The milk of human kindness

I am spectacularly baffled over this ridiculous refusal by the BBC to screen the DEC's Gaza appeal because it would 'damage its impartiality'. The coalition of charities is asking the public to help the civilian casualties of Gaza – you only need to watch the video below to see the destruction and devastation in the area – not for cash to re-arm Hamas. How can they play broadcasting regulatory games with the suffering of civilians? These people have been just as terrorised by their elected leaders as Israel (and are any of us really surprised at the news of Hamas threatening to shoot the son of a man who didn't want them to use his house to fire rockets? Did anyone really think civilian Gazans were welcoming Hamas militia into their yards and balconies with open arms?).

Hamas use abhorrent tactics (which still don't merit the slaughter of civilians in the hunt to mete out 'punishment'). But you know? So does the junta in Burma and the BBC showed that appeal. Is it because the Burmese suffered from a natural disaster? OK, well how about Rwanda in 1994? The fighting in Congo? All shown on the BBC. I can't see the difference. Is the BBC attempting to punish people for electing a terrorist / militant organisation (depending on who you talk to)? And that's electing, Georgie, not seizing power in a coup; a distinction I didn't hear on any news broadcast apart from Jon Snow's Dispatches from Gaza the other night.

That, or the BBC is now running so scared of criticism that it can't take intelligent decisions any more? At least ITV and Channel 4 will broadcast the DEC's appeal. And you? Donate some money. Even if you think whatever the DEC helps to rebuild will be blasted to the skies by Israel again in a couple of years, it's the decent, humanitarian thing to do.

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15 responses to “The milk of human kindness

  1. Tom January 25, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Complicated issue so long, complicated reply. Apologies in advance.
    I’m not personally sure the BBC’s decision is the right one, but I can understand it to an extent. As a news organisation, the BBC has to hold its editorial independence as paramount, as any compromises could limit its ability to report in the future. The state of Gaza and the plight of its citizens is not only the result of a crisis (be it natural or political; the DEC has aided the victims of both) but also a key factor that has influenced and influences the past, present and future of that situation – would the rockets be fired if Gaza’s citizens weren’t so mistreated, and so on. I can see an argument, therefore, that broadcasting an appeal for aid in Gaza might compromise the BBC’s editorial impartiality when it comes to reporting the region – not by backing Hamas per se, but by highlighting a key factor used by some to explain/justify (all are invited to take their pick) its actions.
    That said, I’m not entirely convinced – I’ve been weighing the whole thing over and over in my mind since yesterday and I’m yet to be sure either way – but then I’m a far less accomplished journalist with a far lesser understanding of the situation than many of the BBC’s journalists and editors. Ultimately it’s an editorial call to be made at the highest level of the BBC’s editorial staff, and that decision appears to have been made by the right people.
    It’s also important to note that ITV, C4 and C5 are not in the same position as the BBC. They are broadcasters, not news organisations, and buy in their news coverage from ITN and Sky News. They are not being asked, therefore, to make the same decision as the BBC. Sky itself *is* in a similar bind and, accordingly, has not yet agreed to broadcast the appeal. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the corporation is playing “regulatory games” – this doesn’t have anything to do with regulation; it’s a matter of editorial principle. Nor do I see any evidence of the BBC wishing to “punish” anyone for anything.
    And finally – BBC News has, with all necessary impartiality, continued to broadcast news of its own failure to broadcast the DEC appeal for over a day now. With each bulletin, broadcast and online article it highlights and reiterates the DEC’s urgent appeal for funds. I’d suggest that BBC News and its staff have found a way to get news of the appeal out to as many people as possible. I heard a DEC spokesperson yesterday remarking on the positive impact of the continuing furore on donation levels.
    So, that’s my 2p worth. The “people should donate now, donate often” aspect of the situation is a given.

