Welcome to the BBC, where the Thought Police are alive and kicking
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain recently issued a press release following the BBC’s rejection of Caryl Churchill’s 'Seven Jewish Children', a play criticising Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Radio 4’s Commissioning Editor for Drama, Jeremy Howe, said that although he thought the play was a “brilliant piece” the BBC could not broadcast the play “on the grounds of impartiality”. Howe went onto to say, “It would be nearly impossible to run a drama that counters Caryl Churchill’s view.”
Somebody should have told Jeremy to break the pills in two. It’s utter lunacy that a commissioning editor for drama would read a piece of drama that he considers a “brilliant piece” and subsequently reject it on the grounds that he would need to find another piece of drama to offer a counter argument to justify the commission? Huh? Exactly what planet do I send my license fee to? How rare must it be for a drama commissioning editor to discover a piece of drama they actually deem to be brilliant? And to then not commission it? It’s a decision that makes no artistic sense whatsoever. Exactly what kind of play is Radio 4 looking for, if not brilliant?
One year ago, Jeffery himself answered that: "At its best Radio 4 is challenging, curious and mischievous. And is content rich. [Radio 4 are looking for] a good story told in a fresh and original way. It is that simple. Good dialogue is pretty crucial. Because it is a single it has to stand out, it has to grab us.” Right. So there’s your BBC submitting guidelines: aim for all the above but just make sure it’s not brilliant. Oh, and also don’t make it controversial and also not anything likely to upset the government, please.
As worrying as this blatant censorship is, unfortunately it comes as no surprise when you consider the BBC’s shocking refusal, in January 2009, to broadcast a charity plea for Gaza by the Disasters Emergency Committee on similar grounds. The decision on its own was abhorrent, but for them to cite impartiality as a motive is ridiculous. Impartiality to what, exactly? The charity DEC cited that “at least 412 Children have been killed and 1,855 injured” and wanted to broadcast an urgent plea in a desperate attempt to slow, and ultimately halt, the continuing deaths of more children in Gaza. Unfortunately that route of publicity was denied them by decision makers whose motives are founded on the importance of upholding an institution over the less important lives of children.
Is this the same due diligence to impartiality that, following our government’s brutal and illegal assault on Iraq in 2003, saw the BBC’s then Political Editor, Andrew Marr, on the steps of number 10 Downing Street, gleefully telling BBC viewers that Tony Blair had “said they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating, and on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right.” That’s the height of BBC impartiality, is it? With Amnesty and UNICEF having publicly estimated over half a million Iraqis dead, children dying from chronic malnutrition and diarrhoea (one in eight dying before their fifth birthday), a contaminated water supply and crippled energy grid, over four million refugees, and whole regions practically glowing with the promise of cancer as a result of non-stop Allied bombardment with depleted uranium. Yep. Let’s all hear it for BBC impartiality.
The BBC produces an internal free newspaper run by its own staff for its own staff. They're stocked in reception for us all to grab a copy and read what's going on inside our place of work. In the edition published after the blocked Gaza appeal, the letters page was titled “In blocking Gaza appeal we are taking sides” and each letter voiced strong opinion against the decision not to broadcast the charity appeal. BBC producer, Jonathon Renouf, said: “There is a smell of fear about this decision. Fear of controversy, fear of criticism, fear of repercussions. Perhaps this is the true fallout from the Hutton Report, Queengate and Jonathon Ross; an organization so mired in fear that it finds itself able to sacrifice aid to the victims of war for a principle that nobody (outside the BBC higher echelons) seems to believe was at stake.”
If that is the case, which it increasingly looks to be, it would suggest some tough times ahead for those writers hoping to push boundaries and inspire change. Not quite so tough, though, as the future of those children denied a chance by a public service broadcaster whose primary motivation is a commitment to a hypocrisy that assumes God-like precedence over a child’s suffering and survival.