The BBC, Afghanistan and the limits of acceptable criticism

In his book Web of Deceit: Britains Real Role in the World, historian Mark Curtis notes the ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britains basic benevolence. Criticism of foreign policies is possible, but within narrow limits which show exceptions to, or mistakes in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.


Curtiss incisive critique was perfectly illustrated by the special schools edition of the BBCs Question Time aired on 9 July. Was Nick Clegg right to say that soldiers lives were being thrown away in Afghanistan?, asked an audience member, referring to the Liberal Democrats Leaders public criticism of the wars progress, accurately headlined on the BBC News website as Clegg queries Afghanistan tactics.


First up on the panel was the Liberal Democrats Housing Minister Sarah Teather, who argued that if we are going to send people in to battle we have to make sure they are properly equipped. Pressed by chair David Dimbleby on whether the Liberal Democrats supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, Teather replied If that is what soldiers are saying then I think we have to respond to that. Representing the Government, Health Minister Andy Burnham trotted out the usual line about British troops fighting to keep terrorism off the streets in this country. The shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt spoke next, pointing out that no one is disagreeing about the need to be in Afghanistan before going on to argue that what the troops need is helicopters. Shami Chakrabati of Liberty simply repeated Teathers earlier argument (you do not put people in harms way without giving them adequate equipment) while Suzanne Burlton, an 18-year old on her way to Cambridge university who won a competition to appear on the panel, said now we are in… we have to do it properly.


Supposedly chosen by the BBC to engender debate and discussion, the panel exhibited a distressing level of intellectual conformity on Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, this incredibly narrow range of debate is mirrored in the mainstream media. The Independent on Sunday – supposedly the countrys most progressive broadsheet – recently argued Britains aim of instituting a stable democracy in Afghanistan can not be achieved by forcing our troops to fight with both hands tied behind their backs.


In contrast to what could be termed the fight the war better school of criticism, the Morning Star surely hit the nail on the head by pointing out that criticism of the standard of military equipment used by British troops serves as propaganda in support of ever greater involvement and increased troop numbers there.


And how the propaganda has been flowing these last couple of weeks, with Government ministers, military leaders and journalists all lining up to tell us how the war can be fought better. However, despite this deluge of establishment bullshit, the majority of the general public still oppose the British occupation, with a Guardian/BBC Newsnight poll finding 56% of respondents wanted British troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, while an ITN poll found 59% backing withdrawal.


Since the 9 July edition of Question Time, the debate on Afghanistan has moved on. To what? Well on 16 July the main story on the BBCs website was titled Troops at risk over helicopters, while the next day the BBCs Today Programme interviewed the outgoing Chief of Defence Staff Sir General Richard Dannatt, who stated the Army needed more boots on the ground in Helmand province.


Two criticisms immediately come to mind. Firstly, Britain has the fourth largest military budget in the world, having splashed out $65.3 billion US dollars last year. Compared to whom are the British forces in Afghanistan under equipped? Certainly not the people they are fighting in Afghanistan, who have no armoured vehicles, no planes, no helicopters, no drones and no body armour. With the Guardian reporting last year that the Taliban were fighting with “soviet era“ weapons and complaining they do not have enough ammunition one can only imagine the outrage amongst their families and supporters about how poorly equipped they are. Secondly, Dannatts request for additional troops runs counter to the wishes of Afghans themselves, with a February 2009 BBC/ABC/ARB poll finding 44 percent of Afghans wanting the number of US/NATO forces decreased, with only 18 percent wanting the number increased..


Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation, the BBCs Newsnight editor, Peter Horrocks, told staff in 1997. The problem with this kind of thinking is that, like Jeremy Hunts contemptuous statement above, it completely ignores the majority of the population who are questioning the very foundations of the Governments policy, rather than making ineffective criticisms of its implementation. As Dannatt noted in his Today Programme interview: In a democracy there will be many points of view – otherwise we live in a dictatorship. 


*An edited version of this article recently appeared in the Morning Star.


Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected]


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