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The BBC finds itself in a serious controversy every few years, but this is the mother of all. The essence of the latest storm is this. A few days ago, the Disasters Emergency Committee of the United Kingdom, an umbrella group of thirteen leading charities, came out with a plan to launch a television appeal to raise funds for humanitarian relief in Gaza. The umbrella organization includes names like the British Red Cross, Save the Children, Care International and Oxfam. The BBC refused to broadcast their appeal. Its Director-General, Mark Thompson, and Chief Operating Officer, Caroline Thomson, came out with two reasons. The corporation’s ‘impartiality would be compromised’ and how could the BBC be certain that money raised would go to the ‘right people’?
The refusal, and the reasons given, by the BBC have infuriated many people in Britain and abroad, where World Service has a devoted audience. There have been angry demonstrations in London. More than ten thousand complaints had been received by Sunday and the number was growing. Blogs and newspaper websites are inundated with messages attacking the decision, despite a determined counter-offensive by a handful of pro-Israel entries that keep repeating themselves. Leaders of all major political parties have criticized the corporation. They include ministers in a British government that pursues pro-Israel policies. Christian clergymen and prominent members of the British Jewish community have called upon the BBC executives to reconsider their decision.
The Archbishop of York summed it all up when he said, “It is not a row about impartiality, but rather about humanity.” He compared the situation to British military hospitals treating prisoners of war as a result of their duty under the Geneva Conventions. “By declining the request of the Disasters Emergency Committee,” the Archbishop said, “the BBC has already forsaken impartiality.”
Not one BBC journalist I know agrees with the decision. Writing in the Observer newspaper on January 25, 2009, the respected former Middle East correspondent of the corporation, Tim Llewellyn, calls it ‘a cowardly decision’ that ‘betrays the values the BBC stands for’. John Kampfner, another ex-correspondent, says in a recent article in the Guardian that, apart from some honorable exceptions, the questioning of Israeli spokespeople during the Gaza conflict has been weak compared with, for example, the widely-acclaimed Channel 4 News. Kampfner’s verdict – Israeli officials have rarely been truly pressed on BBC outlets.
During my 23 years as a BBC journalist, there were many occasions when the corporation stood up to outside pressure. During the Suez crisis in 1956, the British government tried to force the BBC to tow the line in reporting the invasion of Egypt as it began to falter. The corporation refused, despite a real risk that it might be shut down. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India acquired authoritarian powers under emergency rule in the 1970s, foreign correspondents were ordered to submit all their reports to the censors before filing. Mark Tully, the BBC Delhi correspondent, refused to bow. Instead of submitting his reports to the censors, he took the next plane to London.
In 1985, a month after the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had proclaimed that ‘terrorists should be starved of the oxygen of publicity’, she learned that a BBC documentary had interviewed a senior figure in the IRA, which was conducting an armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. Thatcher’s government tried to ban the documentary, but it was eventually shown. During my time as the BBC correspondent in Afghanistan under the Communist regime of Najibullah, I was threatened with expulsion several times. Every time, I handed in my passport to the relevant official and asked him to issue an exit visa and expulsion order. I knew I had the support from my employer. Every time, the Afghan government withdrew the threat.
Why is today’s BBC so timid? Not only is it due to the relentless pressure on journalists and researchers since the launch of the ‘war on terror’ by George W Bush and Tony Blair. The failure of leadership at the BBC has also played a part. The corporation, under its charter, broadcasts in the national interest. It does so at its best when this obligation is interpreted in the widest possible sense, meaning the ‘national interest’ is served by providing accurate, authoritative and the most wide-ranging perspective on world events that the audiences will trust. The current leadership of the BBC has failed in this important task. The refusal to broadcast an appeal from the country’s leading charities for funds for humanitarian work in Gaza, to which the British government itself will contribute, is difficult to understand for most people.
Editorial independence is about resisting the bully. It requires protection against susceptibilities to pressure from the powerful in the interest of objectivity and the need to give proper coverage to the weak. Some years ago, for expediency and in the name of efficiency, the BBC embarked on a drive to set up large news bureaus in a number of big cities around the world. One such bureau is in Jerusalem, from where much of the coverage of the Middle East is done. The recent Gaza conflict has mostly been covered by BBC correspondents standing in front of cameras miles away from the battle in the safety of the Israeli side and under the close watch of their Israeli minders. Today, the Israelis have a stranglehold on the BBC and it will go to any lengths not to offend them.
While the BBC, once the world’s best broadcaster and still a good one, fights for its reputation, other British news outlets have decided to broadcast the appeal for Gaza. They have accepted the assurance from the Disasters Emergency Committee that it is the committee’s job to see the aid reaches the right people. The Charity Commission supports this assurance. And the BBC Director General stands isolated. Senior executives congratulate themselves for their ‘excellent coverage’ on their own channels. But the corporation has been found deficient when compared to new media players like Al Jazeera English and Press TV. With the latest storm over the Gaza appeal, the BBC also risks losing the battle for the moral high ground. Imagine a day when Al Jazeera carries an appeal by Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee while the British Broadcasting Corporation refuses.