Inflexible 

27 January 2009 tbs.pm/1014

How the call for aid to Gaza left the BBC in the thick of battle

As the controversy surrounding the BBC’s stubborn refusal to air the DEC Gaza appeal rumbles on after the event (ironically giving the appeal much more publicity than it would have had otherwise – maybe a secret agenda perhaps?), it’s time to reflect on Mark Thompson’s performance during the crisis.

Or lack of it.

The problem is that Mark Thompson had two “get out of jail” cards up his sleeve – which would have enabled him to back down without losing face and with the BBC’s reputation for impartiality being enhanced in the process – but for some inexplicable reason decided not to use them.

Firstly, because Thompson’s initial decision not to air the appeal (along with ITV and Channel 4) was based on the difficulty of distributing humanitarian aid fairly to the region, he could have subsequently changed his mind solely on the basis of changing circumstances on the ground within Gaza itself – perhaps the most important consideration.

Secondly, if the humanitarian requirements for Gaza were of paramount importance, the appeal could have been broadcast but with a separate documentary examining the complex issues involved in much greater depth following immediately afterwards; this would have dispelled any lingering impartiality concerns that may still have existed.

This event has demonstrated without any shadow of doubt that Mark Thompson has completely failed to comprehend the complex nature of the issue of impartiality, especially if a channel such as al-Jazeera can still remain a highly respected news outlet whilst broadcasting tapes made by Osama bin Laden.

It may be true that Thompson was put into a very awkward and unenviable position as a result of all of this, but he had the means of backing down without any form of compromise whatsoever, which was to become more critical as the evidence against his decision started to become more apparent as time progressed.

And based on Thompson’s logic there’s no point in the BBC continuing to support Comic Relief either, given its work in certain African countries that don’t exactly have a squeaky clean track record.

The danger of using impartiality as the overriding criterion for doing nothing is that it risks becoming a politically contentious issue if a purely humanitarian objective is at risk of being compromised as a result. Goodness knows why Sky also held out to the end as well, although political pressure from certain quarters could have played a part in this.

If Mark Thompson’s brief was to show that the BBC is more than capable of making an incredibly tough decision and sticking with it, then yes he has so far succeeded in this task, but by doing so has ruthlessly exposed the perils of remaining inflexible together with an abject failure to fully grasp the consequences of any outcome.