  2. Rachel Holdsworth January 25, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    God yes, on the ‘BBC broadcasting its own mess’ situation on the news… the presenters look like they’re squirming in their seats. Otoh, they’re not giving details about how to give so it’s still reliant on people taking one extra step (I heard Tony Benn yesterday repeat the address three times during a BBC interview, bless him).
    I think “regulatory games” is an aspect though, in that I think if this issue had come up six months ago the BBC might well have made a different decision. They’re so cautious right now, so terrified of offending and being slapped by OFCOM that everything they do seems to be guided by it. And it’s making them make some ultra-cautious decisions. (Did anyone see Sue Perkins do the Huw Weldon lecture the other night, on the issue of complaints and fear of offending? Very good, very timely.)
    I don’t honestly think the BBC are deliberately trying to punish anyone. But, it’s how their decision could be read. An attempt to be impartial has spectacularly misfired into an appearance of partiality. A misfire that I cannot believe the BBC wouldn’t have seen coming if they weren’t so tied by risk management.

  3. Kate January 25, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Clearly some out-of-their-depth middle-management moron made the initial call, and the Beeb hierarchy is constitutionally incapable of considering reasonable dissent, and therefore has become more welded to its guns than a limpet to a rock.
    Yet more evidence in favour of the abolition of the licence fee in its present form. I’ve always been a fan of the principle behind the licence fee, but in the last 5 years or so the BBC’s own behaviour has convinced me that the end is nigh. As is so often the case, killed from within.

  4. Rachel Holdsworth January 25, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    “Clearly some out-of-their-depth middle-management moron made the initial call”
    Yes. I’d be more inclined to go with that answer than it being a genuine editorial decision.

  5. Tom January 25, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks for the Sue Perkins lecture tip – just iPlayered it, and it was indeed very good.
    Not sure about idea of some random manager making the wrong decision here, though – one advantage of being a monumental tower of bureaucracy is that decisions do tend to be made by the right people (if not always correctly by the right people), as there’s a policy or procedure for just about everything – our license fees at work, there 😉
    I’d say the problem with BBC decision making after complaints lies where – as in “Sachsgate” – the right people made the right decision, only for the management to go into full on “we’ve offended somebody – start backtracking” mode. Was speaking to someone at BBC Radio a week or so ago and they were very depressed by the whole situation and the way the corporation handled it.

  6. Kate January 26, 2009 at 9:25 am

    The BBC conducted a vast study of its own output a while back, after years of flak over perceived bias in its reporting of Israel/Palestine. That is why middle management is so deeply involved in what is supposedly an ‘editorial’ decision.
    Where the Beeb has gone wrong on this, however, is that if your editorial judgement over the reporting of a particular issue – or your reporters’ percieved personal biases – is in question, then you either amend your editorial stance, or you stand by your editorial stance. You don’t let that controversy leach into non-editorial areas of programming such as charity appeals which are clearly in the public interest and agreed to be so by every other major broadcaster (except Sky, whose reticence is a bit of a mystery given that Rupe likes to put the boot into the Beeb wherever possible, in the name of eroding public support for the licence fee).
    That’s speaking as an editor (which is rather like ‘speaking as a parent’ only without the extra layer of sanctimony), of course …

  7. Tom January 26, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I just don’t see that there’s any such clear distinction between areas where editorial judgment should apply and areas where it shouldn’t. The general public certainly does not make such a distinction: it sees one channel, one broadcaster.
    Example: I work in print, not television, but we publish a product that contains both News and non-news (everything else). News pages are clearly labeled. Editorial judgment and standards, however, apply to both, and the ultimate decision of whether or not to publish anything in either section falls to the Editor. Even *advertising* pages clearly marked as such would not be printed if they breach certain key standards.
    And for what it’s worth, that’s speaking as a Deputy Editor. This is similar to speaking as an Editor, but only on Mondays, Thursdays, sick days and holidays 😉

  8. Rachel January 26, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Being at home all day (heh), I have the advantage of being able to have News 24 burbling away in the background and see more of the explanations that the BBC are giving… Something that’s come up a couple of times today is the issue of whether or not viewers are capable of distinguishing between ‘news’ and ‘charity appeal’ (despite both, as in print, being clearly labelled as what they are). Mark Thompson doesn’t really answer the question, he answers a slightly different one, but his implication is that no, he thinks viewers wouldn’t be able to distinguish between seeing similar images in different contexts. Greg Dyke was asked the same question and shied away from it; there was a significant pause and he also didn’t answer.
    Oh dear. I’d hate to think a part of the BBC’s decision was due to underestimating its audience, the same place that dread phrase “dumbing down” came from.
    Also, the Beeb’s news coverage is now taking on a tone of self-flagellation. Again. I’m going to have to turn the TV off in a minute, I don’t think I can take one more talking head. The BBC has become the story. Again.

