Gaza and the White Journalist’s Burden
The BBC is being attacked over the DEC appeal on the super-arrogant basis that it is reporters' job to save the wretched of the Earth.
Listening to the increasingly shrill attacks on the BBC for failing to air the DEC appeal on Gaza, one could be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing worse a broadcasting corporation could do than shun a charity appeal. But there is one thing worse, and that is to subscribe to the even fouler ideas coursing through the veins of the anti-BBC lobby. The idea that it is the job of reporters to save the wretched of the Earth… the idea that objectivity counts for nothing when faced, as one media organisation described it, with ‘a dog [Israel] savaging a child [Palestine]’… the idea that bodies like the BBC must assist individuals to ‘make the right decisions’ and encourage the United Nations to take ‘firm diplomatic action’ in the Middle East (1).
The BBC might have acted with cowardice in relation to the Gaza appeal, but its critics are motivated by something even worse: narcissism, the politics of pity, and a disdain for objectivity that threatens to kill off The Truth for good.
Director-General Mark Thompson’s decision not to show the three-minute charity-for-Gaza film by the Disasters Emergency Committee was certainly bizarre. Many theories, including conspiratorial ones, have been put forward for the BBC’s actions. Former Labour MP Tony Benn suggested the BBC had ‘capitulated to the pressure of the Israeli government’. Others whisper darkly of the fact that, in 2005, Thompson became the first-ever director-general of the BBC to visit an Israeli leader (Ariel Sharon). They forget to point out that he also visited Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (2).
The insinuation that the BBC is doing Israel’s bidding, even that the Zionists control our media, has reached its nadir in respectable left-wing discussion boards, where some have pointed out that ‘Thompson’s wife is a Zionist’, thus making him unfit to control the BBC (3). In fact, it is not known whether Thompson’s wife, Jane Blumberg, is a Zionist, but she is certainly a Jew. Maybe all public officials should be quizzed in future: are you now, or have you ever been, acquainted with people of Jewish extraction?
One reason why these conspiracy theories have spread like wildfire is because the BBC’s decision does seem irrational. That is because it is motivated, not by clear-cut political considerations, or conspiracies, but by extreme nervousness at the heart of the corporation.
The decision not to air the Gaza appeal has less to do with the Middle East than with Jonathan Ross – the funnyman presenter whose tasteless phone-sex joke made the BBC the butt of respectable, elite ridicule over the past three months. As one perceptive account notes, there has been a ‘climate of timidity’ at the BBC following the Ross affair, giving rise to ‘a risk-averse culture [and] a worse paralysis than in the wake of the Hutton report’ – the independent inquiry of 2005 which found the BBC had behaved dishonourably in its coverage of the New Labour government and the Iraq War (4). Post-Hutton and post-Ross, a ‘gibbering nervousness’ has ‘gripped the BBC’ and this was unquestionably a ‘variable in the decision to reject the aid appeal for Gaza’ (5).
So the BBC has demonstrated once again that it lacks a backbone. Desperate to avoid offending anyone ever again, the BBC now seems to be governed by the precautionary principle: ‘If in doubt, don’t air it.’ Yet just because the BBC has acted foolishly, that doesn’t mean the vast array of government officials, religious representatives, media workers and celebrities that has lined up against it are worthy of our support. Their campaign is underpinned by the pernicious idea of the White Journalist’s Burden, a super-version of the ‘journalism of attachment’, where the BBC and other reporters are explicitly goaded to ditch their outdated commitment to objectivity and embrace their role as the spearheads of international action on the side of right against wrong. If the BBC is motivated by a ‘culture of timidity’, then too many of its critics are motivated by an arrogant view of themselves as warriors in an end-of-days stand-off between Good and Evil.
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The extraordinarily consensual, one might even say conformist, arguments against the BBC confirm that ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ have been transformed into dirty words. Once the linchpins of news journalism, the working creeds to which every reporter paid lip service (even if they failed to live up to them in practice), impartiality and objectivity are now seen as little more than a cover for the nefarious interests of ‘the powerful’. The BBC’s claims to impartiality have been attacked, not on the basis that its Gaza appeal decision was motivated by confusion and not principled impartiality, but on the basis that impartiality itself is an untenable, undesirable and increasingly unjustifiable position for news reporters to take.
