Leading article: Weakness in the face of suffering

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The Independent Online

It is easy to criticise the BBC, but that does not mean that it is always wrong to do so. The corporation's refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal for aid to Gaza was a mistake. The Independent on Sunday is proud to carry the appeal on behalf of the group of 13 reputable charities.

We accept that the intentions of Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, were honourable. Concerned to protect its reputation for impartiality, the BBC wanted to avoid "appearing to support one side rather than the other" in the Gaza conflict, as Caroline Thomson, the corporation's chief operating officer, said yesterday.

This is a weak-minded interpretation of the BBC's duty of impartiality. The corporation seems to think it can avoid the charge of bias if it does nothing.

Does the BBC have so little confidence in its reporting that it believes it can be undermined by its providing airtime for a charitable appeal for humanitarian aid? It has come to something when normally cautious government ministers condemn the BBC for being afraid of offending the Israeli government. Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development, was clear, principled and right. "The British public can distinguish between humanitarian aid and partiality in a conflict," he said yesterday. And he pointed out that if broadcasting the appeal might imply disapproval of Israel, not showing it might imply that Palestinian suffering did not count.

The thinness of the BBC's case was exposed by Ms Thomson's claim that it had refused to carry aid appeals before, for Lebanon and Afghanistan. In neither case were those appeals made by the DEC; the fact that a committee of 13 aid agencies is able to agree an appeal ought to be testimony to the degree of consensus that the humanitarian crisis is above politics.

The BBC has difficult decisions to make, as a public service broadcaster reporting on an asymmetrical conflict. But it is precisely because those decisions are difficult that the BBC should have resisted Israeli government propaganda.

The Israeli government and its supporters sometimes respond to justifiable criticism by accusing its accusers of anti-Semitism. It would be only human if senior BBC executives responded by deciding that offending such vociferous critics is simply not worth the trouble. A cursory glance at internet blogs will confirm that the BBC was frequently accused of being anti-Israel during the Gaza operation, and often of giving comfort to anti-Semites.

Sir Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP, caused a stir this month when he pointed this out in the Commons: "The current Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt among Gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians."

So, is the BBC guilty of falling for this form of moral extortion? On this occasion, the corporation does seem to have taken its sensitivity to this charge to the defensive extreme, by avoiding something that could wrongly be interpreted as a criticism of the Israeli government.

This newspaper is as forthright in its condemnation of the Israeli assault on Gaza as it is in its condemnation of anti-Semitism. We support Israel's right to exist and to defend itself. Our argument is that the Gaza operation was reckless as to civilian casualties. Arguably, as we investigate in an article today, Israel's government is guilty of much worse. The number of civilian deaths was not only foreseeable and excessive, but counter-productive. It has eroded international support for Israel and hardened Palestinian support for terrorism.

The way the Israeli government has sought to defend its action has made matters worse. As Dominic Waghorn, Middle East correspondent for Sky News, writes today, the refusal to allow journalists into the combat zone fuels the suspicion that the Israeli Defence Force had something to hide.

None of the judgements about the wisdom or morality of the military action – or about whose side one is on – should make any difference to the gross asymmetry of the suffering left behind. It is a basic law of war that combatants should not impede humanitarian assistance for non-combatants. To facilitate such assistance cannot therefore be to "take sides" in a conflict.

The suggestion that any expression of compassion for the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is to side with terrorists and anti-Semites is an unworthy one. It was spineless of the BBC to fall for it.