BBC and the Gaza appeal
It's not often as editor-in-chief I use our 'editors' blog' to highlight a BBC issue, but with strong views about our decision not to broadcast a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza, I wanted to write directly and explain our thinking.
When there is a major humanitarian crisis, the DEC - which is a group of major British charities - comes together and, if it believes various criteria are met and a major public appeal is justified, asks the BBC and other broadcasters to broadcast an appeal. We usually - though not always - accede to the DEC's request and as a result have broadcast many DEC appeals over the years.
A few days ago, the DEC approached us about an appeal for Gaza and, after very careful reflection and consultation inside and outside the BBC, we decided that in this case we should not broadcast the appeal. One reason was a concern about whether aid raised by the appeal could actually be delivered on the ground. You will understand that one of the factors we have to look at is the practicality of the aid, which the public are being asked to fund, getting through. In the case of the Burma cyclone, for instance, it was only when we judged that there was a good chance of the aid getting to the people who needed it most that we agreed to broadcast the appeal. Clearly, there have been considerable logistical difficulties in delivering aid into Gaza. However some progress has already been made and the situation could well improve in the coming days. If it does, this reason for declining to broadcast the appeal will no longer be relevant.
But there is a second more fundamental reason why we decided that we should not broadcast the appeal at present. This is because Gaza remains a major ongoing news story, in which humanitarian issues - the suffering and distress of civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict, the debate about who is responsible for causing it and what should be done about it - are both at the heart of the story and contentious. We have and will continue to cover the human side of the conflict in Gaza extensively across our news services where we can place all of the issues in context in an objective and balanced way. After looking at all of the circumstances, and in particular after seeking advice from senior leaders in BBC Journalism, we concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story. 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. The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story. When we have turned down DEC appeals in the past on impartiality grounds it has been because of this risk of giving the public the impression that the BBC was taking sides in an ongoing conflict.
However, BBC News and the BBC as a whole takes its responsibility to report the human consequences of situations like Gaza very seriously and I believe our record in doing it with compassion as well as objectivity is unrivalled. Putting this decision aside, we also have a very strong track-record in supporting DEC appeals and more broadly, through BBC Children In Need, Comic Relief and our many other appeals, in using the BBC's airwaves to achieve positive humanitarian and charitable goals. This is an important part of what it is to be a public service broadcaster. It is sometimes not a comfortable place to be, but we have a duty to ensure that nothing risks undermining our impartiality. It is to protect that impartiality that we have made this difficult decision.
Finally, it is important to remember that our decision does not prevent the DEC continuing with their appeal for donations and people are able to contribute should they choose to.
Mark Thompson is director-general of the BBC.