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BBC and DEC: The case for the defence

This is a guest post by Bertie

On Friday night the BBC decided it would not transmit the Gaza Appeal film made by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).

According to Caroline Thomson on ‘Today’ yesterday morning, the decision was made for two reasons. One, that the money might not get to the victims. Two, that the broadcasting of the Appeal might violate the independence of the BBC.

Of course the decision was highly controversial. Ben Bradshaw (Minister for Health and former BBC journalist) said that the BBC ‘has to stand up to the Israeli authorities occasionally’ and (on R4 ‘Any Questions’) said that the BBC has been ‘bullied by the Israeli authorities’. On Channel 4 last night, Caroline Thomson denied that Israeli pressure had anything to do with the decision.

Josie Hines called in to Any Answers yesterday and blamed the ‘Zionist Jews’ in the ‘BBC hierarchy’ (Jonathan Dimbleby cut her off). The caller after her said that the BBC had given in to the “news management of the Israelis”. On the Guardian website ‘Spolky’ commented at 10:51am on Saturday on the “disturbing trend whereby all Jewish presenters are allowed free reign (sic)”.

But is the BBC’s case credible?

The fear that the aid might not get to the victims is certainly not groundless. Hamas is the government and there are many reports that Hamas is stealing the aid and selling it at inflated prices. These concerns are genuine.

Even UNWRA stopped distributing aid temporarily because it could not be sure that it would get to the victims: see this report from Jordan’s Petra News Agency.

Turning to the impartiality argument, the BBC is between a rock and a hard place. The new Charities Act (passed in 2006) greatly increased the scope for charities to do political campaigns. Many charities have over the past month criticised Operation Cast Lead. They have gone way beyond the humanitarian. They include War on Want, Oxfam and Save The Children (the latter two are members of the DEC). Oxfam’s statements include highly political and hotly contested claims, such as the accusation that Israel is guilty of “disproportionate force” or “illegal collective punishment.”

Here is Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director, Oxfam International:

“It has been a form of collective punishment illegal under international humanitarian law yet tolerated by the international community.”

The BBC cannot under its Charter take sides. Here are the editorial guidelines and the relevant section on charitable appeals:

Programmes about charitable initiatives

We must retain our impartiality and independence when we cover charitable initiatives and report charity appeals. We may use the expertise of charities where appropriate (for example wildlife programmes about conservation) but we should avoid promoting them.

A further point (made by a former BBC employee) concerns the footage that is used in the Appeal. The BBC has no independent footage, and so would have to rely on the DEC footage. The BBC may well fear that it will become embroiled in bias for using video footage of unknown provenance. It has been found guilty in the past of using footage shot not by the BBC but by ALF activists. It also got into enormous trouble using Greenpeace footage in its main News programme.

The casualties in Gaza are a tragedy and relief is badly needed. But until the BBC can be sure that the money donated by its viewers and listeners will go to the victims and not to Hamas, the BBC is in an extremely difficult place. ITV, Channel 4 and Five have decided to show the Appeal, but then they do not have the same Charter provisions to protect independence. But the BBC is in a difficult place, constitutionally speaking.

So where should those who agree with the BBC direct their donations?

Hadas Balas, a student at Sapir College near Sderot in Israel, has collected 10 truckloads of basic supplies, which she hopes to deliver to the people of Gaza.

All aid sent from Israel into Gaza is monitored and checked by Israeli authorities to ensure that it contains only what it is meant to contain, and that it gets only to innocent civilians. Israel coordinates these activities with the United Nations relief fund and with the Palestinian Authority to ensure that none of these provisions end up in the hands of Hamas.

You can give to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).

Their website is here

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