Gaza Strife Engulfs British Broadcasters

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A Palestinian woman comforts her child on the rubble of her house in Jabalia's Ezbet Abdrabbo neighborhood

If there's one thing guaranteed to make news organizations queasy, it's becoming news rather than reporting it. No wonder the BBC, Britain's venerable public-service broadcaster, is looking green around the gills. In the past couple of years, "Auntie Beeb" has rarely been out of the spotlight, amid speculation on the future of the broadcaster's public funding, scandals over mismanaged phone-in competitions and red faces after footage of the Queen was wrongly edited to suggest she had stormed out of a photo shoot. Yet all of these controversies pale in comparison to the storms of anger now battering the BBC over its refusal to show an appeal for humanitarian aid for the people of war-ravaged Gaza.

Despite more than 1,000 phone calls, 11,000 e-mails of complaint and a series of protests outside its London and regional headquarters, the broadcaster has dug in its heels against pressure to run the filmed appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a nonaligned umbrella organization representing 13 long-established charities such as the British Red Cross, Christian Aid and Oxfam. Defending the decision on one of the BBC's own morning news shows today, BBC director general Mark Thompson said, "We are passionate about our impartiality ... We worry about being seen to endorse something that could give the impression we were only backing one side."

Could an appeal for emergency aid for Gazans living in extreme hardship following the Israeli military campaign be construed as an attack on that campaign? Thompson and his lieutenants fear so. Ben Bradshaw, a former BBC newsman who is now Health Minister, called the reasoning "completely feeble." MPs are queuing to sign a motion brought by Richard Burden, a Labour MP, expressing "astonishment" at the rebuff. "It completely baffles me," Burden said. "Do I think impartiality is important? Of course I do. But to be honest, what the BBC is doing is undermining its reputation for impartiality rather than bolstering it."

Such criticisms are not confined to temporal seats of power. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has called on the BBC to carry the appeal. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, argued that the BBC should focus on humanity, not impartiality. "The situation is akin to that of British military hospitals who treat prisoners of war as a result of their duty under the Geneva Convention," said Sentamu. "They do so because they identify need rather than cause. This is not an appeal by Hamas asking for arms but by the Disasters Emergency Committee asking for relief. By declining their request, the BBC has already taken sides and forsaken impartiality."

How did the BBC paint itself into this uncomfortable corner? "The BBC is completely obsessed with impartiality when it comes to the Middle East because it's on the receiving end of particularly vigorous lobbying by both sides," says a former senior journalist for the BBC. "Staff are made to take modules [seminars] on use of language and how to give balance. From this perspective, it's easy to understand the mind-set. It's just that they seem to have lost touch with the real world and put their editorial values ahead of trying to save lives."

This evening, three British broadcasters — ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 — will air the DEC appeal. The satellite broadcaster Sky News today confirmed that it will not do so. John Ryley, head of Sky News, said, "We have concluded that broadcasting an appeal for Gaza at this time is incompatible with our role in providing balanced and objective reporting of this continuing situation to our audiences in the U.K. and around the world."

Douglas Alexander, Britain's International Development Secretary, is dismayed. "While this decision is ultimately — and rightly — one for the broadcasters, it is the essence of humanitarian-aid agencies that they never take sides in a conflict. That is the long-standing position of the DEC and organizations such as the British Red Cross," he says. "The British public can distinguish between support for humanitarian aid and perceived partiality in a conflict. All I have asked the BBC and Sky to do is to publicize the means by which people can make donations to those organizations which are in a position to help." It will be of some comfort to Alexander — and more importantly to the people of Gaza — that the roiling controversy has attracted unprecedented publicity for the DEC appeal.