The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) is an umbrella organisation that co-ordinates fund-raising efforts for 14 UK aid agencies including the British Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid.
In January 2009, as it had done several times before, the DEC asked for the BBC’s permission to broadcast an emergency fund-raising film in aid of the victims of a major humanitarian disaster. The film focused on the plight of injured and malnourished children whose homes had recently been destroyed and hence were in urgent need of medicine, food and shelter. The BBC had previously agreed to show DEC films of a similar nature, but on this occasion it refused to air the film, as did Sky News. In a statement, the BBC explained that it had refused to do so in order “to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story” and because of “question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation”. The head of Sky News, John Ryley, said that broadcasting the film would be “incompatible” with its objective role, saying “our commitment as journalists is to cover all sides of that story with uncompromising objectivity”. Despite many complaints, the BBC upheld its decision and did not broadcast the film.
Why would the BBC and Sky News make such a decision? Why would the BBC argue that showing a short, non-political film on behalf of some of the most respected aid organisations in the world would – in the words of BBC Director General Mark Thompson – give the impression of “backing one side” over the other? Viewed objectively, the BBC’s stance is perplexing. That is, until the decision is contextualised and it is revealed whom the fund raising was in aid of and who was responsible for causing the humanitarian crisis. The DEC film was produced during the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008/January 2009. An attack that killed around 1,400 Palestinians, injured several thousand others, destroyed thousands of homes and devastated Gaza’s already shattered infrastructure. One of a small number of foreign volunteers in Gaza at the time, Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert, described the Israeli attack as an “all out war against the civilian population of Gaza” and estimated that half of all its casualties were women and children.
Presumably well aware of the pro-Israel nature of the media and seeking to pre-empt any accusations of bias on its behalf, the DEC film began by stating that “today, this is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, these people simply need your help” and throughout its three minute duration did not make a single reference to Israel. The film, which can be found here (unlike the BBC, I suggest that you watch it and form your own opinions) is powerfully emotive and reveals the human suffering inflicted by the Israeli onslaught. It also makes clear the terrifying scale of the damage caused in Gaza. However, it apportions no blame and makes no political comment. In this context, the BBC’s explanation for its veto – that broadcasting the video would have compromised its ‘impartiality’ – is indefensible. Sky News’ refusal, although equally as shameful, does not warrant the same attention as the BBC’s as Sky News is not a public-funded body and for obvious reasons, it does not enjoy the reputation for “impartiality” that the BBC does.
In an interview defending the BBC’s decision, Mark Thompson repeatedly stressed the ‘complex’ and ‘contentious’ nature of the conflict in Gaza, concealing the very simple fact that one of the most powerful militaries in the world was then engaged in what has been described as “the mass slaughter of defenceless civilians trapped in a tiny cage with nowhere to flee”. This notion of ‘complexity’ is frequently utilised when Israel’s systematic attacks on the Palestinians are discussed in the media. I have previously written here about the subtle ways that the media (notably the BBC) justifies Israel’s behaviour through the semantic choices of its reporting. But as its decision to veto the broadcast of the DEC video in 2009 clearly demonstrates, the BBC is sometimes more blatant in its bias and unfortunately the DEC incident is not unique.
In December 2010, a UK rapper named Mic Righteous appeared live on BBC Radio1Xtra and performed a freestyle in which he rapped “I can scream Free Palestine!”. When the freestyle was later selected to form part of a ‘Best Of’ compilation in April 2011, BBC production staff censored out the word ‘Palestine’ with a broken glass sound effect, the same effect used to censor out expletives and violent or offensive words. Responding to the many complaints that followed, the BBC stated “Mic Righteous was expressing a political viewpoint which, if it had been aired in isolation, would have compromised impartiality”. Amena Saleem, of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign quoted in The News Statesman said: “In its correspondence with us, the BBC said the word Palestine isn’t offensive, but ‘implying that it is not free is the contentious issue’, and this is why the edit was made”. Yet, the Israeli occupation is not an opinion, it is a fact and is recognised as such by every relevant global organisation including the UN. The UN Security Council classifies Israel as the “occupying force” in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet the BBC in its supposed attempt to be ‘impartial’, refuses to acknowledge the reality that Israel occupies Palestinian land.
Some argue that the BBC’s decisions are pusillanimous in nature more than ideological – motivated by a fear of possible repercussions. Indeed, BBC journalists have spoken of “waiting in fear for the phone call from the Israelis”, of the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau having been “leant on by the Americans”, of being “guilty of self-censorship” and of “urgently needing an external arbiter”. Either way, the outcome is the same. In the name of so-called ‘impartiality’ the word Palestine itself is censored like an offensive expletive and aid charities are unable to raise funds to ease the suffering of innocent Palestinian children.
In June 2008, the comedian Frankie Boyle made two jokes on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Political Animal’. The jokes were as follows:
“I’m quite interested in the Middle East, I’m actually studying that Israeli army martial arts. I now know 16 ways to kick a Palestinian woman in the back.
“I’ve got an analogy which explains the whole thing quite well: if you imagine that Palestine is a cake – well, that cake is being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew.”
After the broadcast, a viewer wrote to the BBC complaining that Boyle’s jokes were ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘disgusting’. The BBC editorial complaints unit wrote back in December 2008 upholding the complaint, saying the use of the word Jew was “inappropriate and offensive”. Not satisfied, the viewer pursued his complaint further and it was then escalated to the editorial standards committee of the BBC Trust (the BBC’s governing body). The committee upheld the ruling concerning the use of the word ‘Jew’, called the incident a ‘serious breach’ and issued a press release in which it stated that it “wished to apologise to the complainant on behalf of the BBC for any offence the remark may have caused him and other listeners to the programme”.
Following this, Boyle wrote an open letter that, regardless of how you feel about him (personally, I am not a fan) and whether or not you found the jokes in question amusing, is worth drawing attention to. In it, Boyle argued that the BBC was “vulnerable to any kind of well drilled lobbying”, criticised it for its “cowardly rebuke” and drew attention to its refusal to broadcast the DEC humanitarian appeal in 2009. His points are valid – honest discussion of Israel on the BBC is entirely absent. Boyle also wrote, “The situation in Palestine seems to be, in essence, apartheid”, a comparison about which I have previously written about.
The BBC’s biased and misleading coverage of Palestine/Israel has been analysed in great detail by Greg Philo and Mark Berry at the Glasgow University Media Group in their books ‘Bad News from Israel’ and ‘More Bad News from Israel’ (both of which I recommend). The latter revealing the terrifying fact that two-thirds of the British public are unsure whether Israel is occupying the Palestinians’ land or vice versa. These books clearly demonstrate the role that the BBC’s coverage plays in obscuring both the historical context of the conflict and the ongoing reality of Israel’s occupation and aggression against the Palestinian people. This role has been underlined in recent weeks as the BBC – despite protests – barely reported that over 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, many of them detained without charge, had gone on hunger strike en masse.
As Boyle concluded at the time:
“I think the problem here is that the show’s producers will have thought that Israel, an aggressive, terrorist state with a nuclear arsenal was an appropriate target for satire.
The Trust’s ruling is essentially a note from their line managers. It says that if you imagine that a state busily going about the destruction of an entire people is fair game, you are mistaken.
Israel is out of bounds”
Remember that the next time you hear someone extol the virtues of the ‘impartial’ BBC.
 The full list is as follows: Action Aid, British Red Cross, Cafod, Care International, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision –
Note – It is estimated 352 children were killed by Israel’s attacks between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009.