How the BBC's stand on Gaza made a front-page protester out of me
Former radio presenter Sandra Harris says the corporation has let down itself as well as the victims
Sunday 01 February 2009
I am not a natural demonstrator. Way beyond middle-aged, certainly middle-class, and probably middle-of-the-road, that's me. Except when it comes to the Middle East and the appalling and unjust treatment by one persecuted people towards another. That has ended up driving me to the streets, and is how I came, to my surprise, to find myself on the front page of last week's
Independent on Sunday.
The last straw was when I happened to hear, on 22 January, a very low-key item on the noon edition of Channel 4 News reporting on a decision by the BBC not to broadcast the combined charities' appeal for the victims of Gaza.
When I phoned the newsroom and found the story was destined to die after that brief mention at noon I was incensed in a way that hasn't happened in years.
Ringing everyone I could think of, I harangued them to call, demanding that the interview appear on the 7pm edition. They probably thought I was a ranting mad woman, but some of them must have done it because that night the item was shown again and the proverbial shit hit the fan. And we hit the streets.
It felt very strange and almost poignant, standing there outside Broadcasting House, waving my home-made banner and making my presence felt. Back in 1965, the BBC gave me my first proper job. I'd come to Britain from Australia looking to make a career in broadcasting and within a month I was at Broadcasting House, one of the first female reporters for a new radio programme William Hardcastle was putting together called The World At One. My colleagues were a girl from Birmingham called Wendy Jones and another from South Africa called Sue MacGregor.
To say you worked for the BBC then was like saying you stood for "truth, justice and the British way", to paraphrase Superman. Even though this was the Sixties and we were frontline troops in the war against the establishment, ready to take a swipe at anyone and anything, we were still the BBC. Simply the best broadcasting system in the world.
So, for me, demonstrating my outrage outside that same BBC some 40 years on was quite a moment. That the corporation which helped form my career, gave me undreamed of opportunities and introduced me to my husband should now display mealy-mouthed politicising of the worst kind was almost inconceivable.
What I found the hardest to understand was the use of the word "impartiality" to describe an act of appalling inhumanity. Whether the cause is an earthquake, a tsunami, outrages from one African tribe towards another or the relentless onslaught of Israeli tanks, the result is the same. Human deprivation of the worst kind; deprivation on a scale that we can't possibly imagine in our front rooms with the windows closed against noise and traffic pollution outside.
Thanks to the BBC, I have seen what a refugee camp is like. It was Andrew Boyle, the highly talented editor of The World At One who, in 1965, told me that if I was going to take a "jolly" to Beirut, then a glorious, glamorous place, a city I dubbed "the jewel in the Middle Eastern navel", then I should take a sober day off to visit the Palestinian refugee camps half an hour away by taxi from the bright lights of Beirut. I did, and my life changed for ever.
Those refugee camps were Sabra and Shatila which were then, in 1965, over-crowded, utterly desolate and with that terrible smell of raw sewage, polluted water and despair. I asked that famous BBC question, "How does it feel?" to a young man of about 19. "Look with your eyes," he said, "and tell me what you see. This is my life." I've never forgotten it. Or him. And wondered what happened to him, when the Phalange party sent in the militia, aided by Ariel Sharon's troops, and massacred every living thing in those camps, including the dogs.
So I have become a demonstrator. And I shall continue to be one. Not to condemn anybody, but to shout as hard as I can to stop now, please. What about listening to the Sixties of my youth, and giving peace a chance?
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