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Mark Steel

Mark Steel: You can't be impartial about aid

THE BBC is right. If they broadcast that appeal for aid to be sent to Gaza it would be taking sides. The Israeli Defence force could legitimately say "We've gone to enormous lengths to kill people, then you go and help keep them alive. How do you square that with your remit to be neutral?"

So the BBC needs to look at other areas in which its 'impartiality' could be called into question. To start with they'll have to scrap Crimewatch, which clearly takes the side of the murdered against the murderers. Maybe they could get round this by having a new balanced Crimewatch, in which the police plea for witnesses to a crime, but then the presenter says, "Next tonight - have you seen this man? Because Big Teddy and his gang are desperate to track him down and do him in for ringing us up earlier. So if you have any information please call us, where Nobby the Knife is ready to talk to you in complete confidence."

It's impossible to be entirely neutral about anything, especially an appeal for money. Appeals are made for injured veterans of World War II, but I don't suppose they'd take them off air if they got a letter saying, "Dear BBC, I'm a Nazi war criminal but I pay my licence fee just like everyone else, and as such I was appalled by the biased images of the Battle of Normandy used to promote your financial appeal. There are two sides to every story, and I thought you had a promise to be impartial. So come on BBC, us Kommandants watch tv as well!"

Appeals have been made for victims of wars in the Congo, Darfur and Bosnia, keeping people alive and thereby undermining the efforts of the armies who tried to wipe them out. But if the current stance carries on, if anyone feels their block of flats collapsing they'll think, "I hope this is an earthquake and not an invading army or we won't get a penny via the BBC."

Aware of the frail logic of not showing the appeal, the BBC has made some even stranger statements to justify its decision, such as claiming it couldn't be sure the money would "get through".

Ah yes, that must be it. If only Gaza was like the Congo or Darfur, where the Red Cross can pop along to the village cashpoint machines, draw the money out and get Janjaweed or Hutu militias to help them search for two-for-one bargains in the local Somerfield.

Luckily for the Middle-East, the US government has been less squeamish about this question of impartiality. For example in Bush's last year he sent Israel $2.2bn worth of military aid, and there's no record of anyone saying: "This couldn't be seen as breaching our impartiality in any way, could it?"

The problem is that when viewers are confronted with scenes of misery and destruction, they're bound to ask what or who caused this, and if it was done deliberately.

So the BBC couldn't remain neutral. Either they allowed the appeal that would lead to those questions being asked, or they refused it, in which case they're suggesting they shouldn't aid the relief of civilians who've been bombed, starved and slaughtered, as on this occasion their plight can be justified. And it's decided this time to be biased not towards the impoverished but towards the impoverishers.

Or maybe they've been under such a barrage of complaints lately they just panicked that in the middle of the appeal the presenter might say, "Oh and by the way, I shagged David Attenborough's grandson. Anyway, back to the lack of clean water."