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2011

BBC Bombast – Propaganda, Complaints And Black Holes of Silence

On the BBC television news, the pulsing theme tune sets the tone: the world is a serious place and we, the BBC, are here to give it to you straight. The computer-animated intro, featuring the Earth encompassed by transmitted signals, together with the high-tech news studio, proclaims impeccable credentials. The newscaster – Huw Edwards, Fiona Bruce, perhaps Emily Maitlis or Nick Owen – looks directly into the camera with the requisite degree of gravitas. The message is clear: ‘You can trust us. We have no agenda. This is the BBC. This is The News.'

The dramatic packaging allows propaganda to slip through in digestible chunks. And it is a diet that, like the soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, promotes mass adherence to state ideology. We are fed myths that our governments are essentially well-intentioned; that powerful investors, banks and corporations promote ‘free trade’ and ‘open markets’ while providing responsibly for society’s wants and needs; that prevailing state-corporate policies and practices constitute human ‘progress’; and that, in any case, no serious or credible alternatives exist.

Anyone can spot the propaganda with a modicum of vigilance while watching the news.

For example, take the BBC News at Ten report on June 19 about the deaths of nine Libyans, including two babies, killed in a Nato air raid. The Nato killings were presented in the headlines as what the Libyan government ‘says’ happened. In his piece, Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen repeated the party line: ‘Nato’s mandate is to protect civilians.’

Three days later, Bowen reported the brutal consequences of yet another Nato air attack, with fifteen dead including at least three children and two women.

Over footage of the bombed house, Bowen said:

'It [Nato] says close monitoring showed it was a command centre. The family say it was their home.'

Then Bowen continued with the following astonishing remarks:

'Was a decision taken that killing civilians here would save others elsewhere?'

And:

‘The deaths here raise the moral question at the heart of the Nato mission in Libya. Its mandate is to protect civilians. So is it ever justifiable to kill them?’

Imagine a BBC correspondent asking of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban: ‘Was a decision taken that killing civilians here would save lives elsewhere?’ It simply would not happen.

When Bowen was challenged by a Media Lens reader, the BBC editor replied:

‘It's always worth pondering moral issues.’ (June 23, 2011)

But the moral ‘pondering’ is from the perspective of one side only: the one armed with the most powerful, state-of-the-art weaponry invading yet another country that is opposing Western interests. The BBC News audience is clearly expected to identify with Nato. After all, these are ‘our’ forces out there ‘protecting civilians’. But not only that, we are asked to assume that there is a moral basis to Nato’s killing. Again, just try to imagine the same ‘pondering’ by a BBC correspondent from the perspective of officially-decreed enemies.

 

Britain Is ‘In Love With Obama’

It is not only when death is being inflicted by Western firepower that the BBC can be expected to conform to state doctrine. It applies most definitely to events of state pomp and ceremony: royal weddings, Trooping the Colour, Armed Forces Day, anniversaries of D-Day, and on and on. Indeed, the BBC distinguishes itself by setting its 'patriotism' volume control to eleven on such occasions.

Reporting on President Obama’s state visit to the UK, BBC political editor Nick Robinson gushed happily on the News at Ten:

‘There was never any doubt that Britain was in love with Obama.’ (May 25, 2011)

Robinson was seemingly unaware of the slippery step where ‘balanced’ journalism tips over into hagiography.

In fact, many in this country believe that Obama shares ultimate responsibility for numerous war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. We asked Robinson:

‘What gives you the right to sweep aside this section of the British public?’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

He responded:

‘The opinion polls back up my suggestion that Britain - or, at least, a sizeable majority of opinion - is enthusiastic about President Obama.’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

We answered:

‘The recent ComRes/ITV News poll suggests 40% of the British public disagree, or haven’t made up their minds, about Obama being “a good president”. That’s hardly “love”, to quote you.

‘54% agree or don't know that he's "lived up to expectations". Is that “love”?

‘Only 34% think he’s “doing a good job of managing the situation in Afghanistan.” And the same low figure, 34%, on his handling of the Middle East.

‘None of this justifies your gushing assertion:

‘ “There was never any doubt that Britain was in love with Obama.”

‘Perhaps some Britons are indeed “in love with Obama”. This isn’t surprising given that you, and much of the rest of the national media, have swooned over Obama from Day 1. That’s not reporting; it’s propaganda.’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

To give Robinson credit, he did at least respond one more time:

‘Noted!’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

However, his reporting and analysis are unchanged. The BBC's Nick Robinson remains a reliable channel for the mix of official propaganda and platitude that passes for political comment.

 

Propaganda Merchants R Us

Or consider BBC News presenter Emily Maitlis reading out a headline about Yemen:

‘We’ll be looking at the West’s fear [that] a power vacuum could lead to more instability in the country.’ (News at Ten, June 5, 2011)

That was the propaganda version of reporting.

