The BBC's partial impartiality

The decision of the British Broadcasting Corporation to not air an appeal for aid to Gaza exposes which side the media are on.

Two points of explanation to American readers:

a) The number one news story in Britain this week has been the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) refusal to broadcast an emergency appeal for the people of Gaza. This is the first time they've ever refused a request for an appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee, their reasoning being that to broadcast it would threaten their "neutrality."

And b) The BBC is still recovering from a ridiculous furor that engulfed the nation a few weeks ago, in which two radio presenters included in their show a section in which they rang an old actor and boasted that one of them had had sex with his granddaughter. See, while you've been inaugurating the first Black president and signing papers to shut Guantánamo Bay, we've been poncing about with shit like this.

Columnist: Mark Steel

Mark Steel Mark Steel is a comedian, a columnist for the Independent newspaper, and a socialist and activist in Britain. He's the author of two collections about contemporary Britain, It's Not a Runner Bean: Dispatches from a Slightly Successful Comedian and Reasons to Be Cheerful--as well as Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution.

THE BBC are right. If they broadcast that appeal for food and medicine to be sent to Gaza, it would be taking sides. The Israeli Defense Force could legitimately say, "We've gone to enormous lengths here to kill people, then you go and help to keep them alive. How do you square that with your remit to be neutral?"

So the BBC needs to look at other areas in which its "impartiality" could be called into question. To start with, they'll have to scrap Crimewatch, which clearly takes the side of the murdered against the interests of murderers.

Maybe they could get round this by having a new, balanced Crimewatch, in which the police plead for witnesses to a crime, but then the presenter says, "Next tonight--have you seen this man? Because Big Teddy and his gang are desperate to track him down and do him in for ringing us up earlier. So if you have any information, please call us, where Nobby the Knife is ready to talk to you in complete confidence."

It's impossible to be entirely neutral about anything, especially with an appeal for money. Appeals are made for injured veterans of the Second World War, but I don't suppose they'd take them off air if they got a letter to Points of View saying, "Dear BBC, I'm a Nazi war criminal, but I pay my license fee just like everyone else, and as such, I was appalled by the biased images of the Battle of Normandy used to promote your financial appeal. There are two sides to every story, you know, and I thought you had a promise to be impartial. So come on BBC, us Kommandants watch television as well!"

Appeals have been made for victims of wars in the Congo, Darfur and Bosnia, keeping people alive and thereby undermining the aims and efforts of the armies who tried to wipe them out. But if the current stance carries on, from now on, if anyone feels their block of flats collapsing on them, they'll think, "I hope this is an earthquake, and not an invading army, or we won't get a penny via the BBC."

Aware of the frail logic of not showing the appeal, the BBC have made some even stranger statements to justify their decision, such as claiming they couldn't be sure the money would "get through."

Ah yes, that must be it. If only Gaza was like the Congo or Darfur, where the Red Cross can pop along to the village cashpoint machines, draw the money out, and get Janjaweed or Hutu militias to help them search for two-for-one bargains in the local Somerfields.

Luckily for the Middle East, the American government has been less squeamish about this question of impartiality. For example, in Bush's budget last year, he sent Israel $2.2 billion worth of military aid, and there's no record of anyone saying, "This couldn't be seen as breaching our impartiality in any way, could it?"

The problem is that when viewers are confronted with scenes of misery and destruction, they're bound to ask what or who caused this, and if it was done deliberately.

So the BBC couldn't remain neutral. Either they allowed the appeal that would lead to those questions being asked, or they refused it, in which case they're suggesting they shouldn't aid the relief of civilians who've been bombed, starved and slaughtered, as on this occasion their plight can be justified. And it decided this time to be biased not toward the impoverished, but toward the impoverishers.

Or maybe they've been under such a barrage of complaints lately, they just panicked that in the middle of the appeal, the presenter might say, "Oh, and by the way, I shagged David Attenborough's grandson. Anyway, back to the lack of clean water."