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The BBC and the Propaganda model    By Alex Doherty*

 

The BBC occupies a privileged position amongst British and international broadcasters. In times of national and international crisis BBC News is the place the majority of the British public turn to. While commercial broadcasters have successfully challenged the BBC’s dominance in the provision of entertainment, the BBC remains unassailable in the provision of news in times of crisis. Despite much excitement over the plethora of new channels and services available since the advent of multi-channel cable, satellite and digital television, the British public still spend the vast majority of their viewing time watching the five terrestrial channels, in particular BBC 1 and ITV. [1] Furthermore the BBC retains its special status as the broadcaster that most obviously forges a certain national identity and a sense of social cohesion (whether real or imagined). When it comes to national spectacles such as great sporting events or royal occasions, most people when presented with a choice choose to watch on the BBC.

 

In its annual report the BBC cites an ICM poll estimating that 93% of the UK population followed the first two weeks of the Iraq war on the BBC. According to the poll in the first week of the war around 40 million people watched BBC News 24 (the BBC’s 24 hr service launched in 1997 to compete with other 24 hour services such as CNN). The poll also revealed that the BBC is the broadcaster most trusted by the general population. [2]

 

Since its creation in 1922 the BBC has successfully fostered an image of impartiality and objectivity, which has perhaps been a crucial factor in its success. This image is relentlessly promoted by the corporation; its claims succinctly put by former Director- General John Birt when he stated that “the BBC fosters a rumbustious, vigorous and informed democracy. We strain to ensure that all voices are heard, however uncomfortable, that they are given a fair hearing and are tested.” [3]

 

Recently this view has been contested by both the government and by sectors of the press, (predominately the right-wing sector). They have criticised the BBC both over the essentially marginal issue that is the Dr Kelly affair, and for its coverage of the war more generally. The BBC has been accused of being both virulently anti-war and institutionally biased against the government.

 

The owner of the Daily Telegraph, Conrad Black, (or Lord Black of Crossharbour as he now is), in a letter to his own newspaper, accused the BBC of being “pathologically hostile to the government and official opposition,” as well as “most British institutions” and “American policy in almost every field.” He remarked that it should not be the function of the BBC to “assassinate the truth about the Iraq war.” [4]

 

Eoghan Harris, writer and political columnist with the Daily Telegraph and the Irish Sunday Independent made similar accusations:

 

“The BBC current affairs cabal is simply behaving like a political party: the New Labour Left - a party which dislikes both Blairite social democrats and conservatives and which is also consciously acting against the centrist culture of the West to which both Blair and Duncan Smith subscribe…The BBC’s antipathy to the war in Iraq is as palpable as its softness on Sinn Fein.” [5]

 

Leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain wrote in the Independent on Sunday that the BBC had hyped its findings “to ensure the greatest embarrassment [to the government] in the best tradition of the tabloids, rather than a public service broadcaster.” [6] The BBC has even been referred to as the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation” by some of the more hawkish members of the Blair administration. [7]

 

In response the BBC has mounted a vigorous defence of its image, with the backing of some of the press, predominately the quality left-wing broadsheets along with some unexpected Conservative support. The BBC chairman Gavyn Davies strongly denied accusations of bias and claims that the BBC had a vendetta against the government: “The Board reiterates that the BBC’s overall coverage of the war, and the political issues surrounding it, has been entirely impartial… the BBC did not have an agenda in its war coverage, nor does it now have any agenda which questions the integrity of the Prime Minister.” [8]

 

The acceptable public debate voiced in the mainstream media is over the question of whether the BBC is impartial and objective in its reporting, or whether, as the government and the right wing press conjecture, the BBC is anti-war and institutionally biased against the government.

 

Curiously the only systematic studies of the BBC and television coverage of the war support neither position.

 

A study of the four main British broadcasters - BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky - carried out by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies concluded that the BBC had the most pro-government agenda. The study revealed that the BBC was twice as likely to use government sources as ITV and Channel 4, and that the BBC also used more military sources than the other channels. The BBC was less likely to use either Iraqi official sources or independent sources such as aid agencies that were often highly critical of the war. The BBC also appeared to significantly downplay Iraqi casualties: Only 22% of BBC stories concerning the Iraqi people were with regard to Iraqi casualties, compared with figures of 44% and 30% for Channel Four and Sky respectively. The study found that the BBC was more likely to unquestioningly relay false stories from military sources such as the non-existent scud missiles supposedly fired at Kuwait in the early stages of the war and the mythical Basra “uprising”. The study also makes reference to Tony Blair’s claim that British soldiers had been executed by the Iraqi authorities (a claim Downing Street retracted the next day). The BBC relayed that claim but (unlike other broadcasters) not the retraction. [9]

