BBC director general Mark Thompson this morning added to confusion and public annoyance over his decision to ban a non-partisan charitable appeal for victims of the conflict in Gaza.
The embattled BBC chief appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and admitted, under pressure from interviewer John Humphrys, that the Disaster Emergencies Committee appeal – which ITV and Channels 4 and 5 will show tonight – was not in itself politically biased.
But he still said that showing it would open up the Corporation to charges of impartiality because the humanitarian situation was “one aspect of” a controversial conflict situation.
Mr Thompson denied accusations that his “arm had been twisted” by pro-Israeli government lobbyists and said the BBC would continue to cover the humanitarian dimension of a “complicated and deeply contentious story”.
But aid agency experts and commentators, including many within the BBC itself, point out that providing assistance to victims of conflict and natural disaster, irrespective of the other issues, has been the bedrock of international humanitarian commitments, the work of the Red Cross and the principles of the Geneva Convention for many years.
“The director general has got himself into a hole and seems determined to keep digging by questioning the very principles of humanitarian impartiality he claims to be upholding,” an NGO analyst told Ekklesia. “It is extraordinary.”
The BBC has announced that it will continue to put its case for refusing the charities’ broadcast across on its TV and radio channels throughout the day.
Its senior executives claim that it is now resisting “undue pressure” from politicians, church leaders and others. But as public complaints grow, critics of this decision point out that the outrage demonstrates the breadth of support for the appeal across political and social lines.
Pro-Israeli government groups have claimed that the DEC appeal is biassed because it does not include southern Israel, target of Hamas rocket attacks. But aid agencies say that if there was a large scale crisis in any region, they would respond.
“The fact is, much as we might deplore Hamas rockets, there is no comparable crisis in southern Israel, where damage and casualties have been very limited and the capacity, both financial and logistical, for the government to respond is considerable”, Ekklesia has been told.
United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the largest humanitarian actor in the Gaza Strip, said that there was incontrovertibly a “huge and overwhelming need” for aid irrespective of wider political considerations.
UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that the situation in Gaza was a “crisis with grave humanitarian consequences”.
He went on to say that the estimated cost of “rehabilitation and repair” was $345 million (£257 milion), with $230 million (£167 million) so far unfunded.
“We are massively underfunded, and I think the figures involve illustrate the sheer scale of the need involved here,” Gunness declared.
The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in the UK 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