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Impartial or Cowardly?

Keith Somerville gives a journalist's view of the BBC's rejection of the DEC Gaza aid plea

February 5, 2009
6 min read

As a public service broadcaster in a country that loves to criticise, I always feel a bit sorry for the BBC and its journalists. Inevitably, the BBC is ‘damned if it does’ and ‘damned if it doesn’t’ on many stories, including the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The strength and sophistication of the Israel lobby and the growing power of the Palestinian lobby means that senior BBC executives and editors must field a barrage of criticism for fair coverage of the conflict. Such coverage will always be viewed by the well-organised letter writers – and now mass of bloggers of the Israel lobby and anti-Israeli ones too.

In the wake of the Israeli invasion and then withdrawal from Gaza, the Disasters Emergency Committee (which links a group of major charities, aid organisations and NGOs) asked major British broadcasters to run a humanitarian appeal to raise money for victims of the conflict. This has been common practice, and the BBC has often run such appeals – Rwanda, Darfur, the Asian tsunami, to name a few. But this time, Director-General Mark Thompson and his public relations chief Caroline Thomson refused, saying that to run such an appeal would damage the BBC’s impartiality. Their decision (matched by Sky News – but not by ITN and Channels 4 and 5, the other main British terrestrial TV stations, which decided to broadcast the appeal) was met with public demonstrations, anger from many BBC staff and criticism from the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Several days after the decision, Thompson appeared on BBC radio and was asked by one of his own presenters whether he was not being a hypocrite.

The path of good journalism

Being the target of vituperative but well researched and well written, if heavily biased, feedback on news reporting of the Middle East always was the lot of the BBC. It was just another hazard of the job of journalism. Paradoxically, it was the BBC’s refusal to accept that errors had been made in the past (for example, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq led to the suicide of a government scientist who had given information to a less-than-scrupulous and later sacked BBC reporter – that has now made it fearful in the face of possible criticism.)

The simplest way of dealing with such criticism was always to be a good journalist and apply to stories about Israeli raids into Gaza or rocket attacks or suicide bombers attacking Israel the same standards of evidence, balance and attribution of sources that you would to any other story. Start to treat it differently, and you’d stray from the path of good journalism.

The BBC is often criticised for being too ‘liberal’ or too ‘left-wing’ in its journalism. Rather, I would say that the BBC was always, and is now even more, weak and fearful in its approach to stories in which whatever you write or broadcast will be criticised. So the BBC takes a pitifully pusillanimous approach of saying ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ and then leaving it at that. Too often, stories were presented as involving two strands of opinion – the seesaw approach to balance. Correspondents and analysts were discouraged from too much interpretation of the detail, let alone stating clearly that they had witnessed events that clearly indicated responsibility for an attack or atrocity.

But even the BBC’s executives and trustees a few years ago recognised this was not enough. They suggested that balance should be more like a wagon wheel – with the multiplicity of spokes representing the multiplicity of opinions on controversial subjects. Prompted more by criticism of coverage of Britain and the European Union – where BBC coverage tended to rely on strongly pro and anti-European strands ignoring the mass of opinions in between – than of the Middle East, the new approach nonetheless aimed to ensure a range of opinions rather than a polarity.

What it never succeeded in doing was getting over the fear BBC executives had of criticism from government or other influential quarters.

Insulting to the suffering in Gaza

They always react badly to criticism. They either brush it off brusquely (as they did in the WMD affair) or they quietly cave in, and the word goes out to journalists that they’ve got to be ultra careful and submit scripts for approval. The latter happened to me in 1987 at the BBC’s African Service, when Margaret Thatcher’s government didn’t want the pro-Western but brutal and dictatorial government of Siad Barre in Somalia presented in a bad light. So there was heavy vetting of scripts before broadcast on the African Service in English, the Somali and Swahili Services.

But with the Gaza appeal, the BBC’s inability to tell the difference between the humanitarian and the political and the abject fear that Director-General Mark Thompson demonstrates in refusing to broadcast the appeal, the BBC’s position as an objective but principled public service broadcaster has gone out of the window. The wheels have come off the balance bus. Thompson now uses the position of refusing to bow to political pressure to explain his decision to refuse to broadcast the appeal.

It’s okay for the BBC to break its own editorial guidelines to give lurid coverage of the murder hunt after the murders of five women in Ipswich in 2006 and to commit contempt of court in the coverage of arrests of suspects – that, BBC executives said, was in the public interest. But to broadcast an appeal for people suffering the aftermath of war – that’s unbalanced as it might be seen to be partial and anti-Israeli. The BBC’s defence of its decision was insulting to the people who were suffering in Gaza and to those BBC and other journalists who risked life and limb to cover the conflict and its aftermath.

If we ever needed to be told that public service broadcasting was in danger, we have the evidence here. As one veteran BBC Middle East reporter, Tim Lllewellyn, has written in The Observer ‘this cowardly decision betrays the values the corporation stands for.’ The BBC has always says that it stands for balance, impartiality, fairness and the public interest. It is very hard to find a correlation between those values and the decision not to broadcast a non-political humanitarian appeal.

Keith Somerville is a lecturer in journalism at the School of Arts, Brunel University. Somerville was executive producer for the BBC’s international award-winning Legal Online course and co-authored the BBC’s Scoops and Stories course. Somerville also was in charge of the BBC’s interactive journalism teaching tool, The Journalism Tutor.

This article first appeared The Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ) website. The CCJ is a consortium of journalists, publishers, owners and academics worried about the future of the profession.

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