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Does impartiality mean inhumanity?

RISJ seminar: Wednesday 11 February

Suren Musayelyan writes:

It is not a journalist’s job to save the world and impartiality can sometimes mean inhumanity, says John Bridcut, an independent producer who has worked for the BBC.

'It’s a bit like tough love – you sometimes have to be cruel to be kind,' he said.

John Bridcut, producer and documentary maker was speaking to an academic audience of about 30 at a Reuters Institute seminar in Oxford on Wednesday (February 11).

Mr Bridcut, who wrote a detailed report on impartiality for the BBC in 2007, defended the British public broadcaster’s recent controversial decision not to run an appeal on behalf of major charities for Gaza on the grounds of endangered impartiality.

The speaker emphasised that trust towards journalism was essential, and the more so for the BBC, a domestic and international news channel with large audiences across the world.

Mr Bridcut listed at least a dozen reasons to support the BBC decision. These include:

- Israel-Palestine is (probably) the most hotly contested long-running news story the BBC has

- There has been no agreement on the ‘rights and wrongs’ of the Israeli action

- The Gaza issue is not simply a humanitarian crisis, but a political one too

- The story was still ongoing at that time (as the ceasefire was fragile)

- The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) is not like a party political appeal,  - because there is no balancing appeal from the other side of the argument

- Party political appeals are prepared by parties. Charity appeals are made by broadcasters (in this case BBC pictures and staff would have had to be used)

- There were worries whether the relief could be delivered securely

- The BBC would have made exactly the same decision if there were (hypothetically) a major terrorist attack on Israel

- Impartiality always leads to uncomfortable decisions

- There is the possibility that the DEC has a ‘political agenda’ (he gave the example of the DEC appeal for Lebanon in 2006)

- Members of the public could have donated to the Gaza appeal without the broadcasting of the appeal by the BBC

- It is not the raising of the money that is the issue, but how it is raised. A good appeal needs emotional pictures


Mr Bridcut reminded the audience of the recent history and the ‘scars’ that the BBC has borne in terms of questions over its impartiality. In particular, he referred to the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 when the BBC got too much drawn into what was turning into a political campaign. He also hinted that the Darfur appeal might have been disqualified now on the ground of breaching impartiality.

In reference to Gaza, Mr Bridcut said: 'It would have been far easier (for the BBC) to swim with the tide of public opinion.'

'But the fundamental issue – and I think journalists often forget this – is that it’s not a journalist’s job, certainly not the BBC’s job, to try to sort out the world’s problems. The journalist’s job is to tell people what is actually happening and give other people the information which they can use to try to sort out the problems.'

According to Mr Bridcut, the BBC might face a similar challenge (of impartiality) should there be an opportunity for the DEC to launch an appeal for relief in Zimbabwe. Currently, the BBC is 'off the hook' as any appeal might not meet one of the three requirements – security of delivering humanitarian aid. He reminded that while in Britain there are not many voices in support of Mugabe, in Africa there is quite a sizable body of opinion that still regards President Robert Mugabe ‘a great liberator’.

'So watch this space to see what may happen,' Bridcut said.



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