DEC Gaza crisis appeal
This document is a summary of the BBC Trust's decision on an appeal brought by Hickman & Rose LLP on behalf of certain UK and Gaza residents. The decision also expresses the BBC Trust's view on points raised in the other appeals received by the BBC Trust in respect of the DEC Gaza crisis appeal as at 4 February. It is not intended to replace or summarise every point of the full formal decision of the BBC Trust.
The Trust's decision document
The Trust recognises that the Director-General's decision not to broadcast the Gaza crisis appeal was a matter of great controversy for many members of the public. However, having carefully considered the Director-General's reasons, the Trust believes the Director-General acted correctly throughout, and we are satisfied that the decision the Director-General took was reasonable having regard to the importance of preserving the reputation of the BBC for impartiality.
On 20 January 2009 the BBC received a formal approach from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) to broadcast an appeal for humanitarian assistance for the residents of Gaza. The DEC represents 13 leading UK aid agencies. Historically, the BBC has made available airtime for such appeals at its discretion, for example following the Tsunami of 2004. Requests for such appeals have also been turned down. In the Gaza case, the Director-General took the decision not to broadcast the appeal and informed the DEC of this on 21 January 2009.
The Director-General's decision not to broadcast the appeal was subject to considerable press and public comment. The Director-General set out his reasons for not broadcasting the appeal on 24 January 2009 and on the BBC Complaints website on 30 January stating that the BBC Executive had concerns both as to whether any aid raised could be delivered and whether airing the appeal would adversely affect public perception of the impartiality of the BBC. As of 11 February, the BBC Executive had received about 40,000 complaints about the Director-General's decision. The BBC Executive has not upheld complaints on this issue, although the Director-General has made clear that, because of changing circumstances on the ground in Gaza, the question of aid getting through was no longer part of his decision. By 4 February 2009 around 200 appeals had been made to the Trust.
Under the Charter and Agreement the Trust has the role in relation to complaints against the BBC of "final arbiter in appropriate cases". In appeals such as those about the Gaza crisis appeal it is the role of the Trust to consider whether the Director-General's decision to reject the complaints was a reasonable one. Because of the nature of the appeals, which covered a range of issues, the Trust formed a special ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Richard Tait. This committee met on 11 February to consider the most detailed appeal received, which was made by Hickman and Rose LLP1 (referred to as H&R in the rest of this document) and also a report containing details of relevant points from other appeals received by the Trust. The committee reported to the full Trust on 18 February and the Trust considered the appeal. The Trust formally agreed the text of its decision earlier today, on 19 February 2009.
The Trust's decision
The Trust's assessment of the Director-General's decision not to uphold the H&R complaint inevitably involves assessment of his decision not to broadcast the DEC appeal.
The Trust's assessment is that the Director-General's decision not to uphold the H&R complaint was a reasonable one for him to reach.
This decision relies on the Trust's assessment that the Director-General's decision not to broadcast the appeal was taken in good faith in the light of full and proper advice and was reasonable. In particular, the Trust is satisfied that the Director-General took proper advice in reaching his decision not to broadcast the appeal, from the appropriate people, including the BBC's Charitable Appeals Advisor, senior editorial colleagues and members of the independent Appeals Advisory Committee, and that he paid careful attention to the views of the DEC itself. The Trust found no evidence of the Director-General taking account of irrelevant factors or of there being any improper influences on his decision. Subject in some cases to issues of confidentiality the Trust has published all the supporting evidence for these decisions.
The Trust is also satisfied that the principal reason for the Director General's decision was to uphold the reputation of the BBC for impartiality and that this was a proper consideration. They accepted that it was reasonable for the Director-General to take the view that a risk was created by the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been and remains deeply divisive; that civilian casualties and suffering are a central part of the political case put by each side in "the court of world opinion"; and that consequently it was in this case impossible to separate the political causes of the dispute from its humanitarian consequences. By its very nature the appeal would show only one aspect of an ongoing and controversial news situation. H&R argued that the public could distinguish between an appeal and normal BBC news coverage and that if the Director-General had concerns about impartiality he could have aired a statement prior to screening the appeal to the effect that the views expressed were not those of the BBC. The Trust accepted that it was reasonable for the Director-General to form the view that screening the appeal would have implied a level of BBC endorsement, raising the risks referred to above, such that no disclaimer could be effective and would be undesirable.
The Trust also considered carefully whether the decision not to broadcast lacked impartiality by discriminating against the residents of Gaza or restricted individuals' right to receive coverage of the appeal. The Trust was satisfied that there was no bias created by not broadcasting the appeal, and that although the BBC had not aired the appeal it had covered both the humanitarian situation and the DEC appeal controversy itself at length on its news bulletins. The decision by the BBC had not prevented some other broadcasters from airing an appeal and it was impossible to identify any information that the public had been denied.
It is clear to the Trust that serious consideration was given to the humanitarian situation and the advice of the DEC and that the Director-General sought proper advice within the BBC.
The Trust considered whether there were wider points raised in the other appeals received that also should be considered beyond the points made by H&R. The Trust considered whether the BBC should have given more weight to either the views of the DEC or public opinion (this was also mentioned within H&R's letter). The Trust believes that proper consideration was given to these issues by the Director-General, but that decisions regarding the impartiality of the BBC rightly rest with him as editor-in-chief and even advice from the DEC does not automatically imply the BBC should air an appeal for aid. Even if a cause commands wide public support, that does not relieve the Director-General of the responsibility to make the ultimate editorial decision.
A number of appeals raised the issue whether the Director-General was right to rely on whether aid could be effectively delivered in reaching a decision on the complaints. The Trust noted that the Director-General did not rely on this consideration in reaching his decision on the H&R complaint, even though it was part of his original decision not to broadcast the DEC appeal. The Trust therefore did not consider or decide on this as part of the appeal.
Nevertheless the Trust did comment on this issue given the wider public interest. The Trust noted that there was evidence that the Director-General received and carefully considered advice on this question from a number of sources including the DEC, and had kept the position under review until reaching his eventual view that this reason for not broadcasting the appeal no longer applied.
The Trust also looked at whether there were wider lessons from this case. The Trust will not reopen the question of this particular appeal, but is mindful of the degree of public concern it roused. We have therefore asked the Director-General to explore any wider lessons that may be drawn from this episode through discussions with the DEC and with other broadcasters. In particular we have asked him to take a view on whether the BBC agreement with the DEC, which dates from 1971 and the associated criteria for considering appeals, are still appropriate for today's broadcasting environment.
The Trust has decided not to uphold the H&R appeal.
1. On behalf of two residents of Gaza and a UK national. H&R's appeal was accompanied by a threat of judicial review.
2. In December 2009 the ad hoc panel met to consider whether to proceed with an additional appeal against the decision of the Director-General not to broadcast the DEC Gaza appeal. The panel concluded the appeal did not raise issues or a matter of substance that had not been previously adjudicated upon by the Trust and therefore determined that the appeal should not be heard.
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