Former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn takes his former employer to task over its disgraceful acquiescence in Israeli efforts to withhold relief from Gaza’s long-suffering population.
On Tuesday, speaking from a pulpit in Westminster Abbey, the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, paid tribute to one of the corporation’s greatest journalists and broadcasters, Charles Wheeler, who died last summer at the age of 85.
Thompson spoke in reverential terms of Wheeler: his independence; his dislike of authority, any authority; his relentless search for the truth, in postwar Germany, in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s, LBJ, Vietnam, Nixon; in India, Kuwait, Kurdistan. Thompson was right. Wheeler was a giant among BBC journalists, rightly hailed as one of the best of his generation.
But even as Thompson spoke, the corporation was traducing every tradition that Wheeler, and many of us who still work for the BBC, have tried to live by. The corporation’s chief operating officer, Caroline Thomson, had refused to allow it to broadcast an appeal on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee for Gaza. She said that one reason was that “the BBC’s impartiality was in danger of being damaged”. Could the BBC be sure, she added, that money raised for this cause would find its way to the right people?
How is the BBC’s impartiality to be prejudiced by asking others to raise money for the victims of an act of war by a recognised state, an ally of Britain, using the most lethal armaments it can against a defenceless population? What sly little trigger went off in her head when Thomson questioned whether the aid would reach the right people? What right people? Hamas, the elected representatives of the Palestinian people? The hospitals and clinics run by private charities and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency? The mosques? The citizens of Gaza, persecuted beyond measure not only by their Israeli enemies but by the western powers who arm and sustain Israel and defy the democratic vote of the Palestinian people?
Is Thomson more fussed about some imaginary “war on terror” that even the new White House is shying away from than she is about upholding the free speech and freedom of action of the corporation?
This pusillanimous obeisance to some imagined governmental threat has aroused unprecedented anger across the BBC. Reporters and correspondents still on the staff, and who will not name themselves, are beside themselves with rage against a corporation that is traducing the very ideals it is supposed to uphold, and for which the director-general seemed to speak in Westminster Abbey.
This is what one former BBC World Service current affairs producer wrote to his colleagues yesterday: “… I am rarely moved to comment on aspects of the BBC I can no longer influence. But I confess I am deeply saddened and confused – and frankly pleased to be distanced from such decisions – after listening to Caroline Thomson’s obfuscating defence on Today of the refusal to broadcast the joint charity appeal on behalf of the suffering in Gaza. The question of partiality is a red herring. It is for the general public to respond to a humanitarian disaster as they choose.”
Having dealt with different news managers at the BBC over the past 30 years or so, I can safely say that the modern BBC has become a body of lions led by donkeys. Reporters of the calibre of Jeremy Bowen, David Lloyn, Lyse Doucet, experts in their field and brave people all, will be appalled by the directions they are being given. Edward Stourton and the Today programme rightly produced Tony Benn yesterday morning because they knew he would articulate what their bosses have failed to: reason and humanity.
The big question that remains is this: what are the suits scared of? Why do BBC managers try to second-guess our government and even outreach it in grovelling to the United States and Israel?
BBC journalists, extant and retired, not the “usual suspects”, not disaffected radicals and high-octane lefties, are incandescent with rage over this extraordinary piece of institutional cowardice.
The episode makes a travesty of the institution’s posturing in Westminster Abbey last week, and discredits the honest reporters the BBC still has on its books and in the field.
• Tim Llewellyn is a former BBC Middle East correspondent