Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Looks good, smells a bit funny

I was struggling to follow Paulie's position on MPs expenses; like Mr E I didn't see the harm in accounting for money spent, or in scrutinising that expenditure. Nor, to be honest, did I see how this scrutiny was a barrier to MPs doing their jobs.

I begin to see his point, though, with the BBC's decision not to broadcast the DEC appeal. Although most of the scrutiny to which the Beeb is subjected tends to be on somewhat more frivolous grounds, there's no denying it's been picked up before for displaying pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel bias (even in internal reports, apparently). Now it has declined to air the DEC appeal in order to "avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story". There's no question about the merits of the appeal - the Beeb isn't disputing that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, or that the DEC really is trying to alleviate it. The concern that broadcasting the appeal will look partial.

This concern smacks of Mark Twain's cat on the cold stove lid. The BBC's failings of impartiality involved use of language, editorial focus and choice of sources. They didn't involve broadcasting (presumably accurate) charity appeals. But having been criticised in the past, the Beeb is drawing its head in now. The rights and wrongs of the current situation are less important than maintaining (or improving) a reputation. Their solution is to play safe, and avoid more criticism, whether justified or not. And it's a particularly crude solution. If the fear was that devoting however much screen time to images of Palestinian victims would offer a simplistic and biased view of a complex situation, the BBC is uniquely blessed with the opportunity to devote as many minutes of screen time as it needs to presenting a more balanced and nuanced perspective, or to "cancel out" the impression of Palestinian suffering with a documentary on life in an Israeli town under constant rocket attack.

Admittedly that's an approach that involves judgement, and engagement, and runs the risk of further criticism. Whereas not running the appeal is a public show of striving to avoid bias. This I think is what Paulie was aiming at when he talked of "squeaky clean purveyors of public cant". If your principal concern is to look good, rather than do your job, then you're not going to serve the public interest.

Still don't object to seeing MPs expenses though.

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