On April 17, we published our Media Alert, ‘The BBC’s Gavin Esler Interviews US Undersecretary Of State Nicholas Burns’ ()
We noted how Esler had completely failed to challenge Burns on the catastrophe afflicting Iraq, despite damning reports just published by the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the desperate plight of the civilian population. On April 24, Newsnight’s editor, Peter Barron, responded as follows:
Thanks for your note of 13 April concerning Gavin Esler’s interview with Nicholas Burns.
I’m sorry you were unhappy with the way the interview was conducted. In particular that you felt Gavin failed to challenge Nicholas Burns. Having watched the entire
On this occasion we picked up on Mr Bolton’s points and challenged Mr Burns from that perspective. That does not mean that the BBC shares Mr Bolton’s views or – as you suggest – that we are preparing the ground for attacking
One point I would concede is that the way the interview was recorded did perhaps leave the impression that the questions were served up. The interview was conducted earlier in the day because it was impossible to arrange a live link from Mr Burns’ location. In that situation, where the questions are recorded in the studio later, it is more difficult to conduct an interview with natural interruptions and interjections.
As for repeating a claim such “this is the Iraqis’ fight” such claims are always attributed to those who make them and not to the BBC. We are always very careful to make sure all claims made on air are carefully attributed to those who make them. The BBC does not make this sort of claim.
Q2. But do you worry that it is however demoralizing, 4 years after the invasion of Iraq and after several weeks of the so called ‘surge’ in US troops, more Iraqi troops are on the street and so on ….that you cannot guarantee the safety of people in what’s suppose to be the safest part of the country ?
Q3. Can I turn now to
Q 4. John Bolton, your former colleague, the ex-US Ambassador at the United Nations, want you to go further though, he said you should move towards regime change in
Q5 . But with the Iranians boasting this week of industrial scale uranium enrichment John Bolton’s point is that they’re stringing the Europeans along, there’s no point in continuing a dialogue with them if you’re not prepared to do something ?
Q6. How concerned are you by the apparently rather easy way in which the Iranians were able to kidnap British sailors at gun point, do you think something serious has gone wrong here ?
Q7. But you know some people here think it has been a propaganda victory for the Iranians because of the way it has been handled by the British Government ?
We’re grateful for Peter Barron’s response. We are also, frankly, surprised. In our experience, Barron is one of the more reasonable and responsible mainstream editors we have encountered. This is not saying much, of course, but the fact remains that he does take the trouble to respond to challenges – many editors do not – and he has allowed us to state our case on the Newsnight website:. We were therefore surprised to receive this irrational brush off. We wrote to Barron on April 24 asking if he in fact did write the email – it has the whiff of a bureaucratic BBC response about it – but he has so far not replied.
Barron writes of the questions put by Gavin Esler to Nicholas Burns: “each one challenges Mr Burns’ and
“On this occasion we picked up on Mr Bolton’s points and challenged Mr Burns from that perspective.”
One might almost think this was intended humorously. Imagine if Esler had been interviewing one of the most senior members of the Soviet politburo during the invasion of
With hundreds of thousands lying dead in Afghanistan, can we conceive of a BBC journalist uncritically putting to a senior Soviet politician that the same warmonger responsible was calling for the same military sledgehammer to “move towards regime change” in a neighbouring country? Would the concern, again, be the right-wing Soviet suggestion that the possible neighbouring target had recently scored a “propaganda victory” over the military goliath devastating
“It is surely right to challenge politicians from a range of angles over time, and surely impractical to do so within the same interview.”
Of course it is. And of course it doesn’t happen. Politicians working for the ‘official enemy’ are regularly subjected to fierce critical challenge, but ‘our’ politicians – frequently referred to by Newsnight journalists as ‘us’, ‘we’ – are rarely challenged from a robustly critical perspective.
When have leading US and UK politicians been challenged by the BBC from a ‘left’ perspective – for example, on the basis that their governments have a 60-year post-war track record of subordinating human rights, independent nationalism and democracy in the Third World to power and profit? When has evidence been presented to these politicians of the central role Western corporate greed for natural resources, including oil, has played in determining US-UK policy? If these suggestions are deemed outrageous, are they more outrageous than anything
Barron concedes that the questions were “served up”; the problem being that “where the questions are recorded in the studio later, it is more difficult to conduct an interview with natural interruptions and interjections”. But that is not at all what we had in mind. We meant that the questions were served up like tennis balls lobbed to just the right height for Burns to smash them away for winners: “How far is the
Or consider the suggestion: “you should move towards regime change in
“How concerned are you by the apparently rather easy way in which the Iranians were able to kidnap British sailors at gun point, do you think something serious has gone wrong here?” Again, the focus is on the new ‘bad guy’ on the chopping block. Newsnight could not have given the Bush administration easier opportunities to push their propaganda.
Gavin Esler Interviews John Bolton
In response to our Media Alert, a substantial number of emails were sent to Gavin Esler and the Newsnight team. Despite Peter Barron’s casual dismissal, it seems likely that these emails had an impact.
On April 24, Esler interviewed John Bolton (
But the fact remains that
Media corporations are of course authoritarian hierarchies. But they are run by human beings. Moreover, these human beings may often be well-intentioned. It is important to remember that elite journalists are the product of privileged cosseting, of elite public school and Oxbridge education – their world view is the result of socialisation, education, training, and unconscious compromise. In other words, elite journalists are not generally liars or conspirators – they are not monsters.
To send polite criticism based on rational arguments, credible evidence, and sincere concern for human suffering, is to powerfully challenge this social conditioning. We all like to see ourselves as reasonable, rational, compassionate people – or at least we all recognise that these are valuable human qualities. In the face of the awesome suffering in
Anger and hatred prevent us from recognising this reality – we will likely perceive journalists as cynical bad guys, as liars and monsters. Then, our indulgent emails will be focused mainly on venting our anger, on punishment, so triggering instant rejection – delete buttons will be hit and nothing will have changed.
As ever, the crucial factor for anyone hoping for progressive change is motivation. A compassionate motivation has a power which, while perhaps not immediately discernible, can manifest in unexpected and potent ways.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Newsnight editor Peter Barron
Write to Helen Boaden, head of BBC news
Please send a copy of your emails to us
Please do NOT reply to the email address from which this media alert originated. Please instead email us
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