Some fascinating hints about what lies behind the BBC Gaza appeal row are contained in an article in the Observer by former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. The article isn't accepting comments, so I'll have to respond to it here.
Llewellyn's own position couldn't be clearer. He describes the decision not to air the appeal as an "extraordinary piece of institutional cowardice" which makes him and many still working for the corporation "incandescent with rage". He talks of the BBC's staff as "lions led by donkeys", and of BBC managers as trying to outdo the government "in grovelling to the United States and Israel". The decision represents a "pusillanimous obeisance to some imagined governmental threat". He sees it as a betrayal of the high standards of journalism upheld by such broadcasting legends as the late Charles Wheeler, whose memorial service he attended last week.
So clear is Llewellyn's wrath, indeed, that one begins to see why BBC bosses are fearing for their reputation:
How is the BBC's impartiality to be prejudiced by asking others to raise money for the victims of an act of war by a recognised state, an ally of Britain, using the most lethal armaments it can against a defenceless population? What sly little trigger went off in her head when Thomson questioned whether the aid would reach the right people? What right people? Hamas, the elected representatives of the Palestinian people? The hospitals and clinics run by private charities and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency? The mosques? The citizens of Gaza, persecuted beyond measure not only by their Israeli enemies but by the western powers who arm and sustain Israel and defy the democratic vote of the Palestinian people?
Indeed, how could the Beeb's impartiality possibly be compromised by taking sides? Yesterday, Tony Benn was invited onto the Today programme to denounce the BBC - and don't the Today boys just love demonstrating their fearlessness and independence by sticking it to their superiors? - and during the interview he read out the Appeal's phone number. "I expect that's why you've asked me on," he claimed. Ed Stourton denied it. But according to Llewellyn the programme "rightly" produced Benn "because they knew he would articulate what their bosses have failed to: reason and humanity."
Llewellyn clearly values impartiality less than campaigning journalism. He - and, to judge by his account, most of his former colleagues, "reporters of the calibre of Jeremy Bowen, David Lloyn, Lyse Doucet, experts in their field and brave people all" - wish to draw attention to what in their minds is a clear case of good versus evil. No plainer statement could be found of the deep pro-Palestinian, even pro-Hamas and lurking anti-Israeli feelings that are common currency within the organisation. In this, he echoes health minister and former BBC man Ben Bradshaw, who on Any Questions the other day seemed to forget, in his indignation, his responsibilities as a member of the government, instead lambasting the Israeli government for "bullying" the BBC - an allegation for which so far he has produced no evidence whatsoever, but which has already been noticed in the Arab world and may well cause both the BBC and Britain lasting damage.
There is a place for partial and committed reporting. But that place is emphatically not in a publicly funded monolith whose very name makes it a flag-carrier of the British national interest and which has to rely upon its international reputation for impartiality. Its status, and Britain's too, is put in jeopardy when it appears too much like the mouthpiece of a terrorist organisation, even when said organisation is, as Llewellyn proudly points out, "the elected representatives of the Palestinian people". I don't generally have much sympathy for BBC bosses, who can be mulishly conceited and impervious to reasonable criticism, as they demonstrated admirably over the Ross/Brand affair. But this insight into what they are up against makes their stand far more comprehensible.
Viewed in isolation, there is little cause to object to the appeal being broadcast - at least if sufficient safeguards can be put in place that the money raised doesn't go astray. (Which would be a pretty big if, even if the impartiality of some of the charities involved in the appeal were not in question). That is why the indignation is widespread. But where the BBC is involved nothing can be viewed in isolation. The very fact that BBC types can jump so easily to the bonkers conspiracy theory that the management has been leant on by the Israelis reveals how seriously impaired the corporation's impartiality has become. This isn't the first time a DEC request for an appeal has been turned down by the broadcasters. It is, however, the first time that the denial has become, itself, a major news story. The way in which the demos have been co-ordinated by the SWP/Islamist dominated Stop the War Coalition, with George Galloway leading the protest outside Broadcasting House, shows how humanitarian concern has in this case become dangerously politicised. But it also demonstrates the spluttering, incoherent rage to which the "liberal" Left is reduced when the BBC temporarily stops behaving like their mouthpiece.
The BBC bosses, I suspect, were influenced less by Israeli pressure (or even the prospect of such pressure) than by knowledge of how the appeal would reflect back on its own coverage. It was not to preserve the actuality of BBC impartiality on Gaza - because there is none - but rather to salvage the impression of impartiality that they felt compelled to take such a stand. There's more than a whiff of the corporation protesting too much. By taking a loud and unpopular stand on this issue, they will in future be able to produce it as evidence that their reporting is not anti-Israel. Even though, for arguably good reasons, it is.