Impartiality can be a form of censorship, says Jo Glanville
Like all good censorship rows, the fallout from the BBC’s decision not to transmit the DEC appeal for Gaza has generated more publicity than it would ever have otherwise received. Every news bulletin over the weekend reminded us of the appeal – and of the BBC’s embarrassment. Once again, as with the Ross-Brand debacle, there was the faintly surreal experience of hearing the BBC report on its own story – with cool impartiality of course.
The row has exposed the dangers of rigidly adhering to guidelines, however noble or ultimately sound they may be. If the BBC were to follow the logic of its decision, it would mean that it could only broadcast charity appeals for natural disasters. The requirement of impartiality, though essential for good reporting, can be a form of censorship when unimaginatively applied – and sometimes it becomes a nonsense, as demonstrated over the past few days.
Remember the furore when Barbara Plett dared to express emotion in her report on From Our Own Correspondent, as a dying Yasser Arafat was flown by helicopter to Paris from Ramallah? Although Plett was technically in breach of guidelines and far from impartial, her human response in the context felt entirely appropriate. In fact, one of the reasons why Alan Johnston was such a powerful reporter when he was based in Gaza was precisely because of the humanity in his reporting. While no one could accuse him of bias, there was a compassion in the narrative of his reports that lifted them above the usual detached style of BBC broadcasters.
But impartiality, a core principle for the BBC, becomes particularly critical when it comes to reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a former BBC producer, who made a number of programmes on the region, I was made painfully aware of the extreme over anxiety that accompanied the production of any programme that might be judged as partial.
No broadcaster or newspaper that reports on the conflict can ever escape criticism from one side or the other. Not attracting criticism might even be a measure of failure. I remember once being lambasted by a reader for a piece I wrote for the Guardian about the conflict, who criticised me for being too balanced. Strict adherence to impartiality can result in bland, meaningless reporting. In this case, it can also result in poor judgment.