The straight version is that the ‘fear’ shared by Western leaders and corporations is that they will lose control, influence, profits and access to resources. ‘Stability’ is when such conditions are secure. Hence the endless Western military ‘interventions’ in resource-rich regions of the planet. (See here on Yemen).

On Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship news discussion programme, Jeremy Paxman can be relied upon to adhere to an establishment-friendly framework, while snarling in a way that appears challenging:

‘It’s the overwhelming duty of government, of course, to protect the people. But how do we make ourselves safe from those who loathe, more or less, everything this country stands for?' (Newsnight, BBC2, June 6, 2011; our emphasis)

That’s right. It's ‘our’ love of democracy, freedom and human rights that people around the world hate so much; not ‘our’ foreign policies that so regularly see ‘unpeople’ being blown up, maimed, widowed, orphaned and turned into refugees in deference to ‘our’ corporate and strategic interests.

This is the kind of accuracy and impartiality that the BBC constantly strives to broadcast.

Not to be outdone, the agenda-setting Today programme on BBC Radio 4 does its bit, too. So it asks penetrating questions such as:

‘After years reminding its critics that it is the only democracy [sic] in the Middle East surrounded by Arab autocracies, how would Israel cope if the rest of the region suddenly became democratic?’ (Kevin Connolly, ‘Israel’s “cold peace” with Egypt’, May 30, 2011)

BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly reported ‘from Israel on their ambiguous feelings about the Arab Spring.’

To the soothing backdrop of gentle splashing noises, Connolly spoke of how you can sail out into the Red Sea ‘and see how precariously Israel sits between two of its Arab neighbours – Jordan on one shore and Egypt on the other’.

Does this picture sound familiar? Yes, it’s the Zionist propaganda image of plucky little Israel squeezed between dangerous Arab regimes. That set the tone for the piece, with one Palestinian voice briefly included so that the BBC could tick the box marked ‘balance’.

Connolly concluded:

‘There are those in Israel who believe the creative thing to do at this moment of turbulence is to push harder for peace with the Palestinians. It’s much likelier that Israel, always cautious in these matters, will simply become more cautious still.’

The listener needs to swallow the pill that Israel is forever 'cautious'. Not at all a dangerous, expansionary, nuclear-armed state.

BBC presenter Sarah Montague is a serial offender on the Today programme. In an interview with Tony Blair, who was promoting the paperback publication of his self-aggrandising book ‘A Journey’, she asked:

‘And when the Israeli [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu says that the Palestinian Authority needs to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas, what do you say to him?’ (June 9, 2011)

For attentive listeners, the biased presumption was clear: the core issue is that the Palestinians must first renounce violence. Not the cruel imposers of the Gaza siege; not the brutal forces of illegal military occupation, unmentioned in the interview; not the Israelis. The implication of Blair’s response, unchallenged by Montague, was that Israel only responds to Palestinian violence.

This was further evidence of the systematic bias in BBC Newsdemonstrated so powerfully by Greg Philo and Mike Berry in their recent book, More Bad News From Israel. Montague did not respond to our email challenging her Blair interview, even after a gentle nudge two weeks later.

 

Boaden Broadcasts Bombast

‘In each decade, from its inception to the present day, the BBC bears the scars of its entanglements with those in power.’

Those were the remarkable opening words delivered in a grandiose speech by the BBC’s news director Helen Boaden recently. (Value of Journalism Speech given at The BBC College of Journalism and POLIS international conference, June 10, 2011.)

In support of her claim, Boaden cited several examples including prime minister Anthony Eden’s accusation during the Suez crisis in the 1950s of the BBC ‘giving comfort to the enemy.’

And, in the 1990s, ‘[the BBC’s] John Simpson found himself under attack for his supposedly “biased reports” about the impact of NATO bombing on Belgrade.’

There was much that Boaden missed in her partial history of the BBC’s ‘entanglements with those in power’, as we will see below.

‘It is the journalists' job to hold power to account’, she continued, ‘to shine light in dark places.’ 

This is indeed what journalists keep telling themselves. Without a hint of irony, Boaden continued to wax lyrical:

‘To hold power to account – we have to tell the truth as we see it, to the people who need it, independent of government and commercial interests.

‘But we must do so freely and fairly, and in a genuine spirit of inquiry.

‘And if you ask the questions of those in power – you must be prepared to answer them – and to acknowledge your own mistakes.’

Readers may well scratch their heads at this proclaimed BBC willingness to answer questions and acknowledge mistakes. Because the BBC’s own record, documented in ten years of media alerts, displays the very opposite. Boaden tries to pre-empt the public howls of laughter and derision:

‘It's just a fact of life that e-mails mean that, these days, viewers can complain – or even praise us, perhaps! – more easily than they could in the past.

‘It is hard to strike a balance between allowing all-comers to complain and making the process unduly restrictive.

‘It means the system can be preyed on by interest groups, or individuals with an obsessive interest, or those with the time and resources to pursue an agenda of their own.

