Sunday 25 January 2009

The BBC's Gaza confusion: stop digging

The Disasters Emergency Committee has launched a Gaza crisis appeal focused on providing food, fresh water, emergency healthcare and securing electricity supplies to deal with a "completely overwhelming" humanitarian crisis. You can donate online here.

Brendan Gormley, head of the DEC appeal has said:

"DEC agencies have a humanitarian mandate. We are not proposing to attempt to rebuild Gaza – that is not our role. But with the public’s support we can help relieve short-term needs. Agencies are already providing food, drugs and blankets as well as delivering clean water ... We work on the basis of humanitarian need and there is an urgent need in Gaza today. Political solutions are for others to resolve, but what is of major concern to us all is that many innocent people have been affected by the situation – and it is them that we seek to help.”

Very few would doubt that this is a legitimate and necessary way for this coalition of the UK's major aid agencies to fulfil their remit.

Let us hope that the unfortunate row over the BBC's refusal to air a televised appeal from the DEC has had the effect of increasing its profile and donations.

From the point of view of its stated desire to protect its impartiality, it is obvious to almost all outside the BBC (and probably, by now, to many within it) that the BBC's decision has been an avoidable mistake in three ways.

Firstly, it appears to be a clear break in this case with the established practice of the BBC when it comes to Disasters Emergency Committee appeals. The Guardian editorial notes the example of the Vietnam war where there was a much greater level of politicised, public controversy than, for example, recent appeals such as Darfur which have also been cited.

Secondly, it follows that the danger of the BBC "undermining public confidence in the BBC's impartiality" lay in refusing to broadcast the humanitarian appeal. Caroline Thompson further confused the position by placing a good deal of emphasis on the BBC's worries about whether aid would get through; something on which the BBC can bring no expertise beyond that of the Disasters Emergency Committtee. As the Archbishop of York puts it: "This situation is akin to that of British military hospitals who treat prisoners of war as a result of their duty under the Geneva convention. They do so because they identify need rather than cause. This is not an appeal by Hamas asking for arms but by the Disasters Emergency Committee asking for relief. By declining their request, the BBC has already taken sides and forsaken impartiality".

Thirdly, it is inevitable that such a novel decision would generate media, civic society, political and public discussion. If the BBC now backs down (as it should), it is rather more likely to be accused of bending to political pressure than it would have been had it simply broadcast the appeal in a routine way. And, if it does not back down, it will be accused of stubbornly sticking to a decision which has dragged it into politics and so undermines viewers' confidence.

BBC Trust Chairman Michael Lyons is concerned that the level and tone "coming close to constituting undue interference in the editorial independence of the BBC". Yet the tone of comments by Development Secretary Douglas Alexander and his Tory shadow Andrew Mitchell have been clear in requesting a rethink, yet careful to emphasise that it is the BBC's decision to make.

I strongly support the BBC's impartiality, but of course that can not entail immunity to its decisions being discussed and scrutinised within civil society. The DEC decision reflects the consensus of the thirteen major charities. ITV, Channel Four and Five will all show the appeal. Few if any of the newspaper editorials understand the BBC's logic, which The Observer calls "absurd".

There are non-partisan voices in this crisis. I have yet to hear from any who believe the BBC's decision makes sense.

Unfortunately, whatever happens now, the BBC will have quite unnecessarily brought its own impartiality into question in a way that showing the appeal in the first place would never have done. This management decision does show an unfortunate jumpiness and unnecessary lack of confidence in the BBC's news journalism.

The answer must be to stop digging, and find a means for the BBC to revisit the merits of the case. Perhaps then the BBC can find out, for itself, that it ought to broadcast a legitimate humanitarian crisis appeal just as it has done in the past.

1 comment:

Unknown said...