30 January 2009

Guest Blog: Bryan Hemming -on Mark Thomspon

If the Director General of the BBC has trouble with the definition of impartiality, perhaps he should turn to his Bible rather than his dictionary.

There are two stories I can think of straightaway that should offer some guidance. The judgement of Solomon is one.

King Solomon offered to act impartially by cutting a baby in half for the benefit of two women claiming to be its mother.

But Solomon made his judgement in the firm belief the true mother wouldn’t permit her child to die. In contrast, by claiming his decision not to broadcast the Gaza emergency aid appeal demonstrates BBC impartiality, Mark Thompson put the lives of many mothers, children and babies at risk. King Solomon knew no good mother would sacrifice her infant for the sake of impartiality. And he was right. By intervening to save her child, the rightful mother exposed the impostor. Mark Thompson’s decision was wrong, not only because he hasn’t allowed intervention of any kind.

He can’t argue with the comparison because in making a decision regarding the lives of people he assumed the mantle of king. When lives depend on such decisions it is better to sacrifice impartiality than babies.

The Director General of the BBC placed himself in the role of Solomon while behaving like the phoney mother.

I detect a certain amount of cowardice in his decision. In reality, nobody asked him to make it; he chose to make it. And he decided not doing the right thing was a sign of impartiality.

Yet Thompson couldn’t assume the Israeli authorities would think he was acting impartially had the appeal been aired without giving them the benefit of the doubt by asking them in the first place. On the other hand, if he did ask, and the Israelis told him he would be acting partially by airing it, he would be taking advice from an impartial source.

So who did he suppose would object? If it wasn’t the Palestinians, the Israelis, the British government or the viewers, and if it isn’t a contradiction, in whose interests was he acting impartially? Surely impartiality of this stratospheric order must be of benefit to someone? It certainly hasn’t benefited the BBC in any way.

The second Biblical story relevant to the decision is the tale of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan didn’t stop to question how, or why, his enemy had received his injuries. He just helped.

There is no way of demonstrating the sort of ‘higher than thou’ impartiality Mark Thompson claims for actions that amount to inaction. Would he want an ambulance crew to pause and discuss ethics at the scene of a vicious assault had his child been injured?

By refusing the appeal, at the same time as not accepting responsibility for the consequences, he shows himself unqualified to make the decision. Rather than demonstrating the impartiality he claims, he has attracted the greatest number of accusations of partiality in the entire history of the BBC. Licence payers have rightly judged him on the inevitable consequences for Gaza, which they view as evidence of partiality. There would have been no effects on Israel either way.

High-minded pronouncements need high-minded people. Cowards cannot make them. Upon taking his decision Mark Thompson became responsible for the outcome. If that results in more deaths then Mark Thompson becomes responsible for those deaths. He cannot wash his hands of them.

Decision-making of this order requires all consequences to be taken into consideration. In fact, the only way to act impartially in these circumstances is not to worry whether one party or the other will perceive your actions as partial. That is the real definition of impartiality. Not only has Thompson succeeded in showing an inability to understand the concept, but also a total lack of true leadership. Where the wisdom of King Solomon was needed we got the disinterest of Pontius Pilate.

What Mark Thompson is really talking about is trying to appear impartial, not actually being impartial. He has prejudged how his acts will be perceived, and got it completely wrong. A braver man would admit his error of judgement and reverse the decision. A braver man would resign in the face of such overwhelming criticism. Mark Thompson is not such a man.

Impartial or not, there is no doubt his decision is immoral.


This was my own letter to Mark Thompson dated 27 January 2009:


One cannot possibly take your protestations of impartiality seriously, especially taking the previous DEC appeal for Kosovo into consideration.

The 'fundamental reason' according to your own words is that "
Gaza remains a major ongoing news story, in which humanitarian issues...are both at the heart of the story and contentious". You continue: "we concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal...without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story. Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations."

I have news for you Mr. Thompson. You have, by this action, done exactly what you professed not to. You have seriously reduced public confidence in the BBC impartiality and more specifically in the Director General's own impartiality.

Look what happens when we compare your words on Gaza and previous appeals with the previous Kosovo appeal. If we look at the BBC report on that appeal we find that on the day the BBC article was written 06 April 1999,
Kosovo was still THE major ongoing news story. In fact, if we look to the right of the article on the appeal we can see links to other articles which confirm that while the BBC aired the appeal, NATO was in the middle of bombing, in fact, it was according to NATO the "Heaviest bombings yet "!

We also find that humanitarian issues were at the very heart of the story and contentious! In fact, they were what Blair claimed were the reasons for NATO bombing Serbia...Indeed the night before
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began Operation Allied Force - the NATO blitz on Serbia - Tony Blair declared ""We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe." (Blair: 'We must act - to save thousands of innocent men, women and children,' The Guardian, March 23, 1999). The day of the Blitz President Clinton explained to the American people that the NATO air campaign was intended to avoid "an even crueler and costlier war"; "to prevent a wider war in Europe"; and to "seriously damage the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo": Describing the Serbian Army's assault, he stated: "This is not war in the traditional sense. It is an attack by tanks and artillery on a largely defenseless people...Our mission is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's purpose so that the Serbian leaders understand the imperative of reversing course; to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo and, if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo. In short, if President Milosevic will not make peace, we will limit his ability to make war."
(President Bill Clinton, address to the nation, Washington, D.C., March 24, 1999)

Contentious, as unlike Israel's 'right to defend itself from Hamas attacks', no mention was made of Serbia's right to defend its ethnic population from attacks by the KLA, described by President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, as, "without any questions, a terrorist group.". Indeed George Robertson, then UK Defence Secretary and later NATO Secretary General, stated before the House of Commons that until mid-January 1999, "the Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA] was responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than the Serbian authorities had been". (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, p.56) Hardly, the same case in Gaza...

The appeal itself was read by the BBC's own Jill Dando, who I had the fortune to meet and work with here in Spain during the filming of a Holiday programme. With the Gaza appeal, DEC are only asking for airtime.

The images used? The same as those the BBC was using in its news programmes, and which it did with the objective of encouraging public donations.

So what's going on Mr. Thompson? This is clearly a blatant example of double standards.

You see I for one, have lost completely and utterly any confidence in you personally, and in your ability to lead an independent and impartial BBC. This was exacerbated when I read about your 2005 visit to Jerusalem and your meeting with the war criminal Ariel Sharon in The Independent. According to the Independent your visit was not published in the UK, and was "seized upon in Israel as evidence that Thompson, who took office in 2004, intends to build bridges with the country's political class."

The article continued:

"Sources at the Beeb also suspect that it heralds a "softening" to the corporation's unofficial editorial line on the Middle East."This was the first visit of its kind by any serving director general, so it's clearly a significant development," I'm told."Not many people know this, but Mark is actually a deeply religious man. He's a Catholic, but his wife is Jewish, and he has a far greater regard for the Israeli cause than some of his predecessors."Understandably, an official BBC spokesman was anxious to downplay talk of an exclusively pro-Israeli charm offensive."

When someone in your position takes actions that can be construed as for personal ambitions or reasons its time for you to do the honourable thing and fall on your sword. Resign now!

Yours in disgust

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