How the call for aid to Gaza left the BBC in the thick of battle
Plea from Disasters Emergency Committee broadcast without corporation's support for the first time in 46 years
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
By Paul Lewis and Leigh Holmwood
A televised appeal for victims of the humanitarian disasters in Gaza has been broadcast on all terrestrial channels except the BBC, which refused to back down on its decision not to show the film.
It was the first time in the 46-year history of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) that one of its humanitarian appeals was broadcast without the backing of the BBC, which claimed that doing so would compromise its impartiality.
The two-minute film, broadcast on ITV1 at 6.25pm last night just before the main evening news, began with images of Gaza's child victims. "The children of Gaza are suffering. Many are struggling to survive. Homeless and in need of food and water," the narrator said. "Today, this is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. These people simply need your help."
The appeal, shown later on Channel 4 and Five, quoted UN reports that 40% of Gaza is without electricity, with many thousands homeless. "Aid workers on the ground say that temporary shelters are finding it difficult to cope with the number of people now living on the streets."
The appeal made no mention of the word "Israel", sticking to a description of the humanitarian need in the Palestinian territory. "This is why the DEC has launched this appeal on behalf of its members. They just want to help save lives."
Earlier yesterday Sky News announced it would not be broadcasting the appeal either. But it was the BBC's refusal to broadcast the appeal that made headlines across the Middle East and by last night had prompted more than 15,500 complaints. Shortly before the appeal aired, protesters burned their television licences in front of a line of police outside Broadcasting House in London.
More than 110 MPs had signed an early day motion urging the BBC to reverse its decision. The BBC is also facing a growing revolt from its own journalists, who have been told they could be sacked if they speak out on the issue.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said after last night's broadcast it was "inclined not to comment", but added: "There is no doubt that any appeal which simply seeks to raise money for innocent civilians should be applauded."
Last night's broadcasts were the culmination of a saga that began at 3.42pm on Tuesday when an email dropped into the inbox of Diane Reid, a BBC official working in the office of the director general. The message from DEC chief executive Brendan Gormley was urgent, informing the corporation that all criteria had been met to authorise an emergency appeal for humanitarian assistance in Gaza.
The DEC, an umbrella group of 13 charities including the Red Cross and Oxfam, has broadcast dozens of humanitarian appeals since the mid-1960s.
Reid, the BBC's charitable appeals adviser, quickly forwarded the request to senior executives. The decision not to broadcast the appeal was reached in just over 24 hours. The DEC received a reply to its email at 5.47pm on Wednesday; it said the BBC, ITV and Sky - members of the broadcasters' steering committee - "could not reach consensus" on whether the appeal was suitable.
The reality was that the decision not to broadcast lay squarely at the door of the BBC, and specifically its director general, Mark Thompson, who had been considering the stance he would take. Thompson had told Sky, ITV, and the BBC Trust of his decision earlier that morning.
He had in fact been in discussions for over a week. With signals emerging from Israel that its military offensive in Gaza was drawing to a close, the DEC made it clear that if agencies were allowed into the territory it would seek to raise emergency funds to distribute medical equipment, food, blankets and clean water.
Anticipating that request, Thompson consulted the corporation's charity appeals advisory committee - made up of representatives of NGOs and international charities - about whether an appeal should be broadcast. They raised concerns that once the conflict had ended aid agencies could potentially have difficulties distributing supplies in Gaza. But by the time the DEC made its formal request on Tuesday, it was clear that humanitarian agencies were able to operate on the ground.
BBC sources said that as soon as the email was forwarded from Reid to Thompson he convened a meeting with six senior colleagues, including the deputy director general, Mark Byford, and executives from the global and domestic news divisions. Insiders say it was decided unanimously to reject the DEC appeal on the basis that it would harm the corporation's impartiality. However, in an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday Thompson left no doubt as to who ultimately took the decision. "It's my decision as editor in chief of the BBC," he said. "Definitely."
It was a decision clearly opposed by senior figures in government, including the international development secretary, Douglas Alexander. By the weekend ITV, Channel 4 and Five had agreed to carry the appeal. Sky announced yesterday that like the BBC it would not broadcast the appeal because doing so could jeopardise the channel's "balanced and objective" reporting.
Richard Burden, the Labour MP who tabled the Commons motion criticising the BBC and Sky's refusal to broadcast the appeal, said last night he had the backing of 112 MPs. "Viewers and listeners can see the difference between a humanitarian appeal and politics - even if the BBC and Sky management cannot." His motion rejects the "unconvincing and incoherent" justifications given by the two broadcasters.
The BBC's refusal to give in to public pressure has angered some senior BBC journalists. Senior editors responsible for the BBC's Middle East output have said privately that - contrary to the public statements made by the BBC - they were never consulted over the decision.
"Feelings are running extremely high and there is widespread disgust at the BBC's top management," one source said. BBC journalists will convene at a meeting of National Union of Journalists today to discuss the crisis.
One emerging issue of concern is Thompson's claim that the BBC's stance on humanitarian appeals was "not a new policy" and was consistent with previous humanitarian emergencies. Defending his decision yesterday, he said the BBC had always taken a strong stance on stories "as complex and contentious as Gaza".
However, the BBC broadcast DEC appeals in the aftermath of the 1999 Kosovo war and 1990 Gulf conflict. In 1968 the BBC broadcast an appeal for victims of the Vietnam war. Over the last two years it has broadcast appeals for humanitarian aid for crises in Burma, Bangladesh, Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Neither has the BBC previously shunned humanitarian appeals in the Middle East. The second DEC appeal ever to be broadcast on the BBC, in June 1967, was a film calling for assistance for Palestinian and Syrian refugees displaced by the Six Day War. In 1982, the BBC helped raise £1,030,000 by broadcasting a DEC appeal for victims of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the ensuing conflict.
Under guidelines agreed between the DEC and broadcasters, three criteria must be met to warrant a nationwide appeal. There must be substantial, urgent need in a humanitarian crisis, evidence that aid agencies can guarantee effective assistance on the ground, and sufficient "public awareness, and sympathy for" the humanitarian crisis.
Senior sources from DEC member charities are privately concerned that, since Thompson's arrival as director general, the BBC has "adopted a fourth criteria": that an appeal must not compromise impartiality. The BBC first used this justification in 2006 to reject a DEC appeal for victims of the Lebanon war.
Asked if the corporation's position had changed, the BBC said: "Preserving our impartiality is the BBC's main criteria when deciding whether to broadcast an appeal. Each case is judged on its merits. Our position on impartiality has not changed."