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British TV under fire for not airing Gaza appeal

The fighting in Gaza is quiet but it has sparked an uproar in Britain, where two major broadcasters are under fire for refusing to air a charity appeal to help Palestinian victims there.
Britain BBC Gaza
Antiwar activists occupy the lobby of BBC Scotland's headquarters in Glasgow on Sunday after the BBC refused to air a charity fundraising appeal for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.Stop the War Coalition via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The fighting in Gaza is quiet, at least for now, but it has sparked an uproar in Britain, where two major broadcasters are under fire for refusing to air a charity appeal to help Palestinian victims there.

The conflict pits the venerable British Broadcasting Corp. and Rupert Murdoch's burgeoning Sky News empire — which maintain they must protect their journalistic impartiality — against British lawmakers and protesters demanding that the Gaza appeal be shown.

They argue that Sky and BBC are denying viewers the chance to learn about the horrendous situation civilians face in Gaza so they can, if they wish, make contributions that would help provide badly needed food, water and medicine.

Jeremy Corbyn, a governing Labour Party lawmaker, said he and other legislators will demand that the appeal be broadcast when they meet Tuesday with BBC executives.

"It's a disgrace," he said. "They must broadcast as soon as possible. I'm very disappointed in Sky as well. They should remember they have a duty as a public broadcaster."

He said Sky News, which announced its decision Monday, and BBC, which acted Friday, have given in to pressure from the Israeli government.

Israeli officials said they would not comment on the situation, which has ignited passions throughout Britain, where sympathy for the plight of Palestinian civilians is generally high.

"This is an internal British matter," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "The BBC doesn't ask us obviously about what to broadcast."

In the past, the government of Israel has accused the BBC of an anti-Israel bias. The broadcaster is publicly funded but designed to be independent of government influence.

Red Cross among the charities
The fundraising appeal was submitted for broadcast by the Disaster Emergency Committee, a consortium of charities that includes well-known groups such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children.

Ian Bray, a spokesman for the group, said the appeal would be shown on ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 after news broadcasts Tuesday evening.

"We will reach a significant number of people, and in this computer-friendly age a lot of people have signed onto the Internet to make contributions," he said.

The Gaza campaign raised $835,000 over the weekend in part because of the furor over the BBC decision, Bray said.

"The campaign is off to a very, very health start," Bray said, adding that the agencies involved are disappointed that BBC and Sky would not air the appeal.

He said BBC has, in the past, broadcast the group's appeals for help with crises in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and other places.

The actual appeals, which include a telephone number and a Web site viewers can use to make donations, are typically scripted and produced by the broadcasters, not the charities, once they agree to the project, Bray said.

He said the two to three minute appeal does not assign blame for the conflict but uses footage to illustrate the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the group is not taking a position on whether the BBC and Sky should show the appeal. He said the group has not been consulted and has no role in the matter.

"There is clearly a huge need in Gaza and that should be addressed," he said. "We have no problem with that."

10,000 complaints at BBC
The decision to keep the appeal off the airwaves has not gone down well with the British public. The BBC has received more than 10,000 viewer complaints and faced a number of protests in British cities. Demonstrations continued with a sit-in at BBC facilities in London on Monday evening.

BBC executives said other appeals have been refused in the past for similar reasons. A statement posted on the BBC Web site Monday said requests for appeals for East Africa, Lebanon and Myanmar had been rejected in the last three years.

BBC director general Mark Thompson said Monday that no Israeli lobbying groups pressured the BBC about the Gaza appeal.

Fears of appearing biased
Sky News executives seemed braced for public criticism Monday as they announced their own decision not to show the appeal. They indicated that to broadcast it would be seen as taking sides in the decades-old, seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Adrian Wells, Sky's director of foreign news, said the station understood the good intentions of the charities seeking to publicize the situation in Gaza. He said Sky remains committed to using its resources to cover the Gaza story firsthand.

"Let me say to those people who might be angry, people who might be passionate about this, there is no question about Sky's commitment to reporting the region," he said. "We've had our reporters there since the gates of Gaza opened. There is absolutely no question of Sky viewers not being aware of the humanitarian crisis."

The decision to keep the appeal from being televised also has been criticized religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Israel launched its three-week offensive on Gaza late last month to try to halt Hamas rocket fire on towns in southern Israel. The assault killed more than 1,200 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed during the fighting, Israel said.