Listen to the disdain with which the word ‘impartiality’ is uttered in the BBC controversy. The Archbishop of York John Sentamu – the Kerry Katona of the Church of England, who never misses an opportunity to appear on the front pages of the papers – said this is not about impartiality ‘but rather about humanity’. He said the BBC should follow the Good Samaritan example and ditch its cold objectivity, as if it were the broadcasting wing of his religious outfit the Church of England (6). Likewise, in a protest outside BBC TV headquarters, Tony Benn suggested the BBC should remember, and ideally broadcast, the words of Jesus Christ, who said we should ‘love our neighbours’ – only if the BBC were to broadcast Christ’s commandment it might ‘upset the Israeli government’, he said (7). Never mind impartiality, the BBC should become a mouthpiece for sanctimonious Christian Socialism!
Commentator Philip Hensher complains that the BBC’s impartiality is simply a cover for ‘moral neutrality’, failing to understand that straight news reporting such as that carried out by the BBC - unlike campaigning journalism, which is different - is supposed to be morally neutral. ‘The BBC is too impartial to the suffering’, he said (8). Veteran foreign affairs correspondent Robert Fisk says the BBC ought to be ‘partial on the side of those suffering the most’ (9).
The most explicit condemnation of objectivity in relation to Gaza has come from former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges. He argues that objectivity leads to a ‘moral void’. He says it is ridiculous to take an ‘unbiased’ stance, to stand ‘outside of the flow of human existence, impervious to grief or pain or anger or injustice’. ‘Balance and objectivity are the antidote to facing unpleasant truths’, he said, ‘a way of avoidance, a way to placate the powerful’. As long as journalists speak in the ‘cold, dead language’ of objectivity, we will remain ‘part of the problem, not the solution’ (10).
The BBC is being attacked, not for its cowardice, but for its alleged commitment to impartiality and objectivity, for appearing to suggest that news outlets should not take sides. It has sinned against the bible of the journalism of attachment – that new journalistic creed, ironically founded with the help of a BBC journalist, Martin Bell, which argues that journalists must not only report the facts and complexities of a conflict but also give their instinctive moral take on it, too. From Bosnia to Rwanda, Kosovo to Gaza, journalists have increasingly ditched their aspirations to objectivity and truth-gathering in favour of moralising and even cajoling the ‘international community’ to take action against the ‘evil people’ in our midst (11). The BBC’s stance on the Gaza appeal cannot be tolerated, however unconvincing it might be, because it smacks too much of the ‘cold, dead language’ of objectivity that today’s Brave New Journalists have discarded in favour of transforming themselves into pompous, bloated, self-selected, self-serving warriors against evil.
In this sense, the BBC controversy is implicitly bound up with the broader discussion of the role of journalism in relation to Gaza and beyond. One of the BBC’s sternest critics, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, who denounced the BBC’s Gaza appeal decision as ‘ludicrous’, has been at the forefront of calling for a new form of post-objective, agitational news coverage, explicitly mixing up impartial reporting with campaigning journalism, which not only ‘reports the facts’ but also seeks to provoke international action.
In his Channel 4 programme Gaza Unseen, Snow argued that the Israeli government’s refusal to allow Western journalists into Gaza had two terrible effects: first, it meant that people did not learn ‘the truth’ of the conflict; and second, it might have slowed down diplomatic action on Gaza and even ‘defeated the passage of a unanimous UN call for a ceasefire’ (12).
Both of these claims are seriously flawed, factually and morally. Of course Israel should have let all journalists into the conflict zone, but the idea that if only Western reporters had been permitted to cover the war then we would all know the truth is a fantastic fallacy. Journalists swarmed around Sarajevo in the early to mid-1990s, yet they continually gave a one-sided and moralistic account of the Bosnian War. They were present in Kosovo and Yugoslavia in 1999, yet managed to depict NATO’s opportunistic and myth-driven assault on the Serbs as a battle between good (Clinton, Blair) and evil (Serb soldiers, Serb journalists, Serb civilians). As the late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said of ‘the eye-witness fallacy’: ‘[T]he more reputable the eye-witness, the greater the caution with which his testimony should be received… Out of righteousness and sincerity have come more deception than out of villainy and deliberate deceit.’ (13)
Even worse, however, is Snow’s implicit argument that part of a journalist’s job is to provoke ‘diplomatic action’, in this instance to hurry along a UN ceasefire. Increasingly, foreign reporters are becoming the actors and mouthpieces of the ‘international community’, of powerful institutions like the UN. In recent years, supposedly neutral news reporters have not only demanded military intervention in war zones – they have also willingly given evidence at international criminal tribunals set up to try those denounced as ‘evil’ warmongers.
