By Dave Crouch
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BBC: Whose side are you on?

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The refusal of the BBC's top management to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Gaza aid appeal focused public anger over media coverage of the Israeli assault.
Issue 333

The BBC Board’s position had nothing to do with “impartiality”. When a dog savages a child, it is not impartial to stand back and watch the child bleed – that is siding with the dog. Hiding behind the shibboleth of impartiality in reality meant that the BBC sided with Israel.

The BBC’s extraordinary position was merely the worst moment in its coverage of Gaza. Throughout the events far too much weight was given to Israeli spokespeople, while reports repeatedly stereotyped Hamas as “militants” – invariably “Islamic militants” – while legitimating the Israeli assault as an “operation”.

So the BBC, along with the rest of the corporate media (except the Independent) bought the Israeli lie that it targeted the United Nations (UN) school in Jabaliya because Hamas was firing rockets from it. Only the Guardian subsequently reported the UN official who said the Israelis admitted they were wrong. At one point the BBC even embedded itself with Israeli troops invading Gaza.

The BBC’s justification for its ban on the DEC aid appeal betrays a logic that says both sides in the Gaza conflict were equally to blame for the bloodshed. In the eyes of the pro-Israeli camp, the carnage in Gaza is justified by the context. For this reason we saw far too little of the bloody reality of Gaza on our screens. Broadcasting the DEC appeal would have restored some balance to the BBC’s coverage. Other DEC appeals broadcast by the BBC have been no less “controversial” than Gaza, such as those for Burma, the Congo and Sudan. But clearly the BBC calculates that it can only broadcast disaster appeals if it can get away with ignoring the political roots of disasters.

In the Gaza case this is impossible. The BBC chief operating officer Caroline Thompson admitted as much when she told al-Jazeera, “We never say never and clearly, if the DEC came to us with another request when things have calmed down and we didn’t have the same worries about the controversial nature of this, we would look at it again in that light.”

“Things calming down” means getting back to the status quo, when it becomes legitimate in the BBC Board’s eyes to support appeals if they do not raise any fundamental questions about the causes of suffering.

So why was BBC management so craven in siding with Israel? After the disastrous invasion of Iraq with the discovery that the government’s case for war was based on lies, Tony Blair set out to crush media criticism by making an example of the BBC. The government mounted a massive assault on the corporation when a BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, dared to report that the government had “sexed up” its case for war. The Hutton report, published five years ago, whitewashed the government and caused the resignation of the BBC’s top two managers, Greg Dyke and Gavin Davies, plus the sacking of Gilligan.

As a result, a wave of fear washed through BBC management. The BBC’s reporting of the “war on terror” has not been the same since. A series of books, reports and conferences by critics of the BBC then sought to drive home the advantage, accusing the corporation of being liberal and even left wing. All cited the Hutton report – even though academic research has proved that the BBC largely sided with the government during the run-up to the Iraq war.

Cowed BBC senior managers sought to drag the corporation even further to the right. One result was the BBC’s disgraceful “White Season” last year, which gave free voice to racists in the name of a new “radical impartiality”. The columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown neatly summed up what has happened, accusing the corporation of “a profoundly illiberal agenda”. “Day after day the BBC arranges for an anti-immigration and anti-asylum mood to grow,” she wrote, and, “BBC shock jock presenters and producers know their fortunes can only get better.”

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a football match in which the media can treat each side equally. It is, in the words of veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, “a massive tragedy of blood, sorrow and revenge” so “it is the job of journalists to be impartial on the side of those who suffer most”.

This is the impartiality that we must demand from the BBC. We need to campaign alongside BBC journalists who share that vision for a BBC that truly serves the public, not the government.

Dave Crouch is chair of Media Workers Against the War. He writes in a personal capacity.

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