A mistake we must forgive
26 Jan 09

bbcThe BBC is an institution we need to cherish, says Brian Cathcart, whatever its errors of judgment over the Gaza appeal

As if there weren’t already enough BBC-haters in the world, the Corporation’s refusal to screen the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal for Gaza threatens to recruit legions more. From MPs to celebrities and from archbishops to street protesters, the fury is widespread – and the pity of it is that so many of the angry are people who in normal circumstances cling to the BBC as a rock of civilised values in a crazy media world.

Director General Mark Thompson’s motives may be good and his manner sincere, but he is surely wrong to suggest that a clearly labelled humanitarian appeal to help desperately needy people in Gaza would, in the eyes of any reasonable viewer, compromise the BBC’s reputation for impartiality. We know the difference between BBC news and an appeal, just as we are able to tell an advertisement from a television programme.

Of course, what really matters here is that help gets to the victims of conflict, so it is a relief of sorts that the controversy has generated more publicity for the DEC appeal than the broadcast itself ever could have. Let us hope the cash flows in as a result. (And in case you have missed it, here’s a link.)

The money aside, it looks like the principal casualty of this affair is the BBC itself. Thompson and his colleagues may have their scruples intact, but the BBC’s reputation among a lot of people who normally trust it is in tatters. And the only people pleased by this will be those with a vested interest in damaging the BBC – not the pro-Israel lobby, but the same media organisations that revelled in the Corporation’s confusion over the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand affair, notably the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press, who are surely wallowing in this new disaster.

To call them BBC-haters is no exaggeration. Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, regards the Corporation as the flagship of a subsidised, unelected and unrepresentative ‘liberalocracy’ that is intent on foisting its values, or rather its lack of values, on to a hapless British public. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, is personally offended by the whole idea of a news organisation that exists outside the capitalist system – one, in other words, that he can’t buy. In their different ways, both men want the BBC humbled and damaged. And while neither is what you might call a friend of the Palestinian people, that is neither here nor there. What is bad for the BBC is good for them, and by gum this business is bad for the BBC.

For the very same reason they hate it, of course, the rest of us need to cherish and protect it – and, difficult though it may be at times like this, forgive it. Our society is vastly better for having a powerful news source that depends for its existence not on the market, but on public consensus. It is easy, sometimes, to forget how precious it is that BBC news is not bought and sold, just as it is easy to overlook the benign influence the BBC exerts over much of the rest of our news culture (even the Mail).

For sure, the BBC managers have made a mistake, and if they don’t see that then they are at least aware that their friends are telling them they have. We can batter them further, and possibly secure a grudging and belated broadcast, or we can hope they have learned a lesson and devote our efforts to the more urgent and worthwhile cause of helping the Gaza appeal.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University