Where American reporters have tended to resist becoming part of the UN machine in this way – on the basis that ‘assisting in any formal capacity with official investigations compromises their objectivity and diminishes their credibility’ (14) – European journalists have been far more eager to cooperate. One of Snow’s colleagues at Channel 4 News gave evidence at the Rwanda tribunal. BBC and Guardian journalists gave evidence at the war crimes tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In 2002, BBC journalist Jacky Rowland, justifying her decision to give evidence against Slobodan Milosevic in relation to the Kosovo campaign of 1999, said: ‘We, as journalists, can have philosophical, ethical and rather rarefied discussions, but let’s not forget the reality of what went on out there.’ (15)
In short, forget ‘rarefied’ ideas about objectvity and let yourself become a tool of NATO’s military and legal campaign against its latest chosen hate figure. Some of Rowland’s BBC colleagues criticised her decision, and the decision of other journalists, to become ‘informants’ in a war (16). One perceptive critic said journalists had willingly made themselves into ‘spies who operate on the side that is favoured by the UN’ (17). This has greatly diminished the ability of journalists to uncover the truth. If they behave as ‘informants’, collecting and giving evidence against ‘war criminals’, then they will increasingly be denied access to war zones, to interviews, to information. This goes some way to explaining Israel’s decision to refuse journalists entry to Gaza. After Jenin, when many Western journalists falsely claimed that there had been an Israeli massacre, and in a world where journalists act as informants, seeing it as their role to demand diplomatic, legal and military action, it is not really surprising that some isolated governments, fearful of UN condemnation, should keep these ‘informants’ at arm’s length.
This is the story behind the current BBC controversy. The corporation is attacked for being too impartial in a world where journalists increasingly fancy themselves as the moral and legal arbiters of war and misery. We can criticise the BBC for its sheepishness, but if we’re serious about defending Truth, Integrity and even basic Fact, then we ought to turn our guns against the BBC-criticising, anti-objectivity lobby of ‘UN spies’ posing as ordinary reporters.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Israel, Gaza and the politics of victimhood, by Philip Cunliffe
After Gaza: what’s behind 21st-century anti-semitism, by Frank Furedi
The politics of anti-Zionism, by Brendan O’Neill
Creating their own private Gazas, by Nathalie Rothschild
Sanctions did not liberate South Africa, by Tim Black
Gaza is not Warsaw, by Nathalie Rothschild
There is no such thing as a ‘good lie’, by Tim Black
Who made Gaza into a bloody trap?, by Brendan O’Neill
The antithesis of anti-imperialism, by Brendan O’Neill
Whose war is it anyway?, by Brendan O’Neill
War without ends?, by Mick Hume
The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild
‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black
Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza
(1) Gaza Unseen, Channel 4, 23 January 2009
(2) BBC head Mark Thompson best friends with Ariel Sharon, Muslim Discussion Forum ; The secret report at heart of BBC’s Gaza paranoia, London Evening Standard, 27 January 2009
(3) Call for Mark Thompson to resign, Media Lens discussion board, 26 January 2009
(4) Apologies, people of Gaza - the BBC is a bit jumpy lately, Guardian, 24 January 2009
(5) Apologies, people of Gaza - the BBC is a bit jumpy lately, Guardian, 24 January 2009
(6) BBC crisis over refusal to broadcast Gaza appeal, Guardian, 24 January 2009
(7) See YouTube video of Tony Benn’s speech here.
(8) The BBC is too impartial to suffering, Independent, 26 January 2009
(9) Beeb blocks aid appeal for Gaza, Morning Star, 23 January 2009
(10) With Gaza, journalists fail again, Truthdig, 26 January 2009
(11) See Whose War is it Anyway?, by Mick Hume, 1997
(12) Gaza: War, from a distance, Independent, 19 January 2009
(13) Tread Softly, For You Tread On My Jokes, Malcolm Muggeridge, 1966
(14) The Rhode to Srebrenica, Columbia University website
(15) ‘Yugoslavia not safe for me,’ says journalist who testified, Press Gazette, 22 November 2002
(16) ‘Yugoslavia not safe for me,’ says journalist who testified, Press Gazette, 22 November 2002
(17) War crimes tribunal will not call reporter to give evidence, Guardian, 4 October 2002