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.
"The BBC's decision not to broadcast an emergency appeal for the people of Gaza is patent nonsense," Alex Orr of Edinburgh wrote in a letter to the Daily Mail newspaper. "Whatever people's views on the conflict, there is no doubt that international aid is vitally important in Gaza at this time -- and for the BBC to hinder that effort is totally unacceptable by a public service broadcaster."
The BBC has announced creation of an internal investigative panel to review the decision.
Virtually every news organization that covers any aspect of the conflict is bombarded by complaints accusing it of bias. Often, both sides complain that the same story or broadcast is slanted against them.
In this case, many accused the BBC of favoring Israel.
"The BBC's decision not to broadcast the Gaza appeal is utterly appalling and indefensible. Caving in to Israeli propaganda like this is not what I would've expected from an organization I've previously respected," one blogger wrote in response to Thompson's explanation. "We will know who to blame when Palestinian children die in hospital because not enough aid has got to them."
The Times newspaper, in an editorial, called the BBC's decision an "error" and said the network seemed more preoccupied with avoiding another embarrassing dent in its image than with helping people. The editorial mocked the BBC's logic.
"The BBC is evidently concerned that to show pictures of the suffering, and plead for assistance, is to take sides, presumably against Israel," it said. "But this reveals that they believe that, once you have seen the suffering, you can only take one side. Naturally, this is not true. The point is that people are suffering, terribly. Giving aid to Gaza is something that can and should be done, whoever you think is to blame for the conflict."
While the BBC was widely bashed for its decision, some bloggers and public commentators defended the network.
"For once I support the BBC," one blogger wrote. "Of course what has happened in Gaza is terrible, but Hamas will merely use such broadcasts as propaganda."
On Thursday, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, canceled interviews with the BBC over the issue. At the same time, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced the launch of a U.N. appeal to raise $613 million for humanitarian relief in Gaza.
Sky News, which, like the Times, is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., also refused to air the appeal, prepared by the Disasters Emergency Committee, which represents groups such as CARE and Oxfam.
But several other British broadcasters aired the appeal earlier this week, including privately owned ITV and Channel 5, and the publicly owned Channel 4, al-Jazeera and the S4C channel in Wales.
The committee said it has raised at least $3.5 million through the appeal, which will be used for food, medical supplies and aid in Gaza.