Britons slam BBC over refusal to run Gaza ad

'The Beeb' stands by its decision not to air a fundraising appeal for victims of Israel's recent 22-day incursion into Gaza.

Anthony Devlin/AP
Speaking out: Protesters staged a sit-in at BBC headquarters in London on Monday. They denounced the BBC's rejection of an appeal for Gaza victims.

Britain's public service broadcaster, the BBC, is facing unprecedented criticism for refusing to broadcast an emergency fundraising appeal for people living in the Gaza Strip.

Long used to winning plaudits for the quality of its journalism, staff at the 97-year-old institution have become accustomed to allegations of left- or right-wing bias.

However, even many BBC journalists are furious at a decision by senior management not to air the appeal this week by an umbrella grouping of 13 charity organizations including the British Red Cross and Save the Children.

The appeal to help Palestinians facing homelessness and hunger following the Israeli onslaught in the Gaza Strip was broadcast Monday night by three rival broadcasters – Channel 4, ITV, and Five – although not by Sky News, which is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

Mark Thompson, BBC's director general, said he could not permit the BBC to endanger its impartiality by appearing to endorse an appeal for the victims on one side of a complicated conflict.

"For us to broadcast such a thing would in my view be out of keeping with our strict duty to be impartial," he told one of the BBC's radio channels.

The two-minute appeal, which went out on Monday night, began with images of child victims from Gaza.

A narrator said: "The children of Gaza are suffering. Many are struggling to survive, homeless, and in need of food and water. ... Today, this is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. These people simply need your help."

'The Beeb's' charter to be unbiased

Known affectionately by many Britons as "The Beeb," the BBC remains the world's largest broadcaster, operating largely thanks to government funding and by levying television license fees.

A charter obliges that it "be free from both political and commercial influence and answer only to its viewers and listeners."

Nevertheless, critics have accused BBC chiefs of overzealousness in interpreting the rules, while some say management panicked in the face of sensitivities about covering the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Incredulity has been expressed by government ministers, religious leaders – including the Archbishop of Canterbury – trade unions, and tens of thousands of viewers who lodged official complaints.

Protests at BBC's London offices

Protesters who stormed the BBC's offices in London were forcibly removed by police on Monday.

Dozens of members of Britain's Parliament signed a motion criticizing the failure to air the appeal, and one of the BBC's most seasoned and respected journalists admitted while hosting a radio discussion that he was finding it difficult to interpret the BBC management's rationale for the decision.

"Our big concern is how our members working around the world are viewed, and it's our view that the decision that has been taken makes it more likely that people will believe the BBC is being partial rather than impartial," says Jeremy Dear, the general secretary of Britain's National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

He added that some journalists said it would make it more difficult for them to report from conflict zones, and particularly the Middle East, and that it could have repercussions for their safety.

The BBC's operations in the Middle East have long been a delicate issue.

An internal BBC report written in 2004 in response to allegations of anti-Israeli bias has never been made public, and the BBC has successfully battled attempts to have it released under Freedom of Information Laws.

Israel denies pressuring the BBC

Though Israel's government has complained to the BBC in the past about what it considers to be unbalanced coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a government official insisted that Israel did not attempt to pressure the BBC not to run Monday's ad.

"Its no business of ours, we don't tell anyone what to broadcast and what not to broadcast. This is a purely internal British debate," the official said. "As the Israeli government we can't put pressure on them. We don't have that leverage."

It is not the first time the BBC has refused to air charity appeals, although the backlash has never been on this scale, or included criticism from British government ministers.

In 2006, it refused to air appeal for Israel-Hezbollah conflict victims on grounds of impartiality, and broadcast an appeal last year for the victims of flooding in Burma only once it was satisfied that aid would reach victims.

Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.

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