The BBC: Liberal sacred cow no. 1


In contemporary Britain the ideology of liberal democracy reigns supreme.  This encompasses many liberal myths such as a basic belief in the neutrality of the state, in the benign nature of government and a pluralistic view of the distribution of power in society.  However, there is no bigger liberal sacred cow than the BBC.

 

While laughing at the American news media, many people, including many on the left, reverentially hold the BBC up as a shining light of independence and integrity in the dirty world of journalism.  If the American news is subservient, bombastic and partisan the BBC must be questioning, balanced and neutral, right?

 

In reality the BBC has a long history of support for, and subservience to, state power, starting almost from its own inception with Lord Reiths collusion with the Government during the 1926 General Strike. 

 

Taking the invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq as an example, we can see little has changed.

 

Greg Dyke, Reiths successor at the time, wrote to Tony Blair in March 2003 to defend the BBC from government criticism arguing Dyke argued in its defence that he had "set up a committee which…. insisted that we had to find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on."  The same committee, "when faced with a massive bias against the war among phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through.  All this", wrote Dyke, "was done in an attempt to ensure our coverage was balanced."[1]  Dyke then admits to deliberately manipulating audiences and phone-ins to create an impression of ‘balance’ that in reality never existed. This truly is Alice in Wonderland stuff.

 

More recently, the internet media watchdog Media Lens challenged the BBC to justify its claim that British and American forces "came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights".  Clearly unaware of Eduardo Galeanos dictum that "in general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions, but to disguise them",[2]  Helen Boaden, the BBC’s Director of News, replied that this "analysis of the underlying motivation of the coalition is borne out by many speeches and remarks made by both Mr Bush and Mr Blair."[3]  Presumably, had Boaden been working as a journalist in Germany in 1939, she would have taken at face value Adolf Hitlers justification for invading Czechoslovakia:  "We have no interest in oppressing other people. We are not moved by hatred against any other nation… The Czech maintenance of a tremendous military arsenal can only be regarded as a focus of danger. We have displayed a truly unexampled patience, but I am no longer willing to remain inactive while this madman ill-treats millions of human beings."[4]

 

Inspired by Media Lens I wrote to my local BBC television news after a story referred to British troops on leave from "peacekeeping duties" in Iraq.  I noted this was "a very odd way to describe an occupation of another nation, after an illegal (as explained by the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan) war of aggression… Were German troops on ‘peacekeeping duties’ in France between 1940 and 1944?"  The Editor of BBC Look East replied, "We called the forces ‘peacekeeping forces’ because that is their official title, bestowed on them by our elected government."[5]

 

Am I the only person who is horrified by the fact a person can reach the upper echelons of this agenda-setting organisation with so little intellectual independence?  Alas, this naïve, herd-like mentality is all too common among the Corporations journalists and is broadly confirmed by two studies concerning television news coverage of Iraq.

 

A 2003 study carried out by Cardiff Universitys School of Journalism regarding the way the four main UK broadcasters reported the invasion of Iraq concluded, "The BBC emerges as generally more respectful and sympathetic towards the government than other broadcasters."[6]  11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters.  Furthermore the BBC was least likely to use independent sources such as the Red Cross, to focus on Iraqi casualties and to report Iraqi unhappiness about the invasion.[7]

 

A second survey conducted by Media Tenor for Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper found that, of broadcasters in five countries, the BBC featured the lowest level of dissent of all, even lower than ABC news in the United States.[8]

 

The stakes could not be higher.  The journalist George Monbiot noted, "The falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job."[9]  BBC journalists, for the most part sitting in comfortable offices in Britain, need to realise people – about 655,000 Iraqi people according to the Lancet medical journal – pay with their lives for the poor quality of the journalism they practice.

 

In May 2004 the New York Times and the Washington Post both printed belated apologies for their coverage of the build up to the Iraq war, with the former noting "we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been… Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged – or failed to emerge."[10]

 

Perhaps, with all the evidence collected above, it is time the BBC did the same?

 

 *This article originally appeared in the Morning Star

 

 



[1]  ‘Dykes letter to Blair’, BBC News, 1 February 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3448797.stm

[2]  Eduardo Galeano, The Machine, Znet, 27 April 2002, http://www.zmag.org/content/TerrorWar/galeano-machine.cfm   

[3]  ‘Bambi journalism – the art of professional naivety’, Media Lens, 9 January 2006, http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060109_bambi_journalism.php

[4]  Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, April 2003 http://www.swt.org/share/ancientciv.htm)

[5] Email to author, 23 December 2004, http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1111

[6] ‘Was the BBC really biased against the war?’, http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/newsevents.5309.html

[7] Matt Wells, ‘Study deals a blow to claims of anti-war bias in BBC news’, Guardian (Media), 4 July 2003, http://politics.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,4705454-110779,00.html

[8] David Miller, ‘The anti-war movement accuses the BBC of having had a pro war bias; the government says it was too Baghdad friendly. So who is right?’, Guardian, 22 April 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,4652312-103674,00.html

[9] George Monbiot, ‘Our lies led us into war’, Guardian, 20 July 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1264809,00.html

[10] ‘From the editors’, New York Times, 26 May 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/international/middleeast/26FTE_NOTE.html?ei=5007&en=94c17fcffad92ca9&ex=1400990400&partner=USERLAND&pagewanted=print&position=.  ‘Leading US daily admits underplaying stories critical of White House push for Iraq war’, Common Dreams, 12 August 2004, http://www.commondreams.org 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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