Media ’s Dual Standards

The BBC’s refusal to broadcast a charity appeal for Gaza has sparked a heated debate in Britain, and drawn comments and complaints from viewers, politicians, religious leaders and celebrities; it has also sparked a rather tense demonstration in front of the BBC television centre.

By Abeer Mishkhas (ARAB ANGlE)

Published: Thu 5 Feb 2009, 10:55 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:51 AM

One of the reasons the BBC cited for not running the appeal was that it was not sure whether the aid would find its way into Gaza. The other reason was the need to keep an impartial distance from the conflict.

The first concern seems a bit fake to me, as the BBC does not have the right to question the work of international aid organisations approved by the UK government. Furthermore, the BBC has broadcast appeals on Darfur, Rwanda, and the Congo, and it did not make a point about the way aid was being sent to those places.

But how do we measure ‘impartiality’ in such cases? If you run an appeal that asks people to help children and families who are suffering from a lack of food, medicine and shelter, do you then jeopardise your impartiality?

The Archbishop of York said: “This is not a row about impartiality but rather about humanity. By declining their request, the BBC has already taken sides and forsaken impartiality.

It is true that in its haste to repel the charge of partiality, the BBC has ignored the humanitarian aspect. On the current affairs programme “Newsnight,” BBC broadcaster Gavin Esler asked a spokeswoman for the corporation about the reason behind the decision.

He began with a simple statement clothed as a question: “You are scared of the Israelis”.

Of course, her answer to this was no, but we are bound to wonder if the BBC did not want to anger the Israelis, or perhaps their supporters in Britain, by broadcasting the appeal.

The BBC has not been experiencing a happy relationship with its viewers lately, in matters more trivial than the current issue.

Martin Bell, a former BBC correspondent, and one-time member for parliament who stood as an independent, referred to the BBC’s decision to broadcast appeals concerning other conflict zones and asked “What’s different this time? It’s Palestinians involved, so what we seem to be saying is there’s one rule for Africans and another for Palestinians. We need a bit of spine-stiffening. I fear a culture of timidity has crept into [the BBC].

And it is not only former employees who suspect that politics affected the BBC’s decision. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg said that it is “an insult to the viewing public to suggest they can’t distinguish between the humanitarian needs of thousands of children and families in Gaza, and the political sensitivities of the Middle East.“ His sentiment was shared by Douglas Alexander, International Development Secretary, who said, “I think the British public can distinguish between support for humanitarian aid and perceived partiality in a conflict. I really struggle to see, in the face of the immense human suffering in Gaza at the moment, that this is in any way a credible argument.“

In the face of all the suffering, and the images that the BBC broadcast throughout the three weeks of dead children, of displaced families and of total destruction, how can the BBC’s argument stand?

As the appeal was broadcast by other TV channels last week (excluding Sky, the one channel to follow the BBC’s lead), it managed to raise 3 million pounds.

But on the ground, as helpful as that is, people need more. The UN Secretary General announced that the UN needs to raise $930 million to ease the humanitarian crisis there.

The appeals will go on, and those who want to help the people of Gaza will find a way of doing so, with or without the BBC’s help. But with all the recent dents in the corporation’s reputation, how much longer canthis national institution, funded exclusively by license fees, command the respect of its fee paying viewers?

Abeer Mishkhas is an Arab writer basedin London

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