The BBC should not be impartial

by
28 January 2009

The BBC’s refusal to air the appeal for Gaza reveals muddled morality, argues John Barton

Appeal: Kawsar Abed Rabbo plays with her son Mohammed in the rubble of her home in east Jebaliya, in Gaza. Two of Abed Rabbo’s daughters were killed, and another is critically ill in a Belgian hospital

Appeal: Kawsar Abed Rabbo plays with her son Mohammed in the rubble of her home in east Jebaliya, in Gaza. Two of Abed Rabbo’s daughters were killed, ...

Days before the Gaza ceasefire, I joined thousands of people in Trafalgar Square to protest against the invasion of Palestine. We were a mixed bunch, politically and religiously. The Socialist Workers Party was strongly in evidence. Tony Benn was one of the speakers; Canon Lucy Winkett of St Paul’s Cathedral was another. The largest group of people there was probably Muslim.

A prominent banner advertised the newly formed organisation Jews for Justice for Palestine (www. jfjfp.org). Their members told me that they were all Jews living in the UK, both practising and secular, including some who were Zionists. They were encouraged by a number of Israeli citizens who were aghast at their government’s aggression and who repudiated the charge that opposition to some Israeli policies was synonymous with anti-Semitism.

Recordings from al-Jazeera tele­vision’s coverage of the war inside Gaza were shown on a massive screen, and there were complaints that, by contrast, the BBC’s coverage had favoured Israel. I thought this was unfair: its Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen, and his team had done their best to present an even-handed picture, despite the Israeli ban on foreign reporters entering Gaza.

It is true that Israel’s official spokesman was more prominent in broadcast interviews than anyone from Hamas, but, however confident his repeated assurances about precision targeting of terrorists, it was becoming obvious that for every one Israeli death, there were 100 Palestinians killed, including hun­dreds of women and children.

If it is indeed the case that 50,000 people have been displaced, scores of buildings destroyed, UN schools attacked, phosphorus weapons de­ployed in built-up areas, and a cemetery ploughed up by tanks, then it is easy to see why the Israeli offensive is considered punitive rather than preventative.

Any nation engaged in warfare needs to be aware that the injunction “an eye for an eye” (lex talionis) to be found in the Old Testament and the earlier Code of Hammurabi, far from being a spur to vengeance, was ac­tually intended to restrict retribution and blood feuds. No more than an eye was to be taken in retaliation for the loss of an eye.

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There is no shortage of financial support for Israel. Its sophisticated weaponry will be replenished by the United States, unless President Obama modifies the policies of his predecessors.

No doubt Hamas will smuggle in more crude rocketry, too. Across the Arab (and Muslim) world, a colossal sense of injustice will breed more and more extremists. A young Muslim friend, also present in Trafalgar Square, feared that moderate Arab governments were now at greater risk of being destabilised. The cause of establishing harmonious Palestinian and Israeli states side by side has been put back decades.

NOW THE BBC and Sky News have imposed a ban on broadcasting the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal for Gaza. The BBC’s principle of observing objectivity is laudable. Confusing that with impartiality is not. There are higher absolutes to be respected. Of course, both sides in a conflict must be reported accurately. Truth demands it. But it does not mean that the media cannot take a view.

The Darfur massacre required honest and objective reporting, but not impartiality. To be “impartial” in the face of unmistakable evidence

is at best cowardly, and at worst collusive, whether conscious or not.

The extraordinary decision to refuse airtime to the aid appeal reveals muddled moral thinking. The Corporation seems to have been infected by the post-modern disease that construes all ethical opinions as of equal worth, especially when they are contradictory.

The decision to be “impartial” in all circumstances is itself the product of a moral assessment. The Good Samaritan made a moral judgement. So did the priest who passed by on the other side. No one can be aloof when help is urgently needed. Neutrality can itself be evil if it is a reaction to evil.

The charities comprising the Disasters Emergency Committee have also made a moral decision. Most of them, incidentally, were founded by Christians in response to human­itarian need. Faced with justifiable but competing demands for aid, they have judged that Gaza is among the most urgent. Their charitable status prohibits them from political cam­paigning, but that does not require them to be impartial.

Imagine the reaction, reductio ad absurdum, if appeals by the Royal British Legion after the Second World War had been banned by the BBC on the grounds that the proceeds would not be shared with Nazi casualties. What will happen, post-Mugabe, when charities appeal for aid to rebuild Zimbabwe? Perhaps the BBC will make it a condition that some of the money must be sent to ZANU-PF in exile.

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In the Book of Common Prayer, we are enjoined to pray that justice will be ministered “indifferently”. In the 17th century, the word meant “without prejudice”: courts were to be independent and free from bias. These days, indifference implies “without care or concern”. That is precisely how the supposedly high-minded policy of the BBC and Sky appears: haughty neutrality in the face of heart-rending distress.

ITV has already shown Sky that a commercial broadcaster can have a conscience, as well as being ac­countable to shareholders. The BBC does not have that constraint, and needs to distinguish between par­tiality and partisanship. This is a case where semantics really do matter. A moral principle needs to be established — in the cause of justice and for the sake of humanity.

The Ven. John Barton is a former Chief Broadcasting Officer for the Church of England, and a former Archdeacon of Aston.

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