The British Broadcasting Corporation is a publicly-funded media network. Under Director General Mark Thompson it has now assumed a governmental role in attempting to stem the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a group of major British charities, wants the BBC to broadcast the following appeal for donations to provide relief for victims of the war:
Thompson says that if the BBC ran the appeal, “this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story,” but Thompson’s own impartiality can be questioned.
Just over two years ago, this short item appeared in The Independent:
The BBC is often accused of an anti-Israeli bias in its coverage of the Middle East, and recently censured reporter Barbara Plett for saying she “started to cry” when Yasser Arafat left Palestine shortly before his death.
Fascinating, then, to learn that its director general, Mark Thompson, has recently returned from Jerusalem, where he held a face-to-face meeting with the hardine Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Although the diplomatic visit was not publicised on these shores, it has been seized upon in Israel as evidence that Thompson, who took office in 2004, intends to build bridges with the country’s political class.
Sources at the Beeb also suspect that it heralds a “softening” to the corporation’s unofficial editorial line on the Middle East.
“This was the first visit of its kind by any serving director general, so it’s clearly a significant development,” I’m told.
“Not many people know this, but Mark is actually a deeply religious man. He’s a Catholic, but his wife is Jewish, and he has a far greater regard for the Israeli cause than some of his predecessors.”
Understandably, an official BBC spokesman was anxious to downplay talk of an exclusively pro-Israeli charm offensive.
Apopros this month’s previously undocumented trip, he stressed that Thompson had also held talks with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
The position that the BBC has taken on the DEC Gaza appeal has drawn a huge amount of criticism in the UK. Critics include Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond and justice minister Shahid Malik and several other ministers in the British government, 120 members of parliament from all parties.
Former Labour minister, Tony Benn, launched his own protest by making the appeal directly to BBC viewers:
In an editorial, the Financial Times, referring to Thompson’s decision, said:
Ordinary people, informed not least by the BBC’s own coverage of the destruction of the lives and livelihoods of Gazans, can distinguish for themselves the difference between acute humanitarian need and propaganda – on behalf of either side. For a man who is, ultimately, a public servant financed by a public levy to suggest otherwise is patronising.
The BBC should instead re-examine its oversensitivity to allegations of bias. Such allegations come with the territory for anyone who attempts detailed reporting and reasoned, contextual analysis of the Middle East. The BBC at times gives the impression it has lost its collective nerve in covering this region.
An independent panel on BBC coverage of the conflict, published in 2006 reported shortcomings that objectively favoured Israel: more coverage of Israeli fatalities; more Israeli spokesmen; and, above all, “the failure to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation”.
The British public is perfectly able to grasp this disparity without Auntie [the BBC] getting overwrought. It may even conclude that the BBC’s mechanical application of “balance” in the present controversy appears so to outweigh the normal considerations of accuracy, fairness and impartiality as to be detached from fundamental principles.