27 January 2009


Like the residents of Palestine, the BBC has taken flak recently, but of the metaphorical kind for its decision not to broadcast an appeal for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)'s national humanitarian appeal for Gaza. Director General Mark Thomson has cited the need for the BBC to protect public confidence in its impartiality as the main reason for this. In doing so, the Corporation has taken heat from all sides - government ministers and politicians of all colours - not to mention the requisite celebrity opinion, courtesy of Sarah Morton: "It’s not a political message. It’s about raising money for children who are dying."

It is quite a turnaround to have the government criticise the BBC for being too cautious in its desire to remain politically neutral. And, having been put on the back foot by the Daily Mail-organised moral panic over the Ross-Brand affair, the Corporation must be doubly shocked to now be on the receiving end from the liberal left elite. More pompous members of the acting fraternity have suddenly announced they will never work for the corporation again.

Personally I am glad the BBC has stood up to the blackmail of Hollywood-based actors who seem to think freedom of speech only works in one direction. The BBC is under no obligation to provide platforms to humanitarian organisations no matter how worthy - its responsibility is towards the licence fee payers. I don't think the BBC has actually killed any children in the middle east, but you might not have guessed this from the general tenor of the reaction from those shouting the loudest.

Given the choice, I think I would rather the BBC took a cautious approach, and take protecting its neutrality and integrity as a greater priority than the need to broadcast a modish appeal (and before anyone accuses me of insensitivity - does anyone remember any BBC TV broadcasts for aid for victims in Congo?). I think I am happier that this sort of decision is taken by the BBC themselves and not the likes of David Soul. To deny there is no potentially political dimension to the film is naive at best, and disingenuous at worst.

I believe the Palestinian people have been greatly wronged by the state of Israel, robbed of land, denied basic freedoms you and I would take for granted, and that Israel has exploited western acquiescence to entrench a position it has no right to take and no intention of retreating from. But I also feel the Palestinian cause has been exploited from the Arab side by less than wholesome organisations who make awkward bedfellows for the British left, and cause frequent embarrassment by their reactionary outbursts.

Organisations such as British Muslim Initiative, which is cited by news organisations as the acceptable face of organised British Muslim opinion, whose president, Mohammed Sawalha, called the BBC actions a "disgraceful decision". According to a Panorama documentary in 2006, Mr Sawalha is a senior activist in Hamas who “master minded much of Hamas’ political and military strategy”. In Gaza it is never just about children who are dying.

Having had the broadcast made on ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 (whose collective audience is higher than BBC1), as well as this high-profile, publicity-generating spat, the DEC appeal has had a tremendous boost. DEC reckon income so far is double what they would otherwise have expected if the BBC had just run the film. Not that anyone seems to have welcomed this outcome, despite the fact it is only "about raising money for children who are dying."

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