Blind Man with a Pistol

The ‘Impartial’ BBC

Oh, BBC, never change. When the BBC is not ‘reporting’ on the elections of former crown colonies in Africa with the trademark British smirk that communicates both imperial disdain and condescension, it is mired in sensational controversies surrounding Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and Andrew Sachs’s granddaughter. So it is with ironic bemusement that I read that in their recent decision not to air an emergence appeal for Gaza aid by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the BBC have rooted their refusal in ‘impartiality’.

The BBC decision was made because of question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation and also to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story. However, the BBC will, of course, continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza.

Well, it is comforting to know that the BBC is as impartial to suffering in Gaza as it is partial to the endless barrage of real estate  and cooking programs that make up its daily schedules. Also bizarre is the appeal to ‘question marks’ about the prospect of aid actually being delivered. If they are truly concerned with impartiality, shouldn’t those ‘question marks’ be left up to the viewer, or, indeed, elaborated and exposed by the crack BBC news team? Instead, such concerns seem tacked on in a desperate attempt to prove that the BBC is not just some heartless crown corporation. Too bad that such concerns look to disappear, and BBC Director General Mark Thompson admits that ‘this reason for declining to broadcast the appeal will no longer be relevant’.

So the BBC is tying its masts to the ‘more fundamental’ reason of  ‘impartiality’. The implication, of course, is that acknowledging human suffering in Gaza would indicate bias against Israel. That asking to assist non-combatant victims who have had their families killed, their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and their basic human dignity stripped from their persons would somehow, in the mind of BBC brass, favours Hamas. So in a grotesque sleight-of-hand, the BBC denies the humanity of one-and-a-half-million Palestinians and calls it honesty.

Luckily, the British public aren’t fooled, despite the fact that Britain as a whole is still highly divided on the crisis in Gaza. This division is due, ironically enough, to the refusal of the BBC to prosecute the violence and criminality of Israel’s apartheid policies. A group of 60 MPs are expected to lead a motion today at Westminster, urging the BBC to air the appeal. Now of course, if the BBC reverses its decision (which would be the right move), it will be seen as ceding to political influence—a now inevitable predicament the initial decision was meant to avoid.

However, what is most discomfiting about the pathetic floundering of Mark Thompson and the BBC, is that they’ve got the absurdity and tragedy of the current political climate exactly right. The most devastating moment of Ari Folman’s powerful animated film Waltz with Bashir (2008), which recounts an Israeli soldier’s memory of the massacre of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Phalangist militiamen and the complicitness of the Israeli Defence Forces, arrives when a ghostly hallucination of the protagonist switches abruptly from animation to live action. Since the film mostly surrounds the reconstruction of national memory through interviews with former soldiers and friends, the object of the massacre, the Palestinians themselves, are largely absent from the film. Indeed, as the film opens, the protagonist has a memory hole where the massacre should be. Palestinians are relegated to fleeting shots through telescopic lenses. The only time they feature centrally in any scene is in Ari Folman’s recurring hallucinatory dream, where a spectre-like stream of veiled women flow past him, open mouths frozen in soundless wails. Then, suddenly, at the film’s conclusion, these women become real: we can hear their screams and see the expression of suffering etched upon their faces. We are confronted with their humanity for the first time.

The Palestinians are an absent people. In the minds of Israel and the West, they simply do not exist. So when the BBC decides that the spirit of impartiality dictates that acknowledging the suffering of Gaza is not an option, they are correct. Because to acknowledge such suffering would be to acknowledge their humanity, which would in turn demand that Palestine’s right to self-determination, to sovereignty and to basic human dignity is upheld.  As long as Palestine is reduced to the caricature of an illegal, hostile, genocidal Hamas launching indiscriminate rockets at Israeli civilians, the West can remain ‘impartial’ to a humanity it cannot see.

‘Partial’ means ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’, but it also means ‘incomplete’. It is a shame that the BBC thinks it can be less partial by refusing to broadcast the humanity of a suffering people. Click here to assist in the DEC’s appeal to Gaza aid.