Philip Hensher: The BBC is too impartial to suffering

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During the 22 days of the Israeli assaults on Gaza, around 1,300 Palestinians, according to both local and international sources, were killed. This included over 400 children under 18 and over 100 women. Israeli shells hit schools, heavily built-up areas and the UN Relief and Works Agency headquarters, killing many and knocking out food and medical supply warehouses. The UN, Red Cross and Israeli human rights agencies have complained that food aid, medics and rescue services have been prevented from reaching those in need.

In these circumstances, when the normal pattern of life has been violently disrupted, people in the West and around the world naturally want to do something about it. I doubt that many do so primarily because they hate Israel, or because they are secretly anti-Semitic. I would guess that for most people, the emotion of pity for innocent victims and for those who have no escape from the open-air prison of Gaza, shelled with phosphorus, is uppermost. Some people, if they thought about it, would blame Israel; some, more ingenious, would blame Hamas. You could wish to do something about it, whichever opinion you held.

Not, however, if you worked for the BBC. The Disasters Emergency Committee, which represents 13 of Britain's aid agencies, asked the BBC to broadcast an appeal for money to help the people of Gaza. The BBC turned them down, saying such an appeal would damage the BBC's reputation for editorial independence. And, they said, there was no guarantee the money raised would reach those in genuine need.

Caroline Thomson, the Chief Operating Officer of the BBC, on the Today Programme on Saturday said: "You have to ask yourself what the most important thing for the people who are suffering ... from the BBC's position, the most important thing is that we keep our reputation." Edward Stourton, quite rightly, could hardly contain his incredulity at Ms Thomson's idea that by giving airtime to a humanitarian appeal the BBC would be seen to be supporting one side or another. As for the idea that the money "wouldn't get through": the aid agencies believe it would, and the Government has some measure of confidence, too. The BBC hasn't a leg to stand on.

The news, no doubt, has a requirement to represent the justification of the attacks as well as their results. Perhaps it would be right to go on reporting frankly green-ink views that most of those killed were terrorists, that the buildings destroyed were weapons factories and not schools, that any children apparently carried dead through the streets were probably murdered by their parents, and other sickening productions of the fantasy factory.

If you believed those claims, it would probably be right not to broadcast an appeal for funds. You don't, however, need to believe more than that many people killed were innocent bystanders with nowhere to flee, including children, and that the destruction has made life very difficult, and that the attendance of aid agencies demonstrates only the presence of suffering.

The trouble is that the BBC's requirement for impartiality has enabled it, yet again, to do nothing. Yet that inactivity does not have a neutral result. It means an appeal is not heard; that some money is not raised; an instance of suffering is not alleviated; that another child dies. Just so Ms Thomson can rest in her bed, assured that she has not upset a correspondent who believes a hospital was really a bomb factory, that there was never any white phosphorus fired at civilians, and that dead toddler was really a suicide bomber. Never has impartiality seemed so very far from moral neutrality.

Chelsy, an unlikely victim of these tough times

I suppose we will miss Chelsy Davy. For five years, she has fascinated us with her bored, sulky features, pulling a face next to Prince Harry. She's probably perfectly ladylike, but she always looked, in features, as vulgar and broad as a seaside landlady. She had all the potential to be that generation's Sarah Ferguson next to the tedious graciousness of Kate Middleton's Princess Diana tribute.

Alas, the credit crunch did for that sort of Mahiki Princess, and I think we can all look forward to an end to photographs of royal hangers-on falling out of Kensington clubs. Chelsy got her timing wrong. For a truly vulgar and shameless royal wedding, I think we need a Big Bang, a Barber Boom, a Macmillan announcing that "you never had it so good". As we look forward to a three-day week and an economic slump, a Zimbabwean princess dripping with diamonds and fake tan would never be quite the thing.

An excellent introduction to the real world

David Miliband, it has been reported, caused some offence in India by calling the Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, "Pranab". Mr Mukherjee called Miliband "your excellency". Seeking to export the Blair revolution, by which the prime minister of the day sought to be called "Tony" by his colleagues, was always going to lead to trouble.

But do any of us in Britain know how to address anyone any more? When I was at university, my tutors called me "Mr Hensher" and I called them "Professor X". Now, my students begin e-mails to me "Hey Phil". That, I don't mind so much, but I have to admit being irritated when the ticket-checker on South West Trains calls me "mate".

The trouble is that the person who you're on first-name terms with might very well still fail your essay, and being the "mate" of the mini-Hitler with the hole-puncher isn't going to count for much when he discovers that you've forgotten to buy a ticket.

As WH Auden said, the problem is that most people have forgotten the difference between their friends and complete strangers. If Mr Miliband hopes to progress in his career, he might like to discover that not everybody in the world has forgotten this important distinction.

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