The refusal of the BBC and Sky TV to broadcast a charity appeal for victims of Israeli ground and air attacks in Gaza earlier this month (Jan 2009), is causing outrage in Britain.
Church leaders and MPs have joined in calls for the BBC and Sky TV to join Channels Four and Five in broadcasting the appeal video, produced by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).
The whole fracas raises some very interesting questions about the line between news and advertorial and the editorial independence of news organisations reporting on the controversial conflict between Israel and the Hamas organisation, which controls Gaza and has been firing Qassam rockets into Israeli settlements.
The video is available on the Guardian’s website.
The BBC’s Director-General, wearing his “editor-in-chief” hat, argues that broadcasting the appeal would compromise the organisation’s impartiality in the coverage of an ongoing news story. This seems, at face value to be a persuasive argument.
Thompson has taken the unusual step of justifying this decision on his blog, writing that after consultation with senior news executives, the BBC could not broadcast the appeal.
Gaza remains a major ongoing news story, in which humanitarian issues – the suffering and distress of civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict, the debate about who is responsible for causing it and what should be done about it – are both at the heart of the story and contentious. We have and will continue to cover the human side of the conflict in Gaza extensively across our news services where we can place all of the issues in context in an objective and balanced way. After looking at all of the circumstances, and in particular after seeking advice from senior leaders in BBC Journalism, we concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in its wider coverage of the story. [Mark Thompson's blog]
Health Minister and former BBC journalist Ben Bradshaw, described the BBC’s decision and “inexplicable” and “feeble”. A number of other former BBC correspondents, including Martin Bell, have also criticised the decision.
Prominent religious leaders are calling for the humanitarian appeal to be broadcast.
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, and Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, joined critics. Dr Sentamu said: “This is not an appeal for Hamas – that would be horrendous and horrific. This is to help actual people who are wounded, who need medicines, who need shelter, who need food. That’s all it is.” [Yorkshire Post]
The row has also created a divide among journalists. A statement from several media unions, including the National Union of Journalists, reads in part:
“The justifications given for the decision — ‘question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation’ and risks of compromising its ‘impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story’ — appear to us cowardly and in danger of being seen as politically motivated and biased in favour of Israel…
We, above all, understand the BBC’s need to maintain editorial impartiality, and we also understand the pressure journalists and the BBC come under from those who accuse the BBC of bias in reporting the Middle East.”
The BBC’s decision seems to be politically motivated – perhaps there’s a fear of undue pressure from the pro-Israel lobby if the appeal’s broadcast. But a quick glance at the BBC’s public appeals and charities page online shows that the organisation regularly supports humanitarian and other fund-raising efforts.
At the moment Radio 4 is supporting an appeal to buy cows for poor farmers in Africa, Send a Cow, which has Christian values. Does this compromise the BBC when it is criticising African governments, or indeed Christian charities.
There is indeed a mixed message being sent hear. Some values are worth promoting as they are normative – such as “Christian” values of charity – but not others. One recipient of BBC airtime has been Anti-Slavery International, which is no doubt a worthy cause, but certainly very political.
According to Thompson’s blogpost, this is really the crux of the matter:
The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story.
He goes on to argue that the BBC has covered Gaza with “compassion” and “objectivity”. I have commented previously on the flak-jacket journalism of the BBC and others in the first weeks of the conflict, which while formally “objective”, frames Hamas as terrorists and the Israeli’s as innocent victims.
Anyone, perhaps even Stefan, who’s seen recent pictures and footage of the damage the Israeli’s caused to non-military targets, might wonder about this framing. The Israeli ground forces have deliberately destroyed economic targets that had no military value. This is just a way of inflicting collective punishment on Palestinians, it does not meet any rational security objective.
UK media blogger and journalism educator Roy Greenslade calls the BBC decision “wrong-headed” and says that the impartiality argument is hopelessly contradictory.
It is surely the case that public confidence in its (supposed) impartiality is now ruined because it will not broadcast the appeal. The decision cannot do other than suggest that the BBC is bending to Israel’s will.
I agree. But I also think this is a more fundamental issue about how coverage of conflict and its aftermath is handled. To be objective about the Gaza conflict is to imply that there’s no right and wrong, that there’s no moral reasoning to be applied.
I won’t repeat myself, but if you haven’t read The Moral Purpose of Journalism by now, perhaps you’d like to at this point.