BBC news coverage is balanced, objective and fair. At least, that is what the BBC continually tells its viewers and listeners. In particular, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been, and is being, properly reported. That’s the message the British and, indeed, global public is supposed to accept. In reality, the BBC, and all mainstream news outlets, have failed in their public duty to hold power to account. Worse than that, they effectively acted as campaign managers for an illegal and immoral war; itself, merely the latest in a long list of murderous foreign ‘interventions’. The BBC holds a particularly heavy responsibility both for its public source of funding and its largely undeserved worldwide reputation for rigour, accuracy and fairness. All of this is unmentionable in ‘respectable’ circles.
Public complaints about BBC performance are handled by — the BBC. Moreover, we are supposed to be satisfied with the occasional tossed scrap of carefully managed public ‘feedback’ and ‘consultation’, such as the BBC’s recently instigated whitewashing ‘Newswatch’ service (http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/default.stm). Newswatch may well be a response to the flood of emails, many seen by Media Lens, being directed at Helen Boaden, the new BBC director of news, and senior BBC editors about the BBC’s biased coverage of Iraq.
Boaden’s predecessor, Richard Sambrook, who was in place while the BBC performed its traditional role of managing public opinion on behalf of a British government preparing for war, has moved on to another high-ranking position as head of the BBC’s World Service. He appears unrepentant about the failure of BBC news during his tenure to challenge, far less expose, the countless government deceptions on Iraq. Indeed, as a recent speech he gave at Columbia University makes clear, he remains proud of the BBC’s record in news reporting.
So, I sent the following to Sambrook on 9th November, 2004:
I read the text of your recent speech at Columbia University on the topic of objectivity. You said that:
“The mindset of the country [in 2003] was that it was at war. Our natural instinct is to support our country. But the responsibility of the news media is to ask the difficult questions, to press, to verify. And we now know that all of us failed to ask the right questions about WMD in advance of the war.” (Richard Sambrook, “Holding on to Objectivity”, annual Poliak lecture, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/events/poliak/sambrook.asp)
“All of us”? Well, yes, certainly amongst mainstream news media. But you were hardly unaware of the “right questions”, as you surely recall from numerous exchanges with Media Lens well before Iraq was invaded.
* You were asked repeatedly in the months leading up to March 2003, why BBC news did not adopt a more sceptical view of government propaganda about WMD. You were told, or perhaps reminded, about the million or more Iraqis that had died under “genocidal” UN sanctions (quoting Denis Halliday). This was a cruel policy that was maintained largely at the behest of Washington and London – who spun deceptive propaganda, faithfully relayed by the BBC, which attempted to deny their own complicity in those deaths.
* You were told on numerous occasions that standard US/UK government propaganda was being deployed to obscure the fact that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed of no less than 90-95% of its WMD by the time inspectors were withdrawn in December 1998.
* We repeatedly asked you why knowledgeable commentators on Iraq – such as Scott Ritter, Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Milan Rai and Glen Rangwala – were either essentially ignored by BBC news or banished to the margins.
* You may feel that at least the BBC was no less critical than other major news broadcasters. But, alas, even that isn’t true, as Professor Justin Lewis (Cardiff) and Media Tenor (Bonn) have shown.
Many Media Lens readers wrote to you in the autumn of 2002 (and at other times), challenging the BBC to be more questioning of the Bush and Blair agenda, before they dragged us into war. You responded to one such reader on September 5, 2002:
“Our role as impartial journalists is to examine all the points put forward based on what information we know, or are able to acquire in future, including briefings and news conferences from the UK and US Governments, the UN and others […] It is also important to understand that the Government, through its intelligence network and channels of international diplomacy, is privy to much more information about Iraq than we are.”
How ironic +that+ comment appears now, post-Hutton and post-Butler [two inquiries with tightly-constrained terms of reference which were conducted by government-appointed judges after the invasion of Iraq]. But even at the time, it was a clear admission that, despite credible evidence already then available which undermined Blair and Bush’s pronouncements and dubious dossiers, you were tilting towards the government’s deceptive line. This was far from being fair, balanced or objective and was a breach of the BBC’s own producers’ guidelines.
On 18 December 2002, Media Lens editors David Edwards and I wrote to you. The final paragraph read:
“We believe you are being used to channel propaganda to generate public support for a cynical war against Iraq. It is the job of free and honest journalists to +challenge+ crude attempts to manipulate the public, not merely to pass them on without comment. Your responsibility to the British public and to the people of Iraq is clear. Please consider the moral gravity and responsibility of your position.”
Today, in Fallujah and elsewhere, we can see the outcome of the deep failure of the news media to do its job. The responsibility borne by the BBC, as the UK’s public interest and publicly funded broadcaster, is particularly heavy.
I would be pleased to hear your comments in response to the above, please.
best wishes, David Cromwell
Richard Sambrook has never replied. Does his silence indicate shame, contempt or indifference? Only the BBC’s former director of news can answer that one.
David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens (http://www.medialens.org). He is also co-founder of the Crisis Forum (http://www.crisis-forum.org.uk).