The BBC website makes interesting reading today. Although ITV, Channel Four and Five have decided to break ranks and show the Disaster Emergency Committee’s appeal for humanitarian relief in Gaza, the BBC is maintaining its refusal on the grounds that it might compromise its impartiality.
“After consultation with senior news editors, we concluded that to broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully couched, ran the risk of calling into question the public’s confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in its coverage of the story as a whole.” That was the statement by Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC. He added: “We will continue to broadcast news about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and, if appropriate, to cover the work of the UK NGOs (non-governmental organisations) on the ground.”
I don’t know the answer to this question, so I’ll ask it directly: does the BBC only broadcast appeals when humanitarian aid is needed because of ‘natural disasters’ (the tsunami, for example) or also when the human need is caused by the political or military action of powerful people? Would the BBC broadcast an appeal for the suffering people of Zimbabwe or would that be considered anti-Mugabe and, therefore, not ‘impartial’. Did the BBC broadcast appeals for support after 9/11 – or would that have been considered ‘partial’?
What worries me about this is the understanding of ‘impartiality’ being held. BBC coverage of the war in Gaza was seriously limited by the exclusion of BBC journalists and cameras from Gaza itself. I cannot now remember if we heard disclaimers on news bulletins that the picture being given was bound to be ‘partial’ because access to Gaza was denied and ‘news’ was managed by the Israeli propaganda machine.
I realise that this is not the same issue as the BBC giving airtime for a humanitarian appeal. But it raises the question of whether the BBC, by denying such an appeal, is actually being partial to Israel and its view of the world.
It is perhaps not surprising that increasing numbers of journalists are questioning the possibility of impartiality on the part of journalists in any situation. The pictures they broadcast, the words they use, the worldview that shapes their perception of what is ‘normal’ (let alone what is seen to be deviating from the norm – which is what ‘news’ seems to be), the assumed criteria they use for editing material in or out (in order to create a meaningful narrative and inform an audience) – all these involve the journalist and editor as committed agents and not impartial observers.
The BBC’s dilemma is an uncomfortable one and it is not hard to see the problem they face. But I hope the BBC will broadcast the appeal along with other broadcasters. Not because sides should be taken with either Israel or Hamas, but because people are suffering enormously and no one can remain ‘impartial’ in the face of it, whatever its cause.
This matter is not unconnected to the myth of neutrality espoused by uncritical secular humanists whereby (a) there is a neutral/impartial way of seeing the world and events (which, of course, is where their own assumptions are – conveniently – thought to lie and (b) there is a dangerous loonyland where religious or other ‘committed’ people load the agenda and conspire to destroy. It is a philosophical battle that needs to be fought rationally in the public arena. It is a debate that is important because we see this nonsense working its way out when a film crew covers up a cross in a church when filming a soap opera ‘in case it causes offence’, when government departments see ‘community cohesion’ as the absence of tension between faith communities and their leaders, and when media people decide what is ‘news’ and what counts as ‘impartial’.
Some people clearly just don’t get it.