BBC and Sky forsake ethics to maintain reputations

“Today this is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict – these people simply need your help,” says the narrator less than thirty seconds into the recent appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for funds to be put towards aid in the Gaza Strip; the appeal that the BBC and Sky have opted not to screen due to fears about compromising impartiality. However, in attempting to avoid a controversy, these broadcasters have created a far greater one.

The DEC, an umbrella organisation for some of the UK’s biggest charities, provides aid for those affected by humanitarian disasters worldwide. The three-minute film was a non-partisan attempt to raise funds for those affected by the current crisis. When presented with this, intelligent people in TV boardrooms in London apparently looked at it hard, furrowed their brows in contemplation and eventually, predictably, did the ridiculous thing.

One silver lining here is that all the controversy has probably raised awareness of the DEC more than the film alone could ever have done. Such is the strength of feeling that a hundred and seventy Members of Parliament have put their names to motions opposing the corporations, several prominent personalities have threatened not to work for them again and BBC headquarters have seen furious protests by thousands of people.

Meanwhile, their attempts to preserve a lack of bias have in fact been interpreted by some as showing a clear leaning by the companies towards one side (although, interestingly, there are as many in papers and on the web accusing them of being blatantly pro-Israel as there are saying that the BBC and Sky are compensating for weeks of barefaced pro-Palestine reporting). The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has said that through their actions “the BBC has already taken sides and forsaken impartiality”, while Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called it an “insult” to viewers to assume that they cannot tell the difference between politics and humanitarianism.

Despite the publicity and ITV, Channel 4 and Five being more agreeable, the addition of the viewing figures of the two giants of broadcasting could have boosted the organisation’s fundraising massively. After the appeal, the DEC estimated that one million pounds had been donated overnight. Think how much more that could have been had the message been exposed to the far wider audience that it could have been.

At the time of writing, neither corporation has backed down. BBC director general Mark Thompson, trying to defend the decision, commented on “the United Nations … describing it as a political crisis with humanitarian consequences.” This it is indeed, Mr Thompson, yet it is possible to attend to the humanitarian side without being political – the UN itself has launched a £400m appeal for aid to go to those affected. In prioritising their reputations over the lives of thousands of innocents, the BBC and Sky have gravely damaged their ethical credentials.

Fair play to the BBC on one count: their website thoroughly reports the backlash to this, demonstrating the responses from public figures and the media. A search of the Sky News site shows only a brief statement explaining the decision, and thereafter no mention of it at all. Congratulations, Sky: you’ve launched a tremendous PR operation as thousands die in the background.


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