BBC left isolated as rival channels back aid appeal

Ministers step into row over corporation's refusal to show charities' plea for donations to Gaza

Jane Merrick,Emily Dugan
Sunday 25 January 2009 01:00

The BBC was engaged in a war of words with ministers last night over its refusal to broadcast an urgent appeal for humanitarian aid to Gaza. Government figures, aid workers and BBC staff expressed outrage that the corporation has not backed down, as some of its rivals did yesterday, and broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal. The BBC said yesterday it was concerned that access to aid in Gaza might be problematic, and that it did not want to endanger the public's perception of the impartiality of its reporting.

The BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons expressed concern that the "level and tone" of the political comments were "coming close to constituting undue interference in the political independence" of the corporation.

Channel 4, Five, ITV and al-Jazeera English announced they will be airing the DEC appeal tomorrow, after initially falling in behind the BBC. Sky News was considering its position last night.

Public figures were outraged by the broadcaster's decision not to air the appeal, calling it a "terrible mistake". One former senior BBC journalist referred to "a culture of timidity". The BBC has previously aired DEC pleas for humanitarian help in volatile regions such as Congo and Burma.

Yesterday a march that had been organised to complain about the BBC's alleged pro-Israel bias, which began outside Broadcasting House, was given new focus by the row.

The director-general, Mark Thompson, stood by his decision last night, despite critics' attempts to draw a distinction between politics and aid.

The row once again pitted the Government against the BBC, six years on from the David Kelly controversy. It raised further questions over the judgement of senior BBC officials weeks after the Ross/Brand affair.

In an unusual intervention by a cabinet minister, the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, wrote to Mr Thompson on Friday urging him to reconsider, but Whitehall sources said the BBC seemed determined not to back down. The health minister Ben Bradshaw, a former BBC journalist, said the decision was "inexplicable" and called the corporation's justification "completely feeble". The Communities and Local Government Secretary, Hazel Blears, added: "I sincerely hope the BBC will urgently review its decision."

A motion has been tabled in the Commons for tomorrow expressing astonishment at the corporation's judgement in blocking airtime from the coalition of major aid charities, including the British Red Cross.

It is understood that it was Mr Thompson's decision, and chief operating officer Caroline Thomson was ordered to go on radio – initially on Friday on Radio 4's The World Tonight – to defend the position. A source close to the row said: "Because she [Ms Thomson] has gone so strongly on editorial independence, it is very difficult to see how they can back down."

Ms Thomson said yesterday: "It is important to remember that broadcasting appeals like this is a unique thing we do and we have to be clear about two things when we do it. First, that that money will go to the people it is intended for; but second, that we can do it within our own impartiality principles and without affecting and impinging on the audience's perception of our impartiality."

Protocol dictates that the BBC leads the way on deciding a consensus on DEC appeals with other channels. But rival channels allege the corporation made an announcement on Thursday before consulting them, forcing them to break with the convention.

The DEC is an apolitical umbrella organisation made up of UK major aid organisations ActionAid, British Red Cross, Cafod, Care International UK, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision.

Mr Alexander welcomed the move by rival broadcasters to air the appeal: "The DEC appeal is crucial to help alleviate the suffering of people injured, displaced and hungry in Gaza."

Many former BBC stalwarts were appalled at the news and called for an immediate reversal of the decision. John Tusa, former managing director of BBC World Service, said: "It's a terrible mistake and I think they have lost for the moment any sense of judgement and a good deal of courage. Anybody who thinks giving aid to badly injured children in Gaza would be taken as bias needs their heads examined."

Former BBC correspondent Martin Bell said: "Old BBC soldiers like me are appalled by the BBC's decision. There are civilians dying out there who desperately need aid."

Director-general is under pressure to go

Mark Thompson's statement last night was a typically robust reaction to the latest challenge troubling his tenure as director-general of the BBC.

A scandal surrounding rigged phone-in contests on 'Blue Peter' in 2007 led to the regulator Ofcom fining the BBC £50,000. The BBC1 controller Peter Fincham resigned in the same year over the the editing of a trailer that misleadingly suggested that the Queen had stormed out of a photo session.

Mr Thompson came under pressure to resign last year, in the wake of controversy surrounding lurid calls to the actor Andrew Sachs, which resulted in the departure of Russell Brand, the resignation of BBC Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas, and the suspension of Jonathan Ross.

Ministerial anger over his decision not to back down over the appeal will add to the pressure for Mr Thompson to do what some of his senior staff have done in recent years – resign.

Balance in the media: Has the BBC lost its nerve over Gaza?

The BBC is used to being accused of anti-Israel bias, but in 2004 it was jolted by a study that said BBC1 and ITV news were guilty, if unthinkingly, of under-reporting the Palestinian cause. Worse, the Glasgow Media Unit found viewers thought the "occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza referred to the Palestinians, not Israeli settlers.

At the same time, the BBC fell foul of the Israeli authorities over an interview with the nuclear whistleblower Mordecai Vanunu, released in 2004 after 18 years in prison, which was smuggled out of Israel. The BBC's then deputy bureau chief, Simon Wilson, had his work permit withdrawn and was barred from the country. He was allowed back in after the BBC bowed to demands that he make a written apology to the Israeli government for dodging its censors.

The BBC appointed a senior broadcaster, Malcolm Balen, to "take stock" of Middle East coverage, in his words. He drew up an internal report that has never been released, but one result appeared to be the appointment, in mid-2005, of Jeremy Bowen as the BBC's Middle East editor. His stated role was to supply context amid the footage of bloodshed and mayhem.

Why critics accuse the BBC of losing its nerve is because, several times during the present conflict, almost as much airtime has been given to the chief Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, as if by allowing him his say, the BBC is supplying the necessary "balance" to the images of Palestinian victims. A live "two-way" between Mr Regev and Jon Snow of 'Channel 4 News' became a shouting match, but this has never happened on the BBC.

Donations can be made to the DEC Gaza appeal via its website or by calling 0370 60 60 900

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