  9. Tom January 26, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Yes, the BBC-turning-on-itself is always uncomfortable to watch at best. In this case, though, I don’t mind it too much – at least it’s keeping the issue, and the DEC appeal, on the bulletins.
    Incidentally, we were debating this issue in the office this morning and a colleague pointed out this article:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/26/bbc-gaza-appeal
    I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s interesting reading.

  10. Kate January 26, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Tom – herewith the difference:
    ‘BBC boss Mark Thompson has again defended the decision, saying it would jeopardise the BBC’s impartiality.’
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7850407.stm
    That is BBC News reporting on the BBC hierarchy and the BBC Trust.
    ‘Editorial judgment and standards, however, apply to both’
    Erm, well, no, you see, they don’t. Not in the same sense. The judgement involved in deciding that Twats On Ice (or similar) should run at 8pm on Saturdays is quite a different type of judgement to that which determines the angle of the evening news story. Made by completely different people. In different offices. Differently.
    To say ‘Well it’s a TV channel so all decisions are editorial’ is to broaden the term ‘editorial’ into meaninglessness.
    Your example of print is quite different because (assuming you don’t work for Heat) the whole is a journalistic product. News and features are equivalent to the Six and Newsnight. Not the Six and Twats On Ice (or similar).

  11. Tom January 26, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Not at all: Twats on Ice, Doctor Who or any other BBC show should be equally compliant with editorial impartiality – it’s just that the content of these programmes generally has no relevance to or impact on the reporting of BBC news* so there’s no decision to be made.
    The distinction is not that this programming is made by another BBC department rather than BBC News, or that it’s shown outside of times used for news bulletins: the distinction is that it has no relevance to, and no potential impact on, the news. If there’s ever a Doctor Who episode where he pops up in Gaza, for example, similar considerations would apply.
    * For what it’s worth the BBC’s continual reporting of its own light entertainment contests as “news” is, in my opinion, an error of judgment. But that’s another, less important, discussion.

  12. Rachel January 27, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    On a different note to editorial responsibility… I was in the boat that the DEC appeal wouldn’t suffer all that much by not having the televised appeal, given all the coverage. Then I saw More4 news saying the DEC had only raised £600,000 before the appeal. That doubled since the broadcast. Ah.

  13. Kate January 28, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    An episode of Dr Who set in Gaza would be the responsibility of the makers of Dr Who. The nightly news is the responsibility of the makers of the nightly news. The screening of a DEC appeal is the decision of a third set of people, not that of the other two.
    And everyone understands this, it seems, except a small number of senior BBC staff.
    Another example: my company produces research as well as a magazine. My boss has overall responsibility for both these areas. I have editorial responsibility for the magazine. If my boss decides to do a free research project for Hamas (ha! Actually that would be a great business venture … ‘And would you like the data broken down into quartiles?’) that is entirely separate from my decision to write about Hamas.
    There are two different types of ‘editorial judgement’ involved here. That is all.
    As the old truism goes, if your procedure is throwing you into an outcome that defies common sense, do you scrap the procedure or the common sense? Mark Thompson appears to prefer the latter.

  14. Tom January 28, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    OK – I disagree entirely with that, but I’ll step out of the discussion at this point lest I should end up resembling the cartoon:
    http://xkcd.com/386/
    Thanks for taking the time to explain your opinion.

  15. Kate January 29, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    [jumps around with one hand in the air]
    No I want the last word! Me me me!

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