Gaza appeal creates row in UK media

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.

BBC appeals and charity page

BBC appeals and charity page

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.

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15 Responses to Gaza appeal creates row in UK media

  1. James Murray says:

    Hi Martin. It is an interesting problem indeed faced by the BBC and I agree that they may be lacking the courage of their convictions here.

    The angle about the BBC perhaps being fearful of Israeli lobby groups is also interesting – at TV3 we receive numerous emails from the general public supporting Israel’s cause but none in support of Hamas – which tend to come in the form of comments left on the website. I suppose you can draw your own conclusions from that.

    James

    EM note: James Murray is a 2008 alumnus of the AUT Graduate Diploma in Journalism. He is working at TV3 and blogs there about media ethics.

  2. James, the conclusion I’d be tempted to draw is that the pro-Hamas comments are coming from overseas (not all, but most perhaps).

  3. Hi, you suggest that the BBC may have been bowing to pressure from pro-Israeli lobbyists – but I’d suggest exactly the opposite.

    After conducting a little rudimentary research yesterday I discovered that by whipping up this controversy, the Beeb actually boosted prime-time terrestrial TV coverage of the appeal by 9minutes 20seconds (the full set data and a write-up is on my blog).

    The network claimed that it didn’t want to compromise its impartiality, and yet the length of its report on the boycott (3mins) was exactly the same duration as the DEC’s own appeal; while other networks covered it even more liberally, with Channel 4 devoting 6mins 50seconds to the story (in addition to its airing of the DEC appeal).

    As far as I’m concerned the whole thing was a carefully-contrived media stunt intended to raise awareness of the DEC appeal (and as a sideline also boost the Beeb’s image as a moralistic, principled network). I really think they stooped to a new low with this one.

  4. A neat idea Martin, a bit of accidental (or deliberate) viral marketing. That tricky BBC.
    There has been extensive coverage of this story on the BBC website too. In fact I think the BBC has done a good job of reporting itself.

  5. The BBC always does a good job of reporting itself. Whenever it’s being criticised it loves to present an image of transparency, but will endeavour to play up said transparency in an expedient manner. Think along the lines of the recent Stricly Come Dancing scandal – I wonder what impact that had on viewer numbers…

  6. [...] a post earlier this week I pointed out that there’s a certain level of hypocrisy in the BBC’s position, given [...]

  7. Stefan says:

    “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.”

    Despite all the protestations of not being antisemitic it doesn’t take much prompting for left wing extremists like Hirst to wheel out tried and tested conspiratorial stereotypes when dealing with the Jews. First there’s the identification of The Pro-Israel Lobby, that shadowy monolith of millions of automatons ready to unequestioningly do Israel’s bidding in its quest for universal mind and media control.(Hang on, but don’t Jews, sorry, the ‘pro-Israel lobby’ already control the media?) Read all about it in Pluto Press’s new edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
    Then there’s the complete absence – as far as I know, if Hirst or any of his fellow conspiracy theorists have some facts to share to the contrary then I’d stand corrected – of any pressure placed on the BBC by, say the Embassy of Israel, the Board of Deputies of British Jews or anyone else involved in a Jewish communal organisation. To the contrary, the Board of Deputies told the Guardian that it “did not object in principle to the concept of a Gaza appeal” adding that any view would depend on how the appeal was executed.

  8. Stefan says:

    “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.”

    And yet the BBC has refused to broadcast similar appeals by the DEC (Disaster Emergency Committee) before: in 2006 it refused to show an appeal for people starving in East Africa saying that id didn’t believe that the agencies could deliver the aid.
    And it refused an appeal for victims of the Israeli conflict with Hezbollah after the DEC said it wanted to include Gaza. And in 2008 it didn’t broadcast the appeal following the Burma cyclone until access to the country improved.

  9. Stefan, when you resort to outright fabrications your credibility suffers further.

    Pluto Press does not publish the so-called Protocols of Zion and you absolutely know that. Your bitter theocratic paranoia has got the better of you.
    Pluto does however publish a number of excellent titles about Zionism that you should read.
    The Myths of Zionism by John Rose and Overcoming Zionism by Joel Kovel.

  10. Stefan,
    Also, you might consider Mearsheimer and Walt’s 2007 The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy which indicates that in recent years Israel has received over $US 3 billion p.a. in direct aid and that it does not have to account for how it is spent. Every Israeli is subsidised by $500 a year by US taxpayers which frees up precious resources for the continued occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and allows the Israeli government to bankroll illegal settlements and build apartheid walls against local Arab populations.
    You live in total denial, a problem of fundamentalism.
    And, you’re totally wrapped up in conspiracy theories which you then try to project onto your political opponents. Totally screwed up I’m afraid.

  11. Stefan says:

    I was being facetious.

  12. Oh,but you take yourself so seriously.

  13. Stefan says:

    And the billions of dollars in US aid for Egypt?! And what about the huge contributions which the US gets in return from Israel in terms of high tech expertise and trade? No to mention the huge benefits the world enjoys from the innovations, inventions and research which Israel has made in the fields of engineering, science, medicine, electronics etc etc. What does the US get back from Egypt? Oranges… erm…

  14. Stefan says:

    Oh yes, Walt and Mearsheimer… As Benny Morris wrote:

    Like many pro-Arab propagandists at work today, Mearsheimer and Walt often cite my own books, sometimes quoting directly from them, in apparent corroboration of their arguments. Yet their work is a travesty of the history that I have studied and written for the past two decades. Their work is riddled with shoddiness and defiled by mendacity. Were “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body.

  15. [...] been to EM before, you’ll know I don’t pull any punches on the Palestine question Gaza, Israel, and that I’m hardcore on the war on [...]

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