BBC may face judicial review of its refusal to show charity appeal

By staff writers
February 20, 2009

In a move that is likely to increase accusations of lack of public accountability, the BBC Trust has found that the BBC director general acted "reasonably" in refusing to screen a a non-political humanitarian appeal for Gaza.

The BBC's management had chosen to reject complaints from 40,000 members of the public about the decision not to screen the Disasters Emergency Committee charity appeal.

Protests were also made by many members of the BBC's own staff, former employees, MPs of all parties, faith leaders, celebrities and charities.

The Charity Commission had said that there was no problem with the appeal, for emergency aid to victims of war, in terms of the 'bias' that the BBC seemed to be accusing it of by refusing involvement - in spite of a long-standing agreement with the DEC.

Twenty complainants subsequently appealed to the Trust. They included two residents of Gaza and one person living in the UK who lodged a detailed, 23-page appeal through law firm Hickman and Rose.

The London-based firm said it was now "highly likely" it would be applying for judicial review of the decision.

Its original letter asserts that the BBC decision - made by the director general, Mark Thompson, and top executives - was "irrational or otherwise unlawful" and says it breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

The BBC Trust had wanted to fast track a decision on the affair, described by insiders as "a foregone conclusion", but the Hickman and Rose intervention forced it into a longer process.

The BBC has severely imperilled its reputation for impartiality in many parts of the world over its decision to refuse the Gaza appeal, and critics accuse it of evidencing "institutional bias" against Palestinians.

Ironically, the need for impartiality was the reason given for Mr Thompson's decision not to show it, despite other broadcasters doing so, and a history of supporting appeals for humanitarian assistance in the context of other conflicts.

The Trust, which is an unelected body chaired by Sir Michael Lyons, now says that the BBC and other broadcasters should "look again at their agreement with the Disasters Emergency Appeal on when appeals should be screened" - implying that more charities may now suffer.

"The logic seems to be that by cutting off other appeals they cannot be so easily accused of picking on this one," a media commentator told Ekklesia.

The DEC responded to the Trust's suggestion with a written statement, saying: "[W]e believe it would be unfortunate if the additional hurdle imposed in this specific situation set a precedent for future appeals.

It added: "The three criteria agreed with broadcasters for launching DEC appeals - scale of need, ability of DEC members to deliver aid, and evidence of public support - have stood the test of time."

The BBC Trust is appointed by the Queen on advice from government ministers. Its website sets out how to complain about BBC executive decisions, but no information about how it is itself to be held accountable.

Speaking from Jerusalem, MP Richard Burden - who is in the Middle East leading a delegation investigating the impact of the conflict in Gaza - said: “They should get their priorities straight and do their bit to help those charities involved... to get the aid that is so desperately needed into Gaza.”

The British-Muslim Initiative has also deplored the BBC Trust's exoneration of the Corporation. A spokesperson said: "There is little question that the BBC chose to play politics when the lives of hundreds of thousands, mainly children and women, were at stake."

BBC reporters and commentators work hard to maintain standards of professional fairness, and many are known to be annoyed at the DEC appeal episode and the intransigence of the Corporation's management and overseers.

A humanitarian worker in the Gaza reason said: "It is not good enough that the BBC is effectively trying to exonerate itself through a government-appointed committee which has shown little of the independent thinking it is supposed to be championing."

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) was formed in 1963. It is an umbrella organisation for 13 humanitarian aid agencies who work together for major emergencies.

Its members are: ActionAid, British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International, Christian Aid, Concern, Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.