Beeb stand opens new front in media war

The BBC’s refusal to broadcast an appeal for Gaza has polarised the debate even more than usual

By Alex Brummer, January 29, 2009

So who would have thought it? The public debate over Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war, with allegations of war crimes and all the rest, has been displaced by the dispute over the BBC’s refusal to broadcast a humanitarian appeal. The Beeb’s rediscovery of its charter obligation to “impartiality” will have come as a pleasant surprise to its critics in Anglo-Jewry. But even the Corporation’s harshest critics would have to acknowledge that its coverage of Gaza was more balanced than that of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.

The current sensitivity of the BBC to any suggestions of bias is not that surprising. The issue of public service broadcasting is now up for grabs with Ofcom having just reported on the need to create a second force in public service broadcasts, perhaps by combining Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide.

Mark Thompson, the BBC’s Director General, was given a tough working over by the Beeb’s resident rottweiler John Humphrys for the decision not to broadcast the appeal, but stuck with his claim that the BBC was “passionate” about impartiality. As historian Andrew Roberts noted in The Times, there were plenty of other good reasons for not offering the appeal air time. His principle point is that appeals during/after a conflict are very different to those for victims of a tsunami or famine.

Marina Hyde, writing in the Guardian, didn’t worry about such intellectual niceties. In her view the “supine” BBC stand was all about appeasing its critics after the Jonathan Ross affair.

Precedent is on the director general’s side according to a chronology provided in The Times. The Disasters Emergency Committee was set up by 13 humanitarian agencies in 1963. Since then it has often provided relief for earthquakes and the like. But it declined in 2006 to provide funds to relieve starvation in East Africa because it was not sure the aid agencies could deliver the relief to the right people. Similarly, it declined an appeal for victims of the second Lebanon war.

So despite claims that it was setting a precedent, the Beeb’s response was in fact in line with past practice.

Perhaps the most telling Today interview was not with Thompson but with an official of the United Nations Works & Relief Agency, which is using its website for a special Gaza Appeal. The official conceded that there was food, water and medicine arriving in Gaza and the emergency funds, if they were required at all, would be used to repair housing. This, as Humphrys eventually made him concede, is reconstruction funding which differs from humanitarian aid. UNWRA, founded in 1949 to look after Palestinian refugees, is one of the world’s best funded aid agencies with an annual budget of $541m and a staff of thousands looking after the welfare of Palestinian refugees.

One of the difficulties in charitable appeals for Gaza is that so many charities have bought into the Palestinian narrative. Andrew Roberts’ Times piece noted that Cafod, Christian Aid and Oxfam made up their mind some time ago that Israel’s actions in Gaza “constitutes a collective punishment against ordinary men, women and children”.

Media opinion is defined by politics. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than in the political weeklies. New Statesman coverage, led by John Pilger, has been distorted, charging that every war that Israel has been involved in since 1948 has been about “expulsion of the native people and theft of more land”. Spectator writer Douglas Davis wrote that he was shocked by the antisemitism he sees and the embrace of Hamas in Europe.

Who can blame the BBC for taking care to steer between these extremes?

Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 12:51pm, January 29 2009