Tuesday, January 27, 2009

BBC assailed for refusing to carry Gaza appeal

By John F. Burns
January 27
International Herald Tribune

LONDON: In more than 80 years as a publicly financed broadcaster with an audience of millions at home and around the world, the BBC has rarely been buffeted as severely as it has in recent days over its decision not to broadcast a television appeal by aid agencies for victims of Israel's recent military actions in Gaza.

BBC executives made the decision late last week and defiantly reaffirmed it on Monday, citing their concern with protecting the corporation's impartiality in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The dispute stirs high passions here, and the BBC, like other news organizations, has struggled uneasily for years to strike a balance, even as some critics claim it has tilted heavily toward Israel and others claim it has favored the Palestinians.

The three-week Israeli campaign in Gaza that ended nine days ago had already elicited a fresh barrage of complaints about BBC bias, for and against Israel. But the decision to block the aid appeal had the effect of magnifying the protests, and their virulence.

The decision has met with angry criticism from Church of England archbishops, editorial writers and senior British government ministers, as well as sit-ins at the BBC's London headquarters and its broadcast center in Glasgow.

News planning sessions at the BBC have featured heated exchanges among editors and reporters, and BBC officials said Monday that they had received more than 11,000 complaints in the past three days.

A strong undercurrent in many of the protests has been that the BBC gave in to pressure from Israel or Jewish lobbying groups, which the BBC has vehemently denied.

A more common view has been that BBC executives, already wary because of a recent series of embarrassments unrelated to Middle East coverage, became so averse to controversy that they made an awkward extension of the concept of impartiality to a purely humanitarian issue.

But the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, denied Monday to reporters that he had been subjected to "arm-twisting" by pro-Israeli groups and said that the corporation had a duty to cover the Gaza dispute in a "balanced, objective way."

"Of course, everyone is struck by the human consequence of what has happened," he said. "And we will, I promise you, continue to report that as fully and compassionately as we can. But we are going to do that in a way where we can hold it up to scrutiny. It's our job as journalists."

The three-minute video, which was shown on several other channels in Britain on Monday night, was prepared by the Disasters Emergency Committee, an organization representing 11 relief agencies. Among them are many of Britain's best-known charities, including the Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Help the Aged, Christian Aid and World Vision.

The committee has said the money it raises will buy food, medical supplies, tents, blankets and other necessities for those suffering in Gaza in the wake of the Israeli offensive and the military actions of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs Gaza.

It asked broadcasters to show the appeal as a public service.

The BBC does not accept advertising but has shown humanitarian appeals on other issues in the past, including the conflicts in Rwanda, the Congo and Darfur.

Some of the sharpest criticism of the BBC's decision on the Gaza appeal came from within its own ranks, from unions representing its newsroom staff and from retired editors and reporters.

Sir John Tusa, a former head of the BBC World Service, said the scenes of distressed children and families in Gaza captured in the video appeal were a matter of "common humanity."

"Nobody, surely, in their right mind, can say that is being partial towards the victims, as if somehow they deserved the fate they got," he said in a BBC radio interview.

"The thing that worries me," he added, "is that there is now an overcomplication of regulation and compliance and policy, and that in the course of that, common sense, and, I regret to say, humanity, seem to have been left behind."

The BBC was joined in its refusal to carry the appeal, and its contention that to do so would compromise the impartiality of its Middle East coverage, by Sky News, a broadcaster whose majority shareholder is Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

But three other broadcasters the publicly owned Channel 4 and two private broadcasters, ITV and Channel 5 accepted the appeal. After the BBC, ITV has the largest number of viewers for its main nightly newscast.

As shown on Monday night, the video focused heavily on the plight of Palestinian children — small boys and girls wounded and sobbing, being rushed into hospital emergency wards and, at one point, a parent clutching a tiny white shroud. Other scenes were of homes and apartment blocks collapsed into piles of twisted steel and rubble, and of a woman in black clasping her hands to her head as she surveys a bombed-out wasteland.

"The children of Gaza are suffering," the narrator said. "Many are struggling to survive, homeless or in need of food and water."

Then, as if answering the view that the video amounted to anti-Israeli propaganda, he said: "Today, this is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. These people simply need your help."

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