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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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BBC and Gaza Appeal

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Since my previous post on Gaza, an almighty row has erupted about the BBC's refusal to air an appeal from the Disaster's Emergency Committee for humanitarian aid for Gaza. I can quite understand that some see this issue as the BBC putting its airy idealism ahead of the suffering of innocent civilians. But (though clearly I have huge sympathy for the Gazan cause, and will certainly be sending a donation) I have to agree entirely with their decision. I do appreciate Director General Mark Thompson's argument that the BBC "could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story."

The attack on the BBC seems to me to misread the balance of arguments on either side. On the one hand, it is not as if by failing to show the advert the amount raised by the appeal is going to be significantly reduced (and, ironically, the row has perhaps led to greater publicity than one advert could ever have gained). In the wider context, not much would be gained by showing the advert on the BBC, given that it will already receive extensive coverage on other television channels. On the other hand, the BBC would have much to lose if the BBC was felt to be becoming impartial in its reporting. As it stands, the BBC has been exceptionally effective at reporting from the conflict zone, given the logistical difficulties placed in its way by Israel, and it is this reporting - as much as the actual facts on the ground - that has massaged public sympathies for the greater humanitarian good.

Finally, Members of Parliament such as Nick Clegg have argued that "It's 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." Taking a look at the BBC message boards during the original conflict, though, and it's quite clear that a large number of viewers were already attacking the BBC for being too pro-Palestinian - and it is not at all clear that these viewers would have been able to distinguish between the universal humanitarian objective served by airing the appeal, and the political inference that the BBC was nudging its way ever more to the liberal extreme by doing so. What level of discrimination and nuance is there in a comment like this one:
No amount of spin by BBC and its allies will make terrorism anything other than pure and simple murder of innocents. Calling them "freedom fighters" or anything
else is simply disgusting. Shame on you, BBC.
I could not find where on the BBC website the word "freedom fighters" was used directly to describe Hamas, but clearly the "viewing public" patronised by Clegg are better readers than I am. How about this other commentator? Do you think he or she would distinguish between the BBC's humanitarian sensitivity and its political bias:
I find it difficult to understand why the BBC and other news channels broadcast this non-stop, but don't even pay lip service to the number of rockets which have been persistently fired at Israel.
Quite clearly the BBC stated the number of rockets being fired, and the number of Israeli casualties. But if even absolute details like this can be ignored by such a vehement public, do we really think that the more subtle issue of the appeal will be responded to thoughtfully? On the basis of this commentator, who is unable to avoid stereotyping in broad brush strokes, we ought not to be hopeful:
The European left wing can't stand Jews defending themselves.They love the pacifist Jews who quietly walked into the showers - but can't stand it when Jews fight back.I just hope Israeli politicians realise that the protests from Europe are mainly by the large Muslim population and awful left wing groups.People of sound mind are standing with you Israel. We are aware of the biased media in Europe. We are aware of the BBC's pro-Palestinian bias.
I culled these comments in just a five minute survey of the boards. In that time, I did not find one comment that praised the BBC for its balanced coverage. So the BBC is right to stick to its principles and not show the DEC appeal. If it shows it, this will only bolster the case for those who condemn its alleged pro-Palestinian bias, but conversely no one will celebrate the showing of the appeal as evidence of the BBC's objectivity. The BBC has too much to lose, and not much to be gained.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:59 pm

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