Dominic Lawson: When charities turn political, the BBC is right to tread warily

Christian Aid can no longer be considered an honest broker

Tuesday 27 January 2009 01:00 GMT

When the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, government ministers, their Tory and Liberal Democrat shadows, the Sun and the Mirror, not to mention all the organs of respectable opinion, are united in criticism, then you just know that the object of their anger is almost certainly thinking more clearly than they are.

On this occasion – and not for the first time – it is the BBC which is in the stocks, being splattered by the rotten fruit of popular opinion. The Corporation has apparently committed a crime against humanity, by its decision to decline to broadcast a charity appeal for aid for Gaza, on the grounds that to do so would risk reducing public confidence in its impartiality. Sky News has in fact taken the same decision for the same reason, but, as ever, the fact that the BBC is paid for by a poll tax lends its decisions a political toxicity which is peculiar to itself.

On this occasion even retired BBC panjundrums such as Sir John Tusa, the former head of the World Service, have joined in the criticism. Yesterday Sir John told the listeners of the BBC's World at One that the Corporation should "look at the pictures" coming out of Gaza, and "have a heart". It is characteristic of the BBC's best journalism that it should encourage its former employees to lacerate its present bosses on its own wavelengths – thus perfectly demonstrating in action its commitment to impartiality.

Not that Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general and editor-in-chief, should have been swayed or dismayed by Sir John Tusa's tirade. It was similar to attacks by much less intelligent critics, in that it seemed to suggest that the BBC's executives had demonstrated a great emotional coldness of spirit.

These critics really do believe that they are peculiarly able to understand the horrors of war and the pain of loss and bereavement. They really do seem to think that the men and women who have decided not to air this charity appeal are unable to feel a similar shock and nausea when watching film of the innocent victims of conflict. Their moral conceit is revolting in its certainty and condescension.

It is true that the Disasters Emergency Committee – the initiators of the appeal for Gaza – consists entirely of charities, rather than overtly political organisations. Thus it is argued that the BBC is simply wrong in seeing any danger of political bias in its campaign.

Unfortunately things are not so clear cut. I am sure that Islamic Relief, one of the member agencies of the DEC, is untainted by any whiff of political partiality in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The same, however, cannot be said of every one of the other 12 participating charities.

Christian Aid, for example, called this month on Gordon Brown to "push for the EU to suspend its talks with Israel on upgrading relations": because Israel was "in breach of international humanitarian law in targeting civilians in Gaza, Christian Aid holds that these talks must be suspended." The only effect of this intervention was to demonstrate that Christian Aid has taken sides in the conflict between Israel and Hamas (it is in fact the latter which actually "targets civilians").

Christian Aid can thus no longer be considered an honest broker when it insists that its role in delivering aid will be completely free of any political interference – a particular concern for the BBC given that one of its 10 internal "Guiding Principles of Impartiality" contains the following: "Those that use campaigns should remember that campaigners have an agenda and should not generally be regarded as objective observers of a situation: charity workers ... for instance."

Of course, no mainstream British politician will ever dare criticise Christian Aid – it would be like spitting in Church. This is especially true of politicians in the field of International Development, whose entire sense of self-esteem is conditional on the approval of the NGOs. Thus the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, and his Tory Shadow, Andrew Mitchell, were united in demanding that the BBC change its mind.

As they might well know, this is not the first time that the BBC has rebuffed an approach from the DEC in connection with the Middle East. In 2006 the Corporation refused to broadcast an appeal for the victims of the conflict between Israel and the Hizbollah forces in Lebanon. Apparently the DEC had said that it wanted to include Gaza as a beneficiary of that film. Since Gaza had been completely unaffected by the Lebanon conflict – the only thing that Hizbollah has completely in common with Hamas is that both seek the annihilation of the state of Israel – it is easy to see why Mark Thompson has become a little nervous when the DEC asks for some free airtime, unedited by the BBC, to raise funds from the public for its appeals linked to the political conflict in the Middle East.

Those who felt most strongly that the BBC should be condemned for not backing down went on a march to Broadcasting House at the weekend. With George Galloway and Tony Benn at the head, it was quite a turn-out. The many placards from the Socialist Workers Party added to the colour of the occasion. I was especially struck by one of the speakers, who, to applause, praised Press TV, the British media arm of the Iranian government, which is prepared to show the DEC film, and cried "shame" on the BBC for not employing similar high standards of judgement. (This, by the way, is the Press TV which published on its website an article by one Nicholas Kollerstrom, arguing that the "alleged massacre of Jewish people by gassing during World War II was scientifically impossible". Press TV described Mr Kollerstrom as "a distinguished academic". )

This particular speaker, who was wearing a keffiah, made the now obligatory remark at such gatherings, to the effect that Israel was "the same as the Nazis", and ended with the warning that the state of Israel would be "rinsed and hung out to dry". Everyone cheered at this, although I wondered what they thought the speaker meant by that remark.

Naturally there are many, many people, not activists in the Palestinian cause, still less committed to the destruction of Israel, who are furious that the BBC has not agreed to broadcast the Gaza appeal. Believe it or not, the BBC isn't attempting to stop them contributing. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has asserted – with almost sectionable silliness – that the BBC is somehow "not allow[ing] people to show their compassion". No, Nick, neither you nor anyone else is being prevented by the BBC from showing your compassion. Indeed, if you look on the BBC website to follow its coverage of this controversy, you will see a link to the DEC's own site, advertising its Gaza appeal.

As a matter of fact, the charities behind the DEC Gaza appeal should be delighted that the BBC has turned them down. As a result of the furore, there can be few people in the country who do not now know of this campaign; otherwise it would have had to rely on those who had stayed watching the BBC News one night to find the appeal at the end of the bulletin.

It's a triumph all round, one might say: everyone can feel good about themselves and everyone has stuck to their principles. Only the BBC, however, has been prepared to consider that the other side has principles, too.

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