 

A second study was carried out by the Media Tenor group for the German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which looked at broadcasters in five countries. Their findings revealed that the BBC gave less airtime to dissenting views than any other broadcaster with 2% of airtime given over to dissenting views, lower even than the US broadcaster ABC which featured 7%. (US media is typically assumed to be more slavish in its support for US foreign policy than its UK counterpart). [10]

 

It seems then that neither of the positions within the public debate appear to even remotely correspond to reality. As Professor Justin Lewis, deputy head of the school of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, put it when presenting the Cardiff studies findings:

 

“far from revealing an anti-war BBC, our findings tend to give credence to those who criticised the BBC for being too sympathetic to the government in its war coverage. Either way, it is clear that the accusation of BBC anti-war bias fails to stand up to any serious or sustained analysis.” [11]

 

The BBC’s virtual exclusion of dissent is particularly disturbing given the unprecedented level of opposition to the invasion of Iraq, significantly higher than opposition to other conflicts such as the bombing of Yugoslavia or the 1990 Gulf war with at the very least around 40% of the public opposed during the conflict, (figures were somewhat higher both before and after the war). Had someone foolishly tried to gauge popular feeling in the UK from only watching the BBC, they might have been forgiven for assuming that opposition to the invasion was closer to 4% rather than 40. While the lead up to the war witnessed the largest anti-war demonstration in British history, the BBC responded by refusing to interview members of the Stop the War Coalition who had organised the demonstration. Andrew Bergin, the Stop the War Coalition press officer commented that:

 

“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.” [12]  

 

As well as excluding the opposition the BBC appears to have colluded with the government in shaping public opinion in the lead up to the war. The media monitoring group Medialens reported on the 18th of December that the BBC was relaying unsubstantiated government claims of terrorist threats. In a letter to the BBC’s news reporter Margaret Gilmore and Richard Sambrook, the Director of BBC news, the editors of Medialens wrote:

 

“We have noticed a consistent pattern of recent BBC reports...The BBC has passed on almost daily reports of terrorist threats based on government sources. To select a few examples from this month at random: there has been a report that sky marshals may soon be guarding against terror attacks on British planes, a report of possible smallpox vaccinations against the threat of a terrorist attack, of the arrest of a Taliban sympathiser by anti-terrorist police, of North Africans arrested on terrorism charges in Edinburgh and London. Tonight (December 18) you delivered the useful information that intelligence services believe that if al-Qaeda were to carry out an attack in the UK, they would probably go for a ‘soft target’ - large public gatherings - using traditional weapons such as cars packed with explosives, etc.”  [13]

 

According to a former intelligence officer cited by Medialens such relaying of government propaganda was part of a “softening up process” to prepare public opinion for the invasion of Iraq.

 

In another seeming effort to shape public opinion the BBC broadcast a Panorama special entitled ‘Saddam - A Warning From History’ on November 3, 2002, a title curiously similar to an earlier BBC documentary entitled ‘The Nazis - A Warning From History.’  The programme excluded all dissenting voices from its discussion of Hussein and his regime. There was no mention of the fact that according to UNSCOM inspectors Iraq had been 90-95% disarmed of weapons of mass destruction by 1998. There was no recounting of former weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s view of UNSCOM’s success and Iraq’s “evasion of inspections”:

 

“Most of UNSCOM’s finding of Iraqi non - compliance concerned either the inability to verify an Iraqi declaration or peripheral matters such as components and documentation, which by themselves do not constitute a weapon or a program. By December 1998 Iraq had in fact, been disarmed to a level unprecedented in modern history.” [14]

 

While the programme dwelt extensively on Hussein’s catalogue of horrendous crimes throughout the 1980’s there was precious little discussion of enthusiastic western support (both diplomatic, economic and military) for Hussein right through his worst crimes (including the gassing of more than 5000 Kurds at Halabja in 1988) and beyond. Western support for the Ba’athist regime was described by the programme’s narrator John Simpson as follows:

 

“Even by Iraq’s bloody standards, Saddam’s Ba’athists were ferocious, yet when they seized power in 1968 they had the backing of the CIA which thought their nationalism was better than the old government’s communism.” [15]

 

Better for the CIA and the United States government? Or better for the people of Iraq? Simpson neglected to say.

