Don't let a timid BBC hold up charity campaigning

Doing the right thing means taking a stand, says columnist Simon Hebditch

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

The BBC's gross misjudgement over the Disasters Emergency Committee television appeal on behalf of the people of Gaza has thrown up a series of wider issues about impartiality and political campaigning. The first thing to say is that the DEC, and the charities that are involved in this consortium, are simply concerned with responding to the undoubted suffering of thousands living in Gaza.

They are not taking sides between Israel and Hamas - rather, they are reacting as humanitarians when it is clear that immediate action is necessary to sustain life and limb in a disaster area. None of us can be unaware of the carnage of the past few weeks. It is absolutely right that charities respond by providing aid and asking the general public in this country to contribute what money they can afford.

Of course, we may all, as individuals, have our own strong views about the military action that has occurred during the past few weeks. We may also, as individuals, work with and support campaigns designed to halt aggression and seek to help solve the long-running sore of the Middle Eastern conflict. The BBC was crass in claiming that its much-vaunted impartiality would be under threat if it allowed the DEC to appeal for support.

But this whole dispute throws into sharp relief once more the whole issue of political campaigning and charitable status. Some household names in the charity world, such as Oxfam, have got into trouble in recent years for expressing their views on apartheid in South Africa and the actions of the old Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Closer to home, there have been times when charities engaged in campaigning for political reforms that would help to eradicate poverty faced similar difficulties.

Many people also seem to think that charities are not permitted to campaign, full stop. This is not so. Charities can argue for changes in policy and practice by producing clear evidence for their views and by lobbying politicians centrally or at local levels. But for such activity to be a 'charitable purpose', charities cannot simply assert their beliefs. They must illustrate their experience - and, most importantly, the experiences of their beneficiaries - in making their case.

The BBC may be too nervous to do the right thing. Such timidity must not neuter the charity world.

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