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The BBC's decision to axe the Gaza aid appeal may come back to haunt it

Protesters at a demonstration against the BBC's stance on Palestine [Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign]
Protesters at a demonstration against the BBC's stance on Palestine [Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign]

The BBC is facing its biggest crisis in years, including merciless budget cuts, after the British government announced that it is freezing the corporation's funding for the next two years before abolishing the TV licence fee in 2027. The licence fee is the BBC's source of income.

Having worked for the broadcaster as a journalist on several occasions, I must admit to being conflicted because of all the livelihoods that are at stake. I wonder, though, if this is payback time for the less than decent things that the BBC has done in recent years.

One issue which springs immediately to mind is the way that the corporation reports on matters relating to occupied Palestine. I am one of many who have seen for ourselves the impact of the humanitarian crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip and find it hard to forget that in January 2009 the BBC refused to broadcast an aid appeal for the Palestinians on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).

In late December 2008, the Israel Defence Forces launched a military offensive which eventually killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, mainly civilians, and destroyed the infrastructure in the beleaguered enclave. The BBC issued a terse statement in response to the hostile public reaction to its decision, and claimed that it wanted to "avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality."

My late friend and political mentor Tony Benn was furious. On the BBC's flagship "Today" programme on Radio 4, he exclaimed: "£50 would provide a food parcel for a family for a month. There are a million and a half people in Gaza without water, sanitation, shelter or electricity; 1,330 have been killed, there are 5,450 casualties; 460 children. What I'm going to do now is to do the appeal myself." Benn promptly gave the bank details and address for the DEC appeal live on air.

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BBC journalist Ed Stourton tried in vain to steer the 83-year-old politician away from repeating the appeal details but the veteran pro-justice, pro-Palestinian campaigner replied, "I'm going to go on repeating it until you turn me out of the studio."

Thousands of people were equally angry and took to the streets outside BBC studios across Britain in protest; around 15,000 complaints were sent to the corporation. People demanded to know why the BBC was punishing the men, women and children of Gaza by refusing to air the appeal, the likes of which it had broadcast before. In the meantime, Britain's Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV did air the two minute appeal and nearly £5.5 million was raised in the first week.

The Director General of the BBC at the time was Mark Thompson. He brushed aside the images of Israel's horrific devastation of Gaza which the BBC had no problems transmitting on every news bulletin, but still insisted that the DEC appeal would breach impartiality guidelines and even reduce "public confidence" in the corporation. "Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations," explained Thompson. "The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story."

Thanks to that sort of attitude displayed by the BBC over the years, the public has indeed lost its confidence in a spineless broadcaster which would rather protect Israel and the British government, which sells arms to the Zionist state even as it bombs civilian areas in Gaza.

Of course, it's not just its pro-Israel bias that upsets many people, but the BBC's position on Israel and Palestine does seem to be remarkably and systematically skewed. Last year a media monitoring unit from the Muslim Council of Britain highlighted biased media coverage of Palestine in a hard-hitting report. Special attention was given to BBC reports of violence against Palestinians, in which the latter were said by the BBC to have simply "died", whereas Israelis "were killed". That's a big difference: we are all going to die, but relatively few of us will be killed.

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The late journalist Robert Fisk described the BBC's coverage of Israel as "grovelling" after the 2008-9 military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza. Another veteran journalist, John Pilger, called Israel a "lying machine". The Pilger interview was broadcast, unsurprisingly, not on the BBC, but on the RT show "Going Underground".

A few days ago BBC Arabic showed a similar lack of judgement and impartiality when it produced a story based on a few comments from ordinary Twitter users critical of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. This drew the ire of the editor of the British Muslim news site 5 Pillars. "The English version of the ridiculous article from BBC Arabic," tweeted Roshan Saleh on 29 January. "This is what they call journalism — listening to a Twitter space of people criticising Hamas and then doing a write up."

While the BBC is still praised for its drama and sports coverage, its sneering, mean-spirited and skewed coverage of Palestine has cost its credibility dearly. To make matters worse, its coverage of the rest of the Muslim world is tinged with colonial overtones.

At the time of writing, around 130,000 people have signed a petition to "Save the BBC". Compare this with the petition urging the Queen to rescind Tony Blair's knighthood, which has been signed by 1,132,889 people. The possibility of the BBC becoming a very different kind of media outlet, or even disappearing altogether, isn't stirring up the British public; there is a distinct lack of outrage about the future of the corporation.

The BBC used to be viewed around the world as the gold standard of journalism, but no longer. Like a rotten fish, the decay starts from the head down. Some serious introspection is needed before the BBC tries to appeal to our hearts rather than our heads and ask for help.

Skewed news and biased journalism which favours the oppressors rather than the oppressed is not worth saving in my view. If anyone is in any doubt about this, just remember the refusal to help the DEC to seek much-needed aid for a completely man-made humanitarian disaster.

Today's executives in Broadcasting House may not remember what happened in 2009, but they should, and quickly, because that biased and callous decision by Mark Thompson may yet come back to haunt the corporation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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