 

Simpson also downplayed the devastation caused by allied forces during the first Gulf war:

 

“The big attack [Operation Desert Storm] didn’t bring the terrible loss of life that Saddam had expected.”

 

Iraqi deaths during the Gulf war are estimated at around a quarter of a million people. By this measure there was no “terrible loss of life” on September 11th 2001, nor during the recent earthquake in Bam.

 

In 1998, following a US manufactured crisis, UNSCOM inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq at the request of the British and American governments to pave the way for the “Desert Fox” bombing of alleged Iraqi weapons sites. In the build up to the invasion of Iraq the BBC seemed to have some difficulty in recounting this simple fact. Medialens reported that the BBC’s Jane Corbin had reiterated the government’s line that weapons inspectors “were thrown out.”[16] In a slight variation the BBC’s James Robbins reported that inspectors were “asked to leave.” More evasively (though somewhat more accurately) John Simpson simply stated in the Panorama special that: “In 1998 the inspectors had to leave.”

 

Following the coalition victory the BBC were ecstatic in their praise for Tony Blair. In a gushing report Andrew Marr the BBC’s political editor declared that: “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger Prime Minister as a result.” [17]

 

In an article in the Guardian on April 22 David Miller rather accurately described the BBC’s reaction to victory:

 

“As Baghdad fell on April 9, BBC reporters could hardly contain themselves in their haste to endorse the victors. This was a “vindication” of the strategy and it showed Blair had been “right” and his critics “wrong”. Here the BBC enunciated a version of events very similar to that of the government. According to the BBC, “dozens” witnessed the statue pulled down by US marines in Baghdad on April 9th, while “thousands” demonstrated against “foreign hegemony” in the same city on the 18th. Yet the footage of the former was described as “extraordinary”, “momentous” and “historic”, while the larger demonstration was greeted with scepticism. “Are they confined to a small vocal minority?” the newscaster asked.”  [18]
 

Curious behaviour for a broadcaster whose hostility to the war was “palpable.”

 

 

The Propaganda Model

 

In their classic study of corporate media Manufacturing consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky outline what they call a propaganda model as an alternative framework for understanding the mass media. The model describes a series of filters through which the raw data of news passes leaving the public with “only the cleansed residue”. As the study only deals with corporate media, several of the filters are inoperative with regard to the BBC - such as advertising, private ownership, and profit orientation (although a somewhat different economic constraint does apply in the BBC’s case.)

 

In their place I would like to tentatively suggest another set of filters, some peculiar to the BBC, which arguably restrict and filter news as well as the filters described in Herman and Chomsky’s model. While few people will have read Manufacturing Consent, many of its conclusions with regard to corporate media are now commonly recognised, (if not fully understood), particularly the distorting effects of advertising and private ownership. However, when it comes to public broadcasters, such as the BBC, there is very little understanding of how they distort and manipulate the facts on a whole range of issues. As mentioned earlier the BBC has successfully fostered an image of objectivity and impartiality which has led to the BBC being considered the most trustworthy of British broadcasters. Without a serious understanding of how the BBC functions the public will remain unusually vulnerable to BBC propaganda.

 

Government appointments: The director general and the board of governors. The first filter:

 

The BBC is regulated by a board of governors, the twelve members of which are appointed by the Queen on “advice” from government ministers, as the BBC puts it,  (“instruction” might be a more accurate term). The board’s brief is to “safeguard [the BBC’s] independence, set its objectives and monitor its performance.” [19]

 

The governors appoint the BBC’s director general and with him the executive committee, made up of the directors of the BBC’s sixteen departmental divisions. The performance of each division is overseen by the government appointed governors. A variety of advisory bodies are consulted by the governors but the board is not obliged to act on any advice it receives. According to the BBC’s website, “BBC governors differ from directors of public companies, whose primary responsibilities are to shareholders and not consumers. BBC governors represent the public interest, notably the interests of viewers and listeners.” [20]

 

It is worthwhile to examine the general character of the board of governors. The twelve current members of the board all are graduates, half of them Oxbridge educated. Four have worked for and have close links to government; for instance the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies was an economic advisor to the 10 Downing Street policy unit and has given sizeable donations to the Labour Party. [21]

 

The Vice-Chairman Lord Ryder of Wensum is a former MP and Government minister, who among other posts served as Political Secretary to Margaret Thatcher. Another governor, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones DCMG, is a career diplomat who served in various diplomatic missions and as the deputy secretary to the Cabinet office before becoming Head of the Defence Secretariat of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Baroness Sarah Hogg served as head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit between 1990 and 1995 and was, as the BBC’s own website puts it: “closely involved in the programmes of privatisation and private finance, performance measurement in public services and international economic issues.” [22]

 

Of the twelve governors six have links to big business. Prior to his appointment as chairman, Gavyn Davies was chief international economist and managing director of Goldman Sachs International, and has a personal fortune estimated at over £150 Million. Sir Robert Smith is Vice Chairman of Deutsche Asset Management and a director and chairman designate of The Weir Group plc. Professor Fabian Monds CBE is a founding partner of Medical and Scientific Computer Services Ltd, and of Western Connect Ltd.

