegian began on the days the two countries were invaded; the Dutch Service began a month after Holland was occupied.” 75 Years of BBC World Service

Now, I respect the BBC’s efforts to be impartial and even handed in reporting conflict in the Middle East, though sometimes I find myself frustrated by it.  From my point of view, it often seems like David and Goliath – stones against tanks, home-made rockets against fighter jets.

But at least BBC reporting, spare, stripped away of emotion, gives you the facts, and lets you make up your mind about the rights and wrong;

“At least 1,300 Palestinians were killed, nearly a third of them children, and 5,500 injured in the Israeli operation, which began on 27 December, Palestinian medical sources in Gaza say.

Israel says that it acted to stop Hamas militants targeting Israeli towns with rocket fire.

Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, have been killed, the Israeli army says.” BBC News Online.

Reputation

However, this latest decision seems to lack courage. It seems to be motivated by the fear of criticism, the fear of damage to it’s reputation.

The DEC has chosen Gaza for it’s appeal because of the dire need of people there, not because of their politics. Broadcasting the appeal would not have affected BBC reporting or news values. It’s rigorous process of checks and balances would have remained in place.

But it would have helped raise millions of pounds for people who are homeless and hurt as a result of conflict.

Does it matter where that conflict took place?

In this case, the BBC has acted to avoid the risk of damage to it’s reputation for impartiality. But being impartial is not about sitting on the fence or ignoring injustices because you might be criticised. It is about questioning your own prejudices, being open minded, and being honest.

It shouldn’t be based on how others will perceive you, either as an individual journalist, or as an institution.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2009 6:03 PM

    Thanks for your post Tom, this is a really interesting story and one which has certainly got bloggers and those who write on message boards particularly riled.

    http://freemansjournal.wordpress.com/2009/01/22/bbc-refuse-dec-aid-appeal-appeal/

    http://community.channel4.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/503603557/m/71700533311

    Like you I am also saddened to hear this news. The BBC’s desperate desire to remain impartial in the eyes of the public will have a huge impact on the amount of money the Disasters Emergency Committee can raise for those suffering in Gaza and the fact that they have refused to help when there is a clear humanitarian crisis is hard to stomach.

    Those prized values of impartiality and neutrality will now affect the lives of thousands of people in Gaza so where do ethics come in to it? Surely the need to help people should overwhelm the desire not to be accused of bias and partiality. The media, particularly public service broadcasters such as the BBC do I feel have an obligation to help in cases like this and inform the public about the suffering of others.

    I can understand why the BBC wishes to be cautious after the year it’s had but I think their decision not to broadcast the DEC appeal will reflect negatively upon them. Already the press has picked up the story.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/22/gaza-charity-appeal

    There is also the possibility that by not showing the appeal to help the suffering in Gaza the BBC could be accused of pro-Israeli bias. It is a vicious cycle. The way the BBC lead the pack in rejecting the appeal I think says a lot about the pressures they face from Ofcom and threats surrounding the licence fee.

    But in this case, I think the BBC’s pedantic desire to stick to the rules and appear neutral could majorly backfire and have a huge consequence on the lives of those in Gaza.

    Ali

  2. ayeshas permalink
    January 23, 2009 9:43 PM

    Hello guys,

    I’ve seen appeals for humanitarian aid to many countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia being broadcast time and again by the BBC. However, this is the Middle East we are talking about and the BBC has often been accused of reporting in favour of Palestine. In fact, the corporation has been referred to as the “Balestinian Broadcasting Corporation” reflecting views of their bias towards Palestine. The issue is contentious and ongoing. This is not to say I agree with what the BBC has done. I think they’ve made a poor choice in not allowing two minute free air time to the DEC as per the contract. Humans are humans at the end of the day, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis. But, it is important to get both sides of a story, even if you don’t agree with it.

  3. January 24, 2009 4:23 PM

    It seems the backlash against the BBC’s decision has already started, with protests outside Broadcasting House and condemnation by MP Douglas Alexander.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jan/24/bbc-gaza-aid-appeal-dec

    With ITV, Channel 4 and Five now deciding to broadcast the Gaza appeal it will be interesting to see if the BBC are now forced to change their minds.

    Ali

  4. Cassandrina permalink
    January 24, 2009 5:27 PM

    Call me cynical but:
    The bbc is postering on this issue as it has been under repeated attack in its support of our incompetent government, and especially on supporting Israel over Gaza this year.
    Which is also why NuLabor is now making this a grandstand issue to support aid to Gaza to show it is not controlling the bbc behind the scenes.
    Also compare £25 million of our money to aid Gaza while it sells over £18 million of military hardware to Israel.

  5. ks4374 permalink
    January 25, 2009 12:19 AM

    It always important to strike a balance and weigh both sides of the story. BBC, especially in case of Middle eastern coverage has been Pro-Palestinian. Well, this is not going to end here. I think the amount of money that goes into aid and relief works in almost all the nations that are war striken is beyond a count. I think BBC’s impartiality in this case may backfire.

  6. January 25, 2009 7:12 PM

    In News from No-mans land, John Simpson said that the BBC is always under attack for being “biased” to the other side, and in the past both Labour and the Conservatives have attacked reports claiming that they are being victimised! With regards the Gaza conflict I think you might find this post a good read:

    http://fortuzero.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/the-bbc-biased-broadcasting-corporation/

    It takes the opposite view to you Ali, and claims that the Beeb is pro-Israeli.

  7. January 26, 2009 1:43 PM

    Dear Media on the Fence,

    We are discussiong this issue on ‘World Have Your say’, a radio program on the BBC World Service. We’d very much like to speak to somebody from your blog. Could you please drop me an email at elizabeth.ryder@bbc.co.uk.

  8. January 27, 2009 8:19 AM

    bbc r stupid hypocrits
    show em it i dont care coz dey r cowards”!!!!

Trackbacks

  1. BBC gets confused over Gaza appeal « One Year to Change the World

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