The BBC announced Thursday morning that it would broadcast an emergency charity appeal for Gaza on Friday — but only after it was reassured that it won’t face censure from the Israeli government for doing so.
This is in stark contrast to 2009, when another Israeli massacre in Gaza was drawing to an end. Then, the BBC, along with Sky, refused to air an appeal from the same body – the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) — even though other major television networks, including Channel 4, did so.
The BBC’s then director general, Mark Thompson, said at the time that broadcasting the DEC appeal would breach impartiality guidelines, as funds were being raised for Gaza but not Israel.
He wrote in his BBC blog that the corporation, if it aired the appeal, could be accused of “taking a political stance on an ongoing story.”
So what has changed this time? Why is the BBC no longer afraid of airing the DEC appeal on its radio and television networks?
The reason appears to be that the allegedly independent broadcaster has been influenced by recent Israeli announcements that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and therefore feels it can safely broadcast a humanitarian aid appeal.
Speaking on the BBC’s flagship radio news program, Today, this morning, the BBC’s media and arts correspondent David Sillito admitted as much.
“Israel has said there is a humanitarian crisis … so it feels as though the issue of impartiality has come to an end,” he told presenter Sarah Montague. “There is no issue of compromising impartiality.”
Montague then asked the obvious question: “So, it’s because of Israel’s admission that it’s a humanitarian crisis?”
Sillito replied: “It seems to have been a key part of it. [Israeli government spokesperson] Mark Regev, making a statement on Friday, talking about a humanitarian window, a humanitarian crisis, seems to have been instrumental.”
It’s a disturbing admission by the BBC that it feels it has been given permission by Israel to run the appeal — the same appeal it was too afraid to run five years ago because no such implicit permission had been given.
Loyalties called into question
The publicly funded corporation’s dependence on what Israel says and how this dependence influences its decision making process is of serious concern.
In 2009, an astounding 40,000 members of the licence fee-paying public complained to the BBC about its refusal to air the DEC appeal. The then Labor government also felt the wrong decision had been made, as did many BBC journalists.
However, a fear of not being “fair” to Israel (which was at the time in the process of slaughtering 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza) seems to have been the clinching factor for senior BBC management, raising questions about where loyalties at the top lie.
And even now, as it prepares to broadcast the appeal tomorrow on Radio 4 and BBC One, the BBC is thought to be preparing its own version of the appeal rather than taking the version offered by DEC.
It will be interesting to see if, even in a charity appeal, the BBC will strive, in its version, to show a “balance” between the effects of heavy duty Israeli bombing and shelling in Gaza and the results of Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.
The “balance,” of course, will be entirely false, as nothing caused by Palestinian rocket fire can compare to what Israel has wrought in Gaza, but it will be aimed at keeping the Israeli government happy.
Sillito’s further comments on this morning’s Today program reveal how desperately the BBC aims for that false balance in its reporting on Gaza, rather than simply showing the situation as it is.
Explaining why the BBC didn’t run the DEC appeal in 2009, he said that “making an appeal, talking in plain facts about a humanitarian crisis, it would look as though they [the BBC and Sky] were taking sides in what was an ongoing news story.”
Sorry state of affairs
It’s extraordinary that a news organisation can think that “talking in plain facts,” (in other words, telling the unvarnished truth about Israel’s carnage in Gaza) is somehow taking the Palestinian “side.” It’s not; giving “plain facts” is just straightforward journalism, devoid of the tortured fear apparent in the BBC’s reporting of the occupation.
This week, Israel is on a PR drive, now that its daily slaughter of Palestinians has abated. It is trying to present itself in humanitarian terms, professing concern for the crisis situation in Gaza.
The article quotes the Israeli army’s chief of staff Benny Gantz saying: “Now we must help rehabilitate Gaza … we will help, not out of any strategic considerations, but from humanitarian ones.”
The offensive irony of this PR strategy should be jumped on and pulled to pieces by serious journalists at the BBC.
Instead, we have Sillito on Today meekly saying that the BBC can run a charity appeal because “Now it’s felt that there is no doubt or debate about this … Israel has said there is a humanitarian crisis.”
The compliance implicit in this statement is appalling.
Why isn’t the BBC challenging Israeli spokespeople over their alleged concerns, confronting them with the “plain facts” that Israel created the crisis, not just with its out-of-control onslaught of the last four weeks, but with its medieval blockade and ongoing occupation? Why aren’t BBC journalists asking the Israeli government why it’s not bearing the cost of reconstruction in Gaza, instead of submissively accepting its tacit permission to broadcast a charity appeal?
And if Israel hadn’t “said so,” would the UN or DEC statements of a humanitarian crisis been enough to dispel the BBC’s doubts about the existence of a human tragedy in Gaza? Highly unlikely.
It is the Israeli viewpoint that appears to be elevated above all others at the BBC.
The DEC appeals for Gaza in 2009 and now in 2014 have helped to expose the sorry state of affairs at the BBC when it comes to Israel. The fear of Israeli censure if BBC journalists report the “plain facts” has been laid bare for all to see, as has the craven need for Israeli approval in its broadcasts about Gaza and the occupation. At the BBC, it seems, if Israel doesn’t “say so,” then neither will our public broadcaster.
David Sillito’s interview on Today can be heard on the BBC website (time code 01:12 onwards) until 13 August.