 

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones is the former managing director and head of global business strategy for NatWest Markets and chairman of NatWest Markets France. She then became vice chairman of Hawkpoint Partners Ltd., the corporate advisory arm of NatWest Bank. She is currently the chairman of the Qinetiq group plc and of the Information Assurance Advisory Council.

 

The Cambridge educated Dermot Gleeson is executive chairman of the MJ Gleeson Group plc. He is a former director of the Housing Corporation and a former head of the home affairs section of the Conservative Research Department.

 

Baroness Sarah Hogg is chairman of 3I, Europe’s leading venture capital company, and of Frontier Economics, a consultancy firm specialising in strategy, competition and the economics of regulation. She is also a director of P&O Princess and GKN.

 

For the most part, the members of the board are drawn from a narrow elite sector of society with intimate links to government and big business, unsurprisingly given that the appointments are at the governments discretion. The remaining members of the board appear to be largely apolitical token figures drawn from the arts world and charitable organisations. Given the backgrounds and interests of the board members it is unrealistic to believe that they will encourage the BBC to in any way seriously challenge the interests that they represent.

 

Just as it is unrealistic to suppose that the government would appoint board members who would challenge the government, it is similarly unrealistic to suppose that the governors will appoint adversarial employees. The BBC’s current director-general, appointed by the board of governors, is Greg Dyke. Former director of London Weekend Television Dyke was an open supporter of Margaret Thatcher during the 1980’s, he then made the rather small jump to becoming a New Labour supporter. He is believed to have donated around £50,000 to New labour. [23] The tendency in the BBC, as in all relatively authoritarian hierarchical institutions is for the outlook of the controlling sector (in this case the board of governors) to be replicated throughout the lower tiers of the institution, leading to the employment of individuals who have 'internalised' a certain view of the world and who understand the necessity of staying silent on certain issues. This aspect of propaganda in democratic societies has long been understood; writing with regard to the virtual impossibility of publishing anything negative about the Soviet Union during World War Two, George Orwell (who in sanitised form is the great hero of the liberal press) wrote that:

 

“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.”[24]

 

The politicisation of Board appointments has long been recognised and became glaringly evident in the 1980’s:

 

“If the BBC was to be encouraged to be friendly towards the Government’s project, you needed to be sure of the loyalty of those who ran it. Hence, during the 1980’s, appointments to the BBC’s Board of Governors became increasingly politicised. Qualified but unsympathetic candidates were not appointed, while ill qualified ones were… Hugo Young in his biography of Mrs Thatcher quotes a colleague: ‘Margaret usually asked “Is he one of us?” before approving an appointment.” [25]

 

With the merging political consensus and the effective end of a meaningful two party system that followed the establishment of the New Labour project it can be safely assumed that both parties whether in government or opposition can rest assured that newly appointed board members will always be “one of us”.

 

 

Economic constraints and the licence fee as control mechanism: The Second Filter:

 

The esteem with which the BBC is held is to some extent derived from the fact that it does not carry advertising and is therefore felt to be above commercial pressures, this in turn serves to endow the BBC with a certain “quality” that commercial broadcasters are unable to replicate. The BBC is instead funded by a licence fee paid by viewers themselves, subject to renewal after review every ten years. The licence fee renewal is at the government’s own discretion, giving the government another means of bringing the corporation to heel. An interesting early example of the power granted the government by this mechanism of control is given by James Curran and Jean Seaton in their classic work on the British media ‘Power without responsibility.’ In 1935 the BBC planned a series on the British constitution with a variety of speakers including the communist Harry Pollitt and the fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. The Foreign Office objected on the grounds that “Pollitt could not be allowed to broadcast as he had recently made a speech supporting armed revolution”

 

While being opposed only to the communist Pollitt (and not the fascist Mosley) the Foreign Office recognised that it might be more efficacious to ban the series on the grounds of preventing Mosley from speaking. In the face of the BBC’s obstinate refusal to cancel the program the government turned to the licence fee:

 

“The matter was finally brought to an end when the Postmaster General wrote to Reith [then Managing Director of the BBC] pointing out that as the Corporation licence was due for renewal, it would be wiser to comply with government demands.” [26]

The series was dropped.

