BBC Draws Protests With Decision Not to Air Aid Appeal for Gazans

Police remove protesters from Broadcasting House in London demonstrating against the BBC's refusal to broadcast an appeal free of charge.
Police remove protesters from Broadcasting House in London demonstrating against the BBC's refusal to broadcast an appeal free of charge. (By Anthony Devlin -- Associated Press)
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 30, 2009

LONDON -- The BBC, the world's largest news organization, just can't seem to keep itself out of trouble these days.

Last year, "the Beeb" miffed Queen Elizabeth II with a piece of doctored video footage that suggested she was throwing a bit of a temper tantrum -- when she wasn't. The results of a call-in TV show contest were manipulated, and more well-coiffed heads rolled at a network that has prided itself for decades for its above-the-fray probity.

Jonathan Ross, a presenter who earns about $8.5 million a year, was suspended, and his on-air buddy, actor and comedian Russell Brand, lost his BBC job when the two made an on-air prank call to an elderly man's voice mail and made sexually explicit suggestions about his granddaughter.

Hardly acceptable behavior for a publicly funded broadcaster so much a part of British life that it was long known as the country's stuffy old "Auntie."

Think it couldn't get any worse? Try tossing the incendiary Arab-Israeli conflict into the mix.

Rage at the BBC reached a new level this week after the network decided not to air a humanitarian appeal for victims of the recent violence in Gaza.

In response, more than 22,000 people have complained to the BBC, 162 members of Parliament have signed a protest letter and hundreds of viewers have canceled their television licenses or staged sit-ins at BBC offices.

The BBC argued that showing the three-minute appeal, which was put together by a consortium of 13 humanitarian agencies, would compromise the objectivity of its reporting on Israel's recent military offensive. The consortium wanted the BBC to provide free airtime, broadcasting the appeal as a public service.

"We concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story," BBC director general Mark Thompson wrote on a blog on the organization's Web site.

"Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news program but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations," Thompson wrote. "The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story."

Critics called that ridiculous. They said that appealing for aid for the suffering is a simple public service and should be a primary mission of a public broadcaster.

They said that showing clips of suffering children and asking for food and medical assistance in an offensive that killed 1,300 people in Gaza and reduced many buildings to rubble does not bias the BBC's news reporting toward either Israel or Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that governs Gaza.

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