Put people before politics, development secretary urges BBC

Put people before politics, development secretary urges BBC

By staff writers
24 Jan 2009

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander has joined aid agencies in urging the BBC to broadcast a charitable appeal for Gaza, which it has refused to do for what critics call "political reasons."

The British government minister said the appeal by the non-political, 13-member Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) was a matter of addressing "immense human suffering" and should not get caught up in controversy.

Mr Alexander said: "I think the British public ... can distinguish between support for humanitarian aid and perceived partiality in a conflict. I really struggle to see in the face of the immense human suffering of people in Gaza... that this is in any way a credible argument. They still have time to make a different judgement."

He pointed out that people might become concerned that the suffering of people in Gaza was not taken as seriously as suffering in other conflicts, since the BBC has been willing to allow appeals for the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma, both mired in conflict.

A protest is being held today outside Broadcasting House in London after the BBC declined to broadcast appeals by the Disasters Emergency Committee.

The BBC claimed it was a matter of not compromising its commitment to impartiality, but critics say the decision is, ironically, "blatantly political" because it effectively accuses a humanitarian appeal of taking sides in a conflict situation.

Conservative international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said that while the decision to broadcast was "completely" a matter for the BBC the appeal should be aired so the public can decide whether to support it.

The BBC has also been accused of presenting the issue dishonestly, by reporting that "Sky and ITV have refused the broadcast" without pointing out that this is because the agreement on DEC appeals is that there must be unanimity, and the BBC's own decision means that others now cannot show the charity advert without breaking that agreement.

"This is a major miscalculation by the BBC, and it is to be hoped that they have the integrity and humility to recognise this and to broadcast the DEC Gaza crisis appeal, freeing others to follow suit," says Simon Barrow, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia, which helps raise funds through affiliate deals with several of the agencies involved in DEC.

"Backing humanitarian action in a region devastated by conflict - one facing what international agencies describe as a major crisis - is not politically partisan, but refusing to do so for fear of powerful lobbies with vested interests most certainly is. Ironically, the BBC is compromising its neutrality by putting political considerations ahead of charitable action - the exact opposite of its stated intent."

Geoffrey Dennis, chief executive of the global humanitarian group Care International, said it was not a time for politics.

"As far as being impartial is concerned, that's our job... we know exactly what we are doing on the ground, there are a lot of people in real danger at the moment," he said.

Dennis added: "Fifty per cent of the population in Gaza are under the age of 18, they're not interested in the politics in this, they want to go to school and play football like my son. We don't get involved in the politics, we are saying as all of the major aid agencies in the UK... we need to help these people that are really suffering."

Veteran politician Tony Benn, speaking on Radio 4, said the corporation's position made no sense. "There's been an absolute crisis in Gaza, you can't allow the BBC to say if we help people who are dying we are going to be engaged in controversy."

"Make no mistake, people will dies as a result of this decision," Benn added.

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Donations to the DEC Gaza appeal: https://www.donate.bt.com/bt_form_gaza.html

Comments to the BBC about its decision may be made here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/complaints_stage1.shtml

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