The BBC's flop
Feb 10, 2009
In refusing to broadcast an appeal on behalf of Gaza's victims, the BBC did not uphold its objectivity but rather took sides for fear of Israeli disfavour, writes Ayman El-Amir [The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.]
One of the cardinal rules guiding the broadcast industry is to serve the public interest. This ambivalent concept gradually became more focussed as it developed into public broadcasting standards such as fairness, equal time, decency, balance and community service. A dividing line was drawn between public and commercial, profit-oriented broadcasting. Eventually all rules were realigned with the original concept of serving the public. It is for this reason that the broadcasting media are regulated and licensed on behalf of the public that nominally owns the airwaves. Even satellite broadcasting was subjected to the same regulatory values, usually observed by carriers. Measured against these general criteria, the recent BBC decision to ban the broadcasting of an appeal for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people of the Gaza Strip is, to say the least, baffling.
The BBC management argued that broadcasting such an appeal would compromise its objectivity and balanced reporting. However, public service announcements (PSAs) have long been acknowledged as a necessary and important service to the public. The legendary CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite used to define news as "information that people need". During the heydays of radio, PSAs not only informed the public about the weather, traffic, epidemics, natural and man-made disasters, but also disseminated guidance by civil authorities about what the public should do to avoid getting into harm's way. During World War II, the BBC broadcast news and information bordering on anti-Nazi propaganda because it was in the national interest during a time of war. No one then wondered about impartiality or balance. Since these times, the world has become a more sophisticated place, television has become a pervasive medium of information, news dissemination acquired the powerful advantage of immediacy, competition became more fierce and the question of objectivity more intricate. However, the purpose and need of public service announcements never waned and never became a propaganda tool. That is why the BBC's editorial decision against broadcasting an appeal for assisting the battered people of Gaza triggered such backlash, both in the UK and elsewhere.
As a leading world-class broadcaster, the BBC rose to prominence during the exceptional times of the Cold War when news and information were polarised along ideological lines. The East-West confrontation further engulfed the newly independent countries of the Third World whose popular leaders found in the concept of controlled media a convenient way to mobilise the masses in support of their nation-building programmes and foreign policies. When their plans teetered and opposition mounted they used the media to cook the story, disparage their critics and portray their failing states as shining cities on the hill. That is when straightforward news reporting gained credibility among confused audiences. The BBC rode high on the wave of credibility and objectivity that, in effect, meant telling a different version of the same story.
This did not mean that the most objectivity-touting broadcast media did not have their own propagandistic undertones. While international broadcasting services such as Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, Radio Moscow International and Radio/TV Marti (targeting Cuba) had their clear-cut propaganda agendas, others were subtler -- the BBC included. The policy agenda of international radio and television broadcasting has not changed since the first shortwave broadcast radio signal was sent overseas from the Netherlands in 1928. It has consistently been to influence the recipient audience in the political, economic, cultural or geo-strategic interests of the originating country. It was in this sense that Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, described radio as "a newspaper without paper and without borders". With the advent of international satellite broadcasting, the world truly became a globalised village and shaping editorial policies for a global audience became increasingly difficult. The balancing act of influencing a multicultural international audience with the same agenda initially gained wide credence with the newly emerging democracies of the former Soviet Union but later lost its relevance to many national and regional audiences around the world. That gave rise to a plethora of regional broadcasters while national and ethnic flavours never lost their following.
If editorial policies are shaped with the public interest in mind, it is hard to see how the BBC could betray British or international public trust by broadcasting an appeal for the assistance of the Gaza population. There is no news or editorial content involved that would call for editorial judgement. It is more likely that the BBC's management was more worried about the pressure of influential pro-Israel groups than about the integrity of the organisation. International reaction to the Israeli campaign against Gaza was so intense that the BBC's management felt safer suppressing a public service announcement than being caught in the crossfire of anti-Israeli condemnation. The BBC was also wary of potential charges of being sympathetic to Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza and the guerrilla movement that fought back the overwhelming Israeli invasion. It will be recalled that Hamas has been rubber-stamped as a terrorist organisation by Western governments under the influence of Israel. No one, the BBC included, would recall that Hamas remained the elected government of the Palestinian people that came to power in transparent elections that were consistent with the strictest standards of Western liberal democracy. Hamas is castigated simply because it does not want to fall in line with a pre-determined Israeli agenda.
In pursuit of its coined image of impartiality, the BBC has not been lacking in apology whenever it came under the appropriate pressure. A case in point was the resignation in 2004 of BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan whose report about the government's misdeed of "sexing up" a dossier on Iraq's alleged biological and chemical weapons capability, which was used as justification for the 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq, embarrassed the government of former prime minister Tony Blair. The story started a row between Blair's government and the BBC. The consequences were further exacerbated with the revelation that Gilligan's report was based on a leak by British weapons scientist David Kelly, who committed suicide when his cover as the source of the story was blown. Not only did Gilligan resign under pressure of the Hutton Inquiry, which found that the BBC did not properly investigate parts of the report, but so too did BBC Chairman Gavyn Davis and Director-General Greg Dyke. Yet long after the invasion of Iraq no trace of the alleged chemical or biological weapon capability was found the BBC never sought any redress or further investigation to vindicate its report.
The claim by international broadcasters of impartiality and objectivity is being tested in every story, every day, in every region of the world. It can sometimes be misinterpreted by a management that is willing to reel under pressure. This, however, should not be mixed with the clear message of a PSA. In the case of the BBC's reluctance to carry a message that calls for assistance to the victims of the Israeli war on Gaza, I believe that the credibility of the BBC has been called into question. The BBC's management owes the Palestinian people of Gaza an apology.