‘Sometimes, when people complain about a lack of impartiality, they are simply trying to impose their version of the truth on us.

‘It can be difficult for us, or unpleasant.’

Long-time readers may recall that Boaden was so scrupulous about accountability that she changed her email address to evade questions and complaints. Even the former BBC chairman Lord Grade described his experience of complaining to the BBC as ‘grisly’ due to a system he said was ‘absolutely hopeless’. What hope for the rest of us mere mortals?

As individuals with ‘an obsessive interest’ in truthful news reporting, and with the ‘time and resources’ to pursue this demented ‘agenda’, we challenged Boaden as follows (the full version of our email is archived here):

You said that: ‘Our ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have [...]  continued to rise over the last three years.’

But you do not provide any figures to back this up. Could you possibly point to the relevant references, please?

You also said that:

‘In each decade, from its inception to the present day, the BBC bears the scars of its entanglements with those in power.’

However, what followed was as a rather selective and debatable list.

Here is some of what you missed:

The BBC was founded by Lord Reith in 1922 and immediately used as a propaganda weapon for the Baldwin government during the General Strike, when it was known by workers as the "British Falsehood Corporation". During the strike, no representative of organised labour was allowed to be heard on the BBC. Ramsay McDonald, the leader of the opposition, was also banned.

In their highly respected study of the British media, Power Without Responsibility, James Curran and Jean Seaton wrote of ‘the continuous and insidious dependence of the Corporation [the BBC] on the government’. (Routledge, 4th edition, 1991, p.144)

John Pilger has reported:

‘Journalists with a reputation for independence were refused BBC posts because they were not considered “safe”.’ (John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.496)

In 2003, a Cardiff University report found that the BBC ‘displayed the most “pro-war” agenda of any broadcaster’ on the Iraq invasion. Over the three weeks of the initial conflict, 11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters. The BBC was less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent sources, who also tended to be the most sceptical. The BBC also placed least emphasis on Iraqi casualties, which were mentioned in 22% of its stories about the Iraqi people, and it was least likely to report on Iraqi opposition to the invasion.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Andrew Bergin, the press officer for the Stop The War Coalition, told Media Lens:

‘Representatives of the coalition have been invited to appear on every TV channel except the BBC. The BBC have taken a conscious decision to actively exclude Stop the War Coalition people from their programmes, even though everyone knows we are central to organising the massive anti-war movement...’ (Email to Media Lens, March 14, 2003)

In a speech at New York's Columbia University, John Pilger commented:

‘We now know that the BBC and other British media were used by MI6, the secret intelligence service. In what was called “Operation Mass Appeal”, MI6 agents planted stories about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction - such as weapons hidden in his palaces and in secret underground bunkers. All these stories were fake.’ (John Pilger, 'The real first casualty of war,' New Statesman, April 24, 2006)

In truth, the BBC's relationship with the establishment was accurately summarised long ago, in a single diary entry made by Lord Reith:

‘They know they can trust us not to be really impartial.’

I hope you will respond, please.

(Email, June 13, 2011)

 Almost inevitably, the reply was a standard brush-off, sent by someone in the BBC Press Office:

‘As I am sure you will appreciate, Helen receives a very large volume of correspondence so it is not always possible for her to correspond with individuals directly.’ (June 16, 2011)

Chancing our luck, we emailed back:

‘Helen Boaden said:

‘“Our ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have [...]  continued to rise over the last three years.”

‘Could you possibly point me to the relevant surveys, please? Are they available online?’

The Press Office response was friendly enough:

'hi - here you go

'Our scores for trust and impartiality have improved over last three years

1. BBC is independent and impartial - 52% to 56%

2. BBC News is independent - 60% to 64%

3. BBC News is trustworthy - 64% to 67%'

(email, June 24, 2011)

There were no references, no sources.

We tried one more time:

‘Much appreciated – but can you point me to the surveys in full, please? There are no doubt details of how, where and when they were conducted and so on.

‘These details must surely be publicly available in a report?’ (email, June 24, 2011)

The response?

‘It's internal research - the reports aren't published.’ (email, June 24, 2011)

This was truly lamentable. The public is supposed to take on trust the research that the publicly-funded BBC undertakes to prove its supposed independence, impartiality and – trustworthiness!

But the bigger picture is worse. The BBC regularly churns out a diet of pre-digested pabulum that props up power. As Aldous Huxley wrote, these doses of soma dished out to the people construct ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.’ The consequences for humanity of media propaganda have proven calamitous and – as the world slides ever-further into the abyss of catastrophic climate change - could yet be terminal.

 

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. 

Please write to:

Helen Boaden, BBC news director

Email: helenboaden.complaints@bbc.co.uk

Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor

Email: jeremy.bowen@bbc.co.uk 

Nick Robinson, BBC political editor

Email: nick.robinson@bbc.co.uk

Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:

editor@medialens.org

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