Friday, January 30, 2009

The BBC and journalistic objectivity

The BBC has been taking a lot of heat for refusing to air an appeal for the people of Gaza on the grounds that to do so would compromise its "objectivity." Even Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association, is now boycotting the BBC, saying that the network is breaking "the rules of basic human decency."

It's funny, but the BBC did not use this argument in 2007 when it broadcast an appeal for the people of Darfur. Didn't this compromise its objectivity in reporting on that conflict? After all, the BBC could have been seen as taking sides against the "pro-government Arab militias [that] have been accused of widespread atrocities, such as mass killings, rape and looting black African villages," as the network described them at the time. Rather, "films starring actress Joanna Lumley and journalist Feargal Keane are being shown on ITV and the BBC," the network reported at the time.

This is the same kind of "objectivity" that President Barack Obama displayed when he regretted the death toll on both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict. So let's see, we have 13 Israeli deaths--10 of them military personnel--and 1300 Gazan deaths, nearly a third of them children. Objectivity demands that journalists and others acknowledge when a conflict is very one-sided and results in death to one side at 100 times or more the toll of the other side. Indeed, failure to take such imbalances into account is a sure sign that one is taking sides.

Perhaps the BBC is concerned that simply helping charity groups to broadcast an appeal for Gaza is somehow an implicit criticism of Israel and the actions it took that led to the humanitarian crisis. But again, objectivity requires letting the chips fall where they may.

The Nazis used to have the habit of executing 100 or more people whenever partisans in a village or a city killed one of their officers. I don't recall reading about anyone "regretting the loss of life on both sides," although I am sure there were a few who did. The heroic wartime journalists of the BBC, however, were certainly not among them.

PS--Apparently the BBC's logic is not shared by many of its journalists and presenters.

Increasing even-handedness in the Mideast. Glenn Greenwald sees lots of encouraging signs.

Israel hides true settlement data. A report by the BBC, at least its journalists are doing their job; the original report is from Ha'aretz, which reports:

An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements - about 75 percent - construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.

Ha'aretz stresses that these figures do not just apply to "illegal" settlements (all of the settlements are actually illegal under international law) but to all the settlements, including major ones on the West Bank.

Samantha Power is back. According to Talking Points Memo, the Harvard author and human rights advocate will be working for the National Security Council. That is good news.

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