Monday, 26 January 2009

BBC Should Overturn Its Refusal to Show Gaza Appeal

This originally ran on my Reuters Alertnet blog on 26 January 2009.

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With foot clearly in the crosshairs, the BBC has decided not to broadcast the appeal of the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) for humanitarian relief in Gaza. Blocking the umbrella group of 13 aid agencies from the airwaves doesn't make a lot of sense, but it sure is making headlines.

Writing in the Times, Andrew Roberts defends the BBC's decision, because he believes many of the agencies are "anti-Israeli" and "deeply partisan". It's a pretty rough attack on the cream of the British aid community -- the DEC includes ActionAid, the British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children, among others. But worse, the author then goes on to reveal his own ideological bias without any attempt at balance whatsoever, undermining his argument immediately: not showing the appeal becomes just as partisan a move as showing it would be.

But has the BBC really got itself caught in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't controversy over the DEC's Gaza appeal? Maybe not. Perhaps they just need to put down the political lens and look at this through a different one.

"The BBC is too impartial to suffering" is the headline to Philip Hensher's comment in The Independent, and while his piece is based on too many straw-man arguments about a few non-serious claims from corners of the pro-Israel side, surely the headline gets it exactly right.

This is about suffering and the alleviation of suffering. Aid agencies here want to assist people who have been injured, who have had their civilian infrastructure ripped apart, and who have limited access to food, medicine and other essentials. Whether you blame Israel or Hamas for their suffering is completely immaterial. Either way, these people need assistance just the same.

When aid agencies work in a location, it does not mean they are siding with the authorities there. In fact, many of these 13 organisations are currently providing aid in countries where the regimes and other armed groups in control of territory are guilty of far more extensive crimes than anything Israel or Hamas has ever reasonably been accused of.

This fact may be hard for the partisans on both sides to swallow, but take just one example: Sudan, where probably about 100 times as many people have been killed in recent years than in Gaza. When an aid agency runs operations in Darfur, it is neither in support of the government in Khartoum nor backing the region's rebels. It is simply there to alleviate the suffering of those caught in the middle.

The BBC broadcast the DEC's Darfur/Chad appeal in 2007. Similarly, it broadcast the umbrella organisation's DR Congo appeal and their Burma appeal in 2008, despite both those countries having appalling human rights records. No one would claim the BBC is biased toward the authorities in any of these countries simply because they showed an appeal of aid agencies working there.

The BBC has politicised this Gaza appeal by controversially deciding not to broadcast it. They now need to re-examine their decision, putting the alleviation of suffering at the centre of their concerns. If BBC rules do not allow a rethink in the name of easing misery then, as Peter Preston in the Guardian has written, the rules are wrong and need to be changed. It would do the BBC no injury at all to be partial on the side of human suffering.

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