The BBC deserves more sympathy than it is getting for its reluctance to broadcast an appeal on behalf of Gaza. The corporation tends to make a fetish of its independence, even when it is at its most craven and politically correct, yet chief operating officer Caroline Thomson was surely right this evening to describe its position on this issue as principled, indeed brave. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that it was right.
The Disasters Emergency Committee has been co-ordinating appeals for the relief of natural and man-made disasters since 1963. According to their website,
Crises and emergencies occur regularly throughout the world and we cannot respond to them all. DEC appeals are reserved for major disasters and emergencies which cannot be dealt with by the usual in-country coping mechanisms, and where DEC member agencies are in a position to respond quickly and effectively.
What this means in practice is that the DEC exists to respond to emergencies that are newsworthy. Indeed, the organisation's own guidelines state, as one of three conditions to be met before a joint appeal is launched, that "there must be sufficient public awareness of, and sympathy for, the humanitarian situation so as to give reasonable grounds for concluding that a public appeal will be successful."
The situation in Gaza clearly meets this newsworthiness test. Indeed, it's largely due to the BBC's own coverage of the conflict - and that of other broadcasters - that public awareness is so great. Naomi Wolf, writing in Saturday's Times, contrasted the presentation of the issues here with that in the US:
Reading the US papers, one would have the sense that the Gaza conflict was an even-handed struggle. We saw images of bodies from afar, but not an actual bloodied child. In England I found, on every cover of almost every news publication, close-up images of wounded children.... And a single sentence in The New York Times mentioned “protests in Europe” about Gaza. Not until I surfaced in the UK did I have any idea that there were hundreds of thousands of citizens on the streets throughout Europe.
By the same token, though, reading, or listening to or, above all, watching the British coverage one would have the sense that the Gaza conflict was no more than a war of aggression waged for no good reason by a strong power - Israel - against a defenceless civilian population. This isn't entirely or even mainly a BBC problem. Channel 4 has been even more one-sided in its coverage. But it does mean that running an appeal aimed at alleviating the undoubted humanitarian crisis in Gaza inevitably becomes politically charged.
Conspiracy theorists, who apparently include the absurd health minister Ben Bradshaw (to judge from his performance on Radio 4's Any Questions last night) allege that the BBC has simply bowed to Israeli pressure. "The Israeli government has a long history of bullying the BBC", he alleged, adding that it was "completely unacceptable" and "the BBC should not be cowed by it". Presumably they should only allow the Labour government to bully them. Or does Alastair Campbell's behaviour during the Iraq war merely count as "friendly advice"?
Actually, if the Israeli government does attempt to influence the BBC's coverage of the Middle East (and I don't doubt that they do) they don't seem particularly successful. This isn't the place to embark on a defence of Israeli actions, even if I wanted to, which I don't. The heavy-handed tactics of the IDF and the killing and injuring of many blameless civilians, including far too many children, have alienated and bewildered even many of their natural supporters. It was a one-sided war, and the consequences are plain for all to see. The public anger that followed has had some ugly side-effects, but it was a natural, understandable, even inevitable consequence of the news footage. And the Israelis should not be surprised that their policy of prosecuting a war in a small and crowded strip of land has led to international dismay.
But in covering this conflict as, essentially, a humanitarian disaster, the BBC and other broadcasters have decontexualised it. They have ignored wider, more complex questions about the role of Hamas in precipitating the conflict - which went beyond reckless, and must be described as deliberately causative - and about the involvement of surrounding states. Almost nothing, for example, has been said about the position of Egypt, which has played an interesting (and very cynical) double game, emoting in public about the plight of the Palestinians while privately backing Israel and supporting their blockade of Gaza. Nor, in the aftermath, has there been much coverage in the British media of the opinions of the many Gazans who are well aware how much Hamas must share the blame for the devastation that has been brought upon them.
This is not a new problem. A report commissioned by the BBC governors in 2006 found serious deficiencies: its reporting was significantly misleading and contained "gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective". The report criticised both the BBC's coverage of the sufferings of Palestinians, and also the its reluctance to use the word "terrorism" to describe the actions of militants. (A reluctance that continues to this day.) Some see these problems as evidence of inherent anti-Israel bias in the BBC. More charitably, it can be seen as a bias towards strong visual images and simplistic narratives over much less appealing explanations of the origins and progress of a decades-long conflict.
Given that the war has been painted in such black-and-white terms, it's easy to see how giving airtime to a humanitarian appeal might lead to suspicions of bias. When people are displaced and bereaved by a natural disaster such as an earthquake, there may well be people to blame (cost-cutting builders, for example) but the direct cause of the tragedy is impersonal, an act of God. Not so here, where the vast majority of those injured have been injured by the Israelis, and those who have lost their homes have lost them to Israeli bombs. If the BBC and other news organisations had done their job properly in explaining the nuances of the Middle East dispute, then this need not have been a problem. But the public perception is now that the undoubtedly tragic situation is entirely (or almost entirely) Israel's fault.
No-one should doubt the appeal organisers' good intentions, but the sad fact is that even showing humanitarian concern for the victims has become a political act - or at least a politically ambiguous one. On balance, I think a carefully-worded appeal ought to be able to work around these issues. A potentially greater problem might lie in the actual delivery of aid. There must be a danger that some of the money raised would be siphoned off by Hamas and spent on weapons. It might validly be said, however, that this consideration hasn't stopped such appeals in the past. It is a recurrent feature of aid programmes in war-zones and places where the government is institutionally corrupt that not all the money raised ends up helping the most needy. And the distribution of aid in Gaza would presumably take place under conditions of great publicity and international scrutiny.
The BBC and (initially) the other broadcasters may well have made the wrong decision, but it was neither an inexplicable nor an outrageous one, and a much closer call than most of their opponents are willing to accept. Cheap populist shots from government ministers ring particularly hollow when set against New Labour's long record of bullying and suborning the BBC, or the Beeb's own record of craven subservience to the government's agenda. It is particularly strange that ministers' ire should be directed against a broadcaster that weighed a tricky situation rather than against the country that did the damage. As for the appeal itself, this row has given it far more publicity than it could otherwise have expected. And that must be a good thing.