 

Governments are not always so explicit but the licence fee threat is always there in the background and indeed most governments have at some point threatened to revoke the licence.  Furthermore the government is at liberty to reduce or freeze the licence fee thereby inflicting dramatic reductions in the BBC’s budget. The BBC responds to these threats and constraints by periodically engaging in radical reform of itself in an effort to protect itself from government intervention. The desire to keep the government on side also leads to a pervasive culture of self-censorship. If the BBC did not behave in this manner it is doubtful whether it would now exist in its present form, as James Curran and Jean Seaton put it:

 

“The Corporation only survived by voluntarily and lavishly doing to itself everything a hostile government wanted.” [27]

 

While relations between the government and the BBC have always been uneasy they declined to perhaps their lowest ebb under the Thatcher administration. The administrations hostility stemmed from its ideological opposition to publicly owned industries, its antipathy to the public service ethos that at times the BBC has fulfilled (though rarely in its news reporting) and from the more totalitarian tendencies of Mrs Thatcher’s government which found the BBC’s level of subservience to be insufficient (tendencies emulated by the Blair government).  The BBC was subjected to a series of drastic reforms leading to the creation of an internal market whereby producers had to buy from competing service providers within the corporation as well as from the commercial sector. The 1990 Broadcasting Act stipulated that the BBC must commission 25% of its programmes from outside the corporation, regardless of whether this was efficient or good for viewers. The BBC often boasts that because it is funded by the licence fee it is insulated from the financial imperatives that the commercial sector is subject to, but in fact the tight control of the corporation and the financial limitations forced upon it by the government has meant that in reality the BBC is driven by the need to keep costs low as much as commercial broadcasters. The desire to protect itself has meant that the BBC has little incentive to challenge the government and the interests it represents.

 

 

Sourcing: The third filter:

 

As described in Manufacturing Consent, the media are predisposed to go to official sources such as governmental and corporate centres. This occurs largely due to the financial constraints that both the BBC and the corporate sector are subject to. The government and other centres of domestic power (corporations, political think tanks etc) are reliable sources of information, they provide briefings, press conferences and leaks; as Herman and Chomsky emphasize it makes sense from a financial point of view to concentrate journalists at the centres where “news” reliably occurs. In this way, the government and other official sources effectively cover some of the costs of news production that might otherwise be born by the broadcasters; a capacity which is not shared by alternative sources of information:

 

“In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become “routine” news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decisions of the gatekeepers.” [28]

 

Secondly the official status of such centres confers upon them a certain prestige that unofficial sources cannot compete with, it is felt by mainstream news organisations that official sources are somehow to be trusted and that information can be passed on safely without the need to check in any great detail (if at all), as we saw earlier in the case of false information passed to the BBC both prior to and during the attack on Iraq.

 

The pressure on the BBC to make savings and to demonstrate its economic viability can only serve to discourage BBC journalists from investigating alternative sources of news and instead to focus intensively on official sources.

 

 

Flak: The fourth filter:

 

As with the sourcing filter, 'flak' is common to both corporate broadcasters and publicly owned media such as the BBC. The term flak refers to critical reactions to the coverage of a particular media institution or media subset, for example the centre left press (Guardian, Independent etc). Flak is produced by sectors of the press, powerful individuals, the government, quasi-governmental institutions, and non-governmental pressure groups. In Manufacturing Consent Herman and Chomsky describe the workings of flak within the US press. The so-called 'liberal' sectors of the US media, most prominently the New York Times, come under a near constant attack from flak producing institutions for their supposed left-wing extremism. In reality the criticism is largely farcical with the liberal media sticking extraordinarily closely to the cross-party consensus. The effect of flak is to sharply delineate the limits of reasonable debate and to de-legitimise views which are considered more extreme than those presented by the liberal media, the logic being that if the liberal media is indeed extremely leftist and hostile to the government then anything more extreme might reasonably be viewed as being literally insane. 

 

As a side benefit the production of flak allows the “left” media to present themselves as adversarial trailblazers committed to challenging the powerful when in fact they rather slavishly follow the cross-party consensus.

 

In the case of the BBC the corporation has been subject to a barrage of criticism from the government and the press for its alleged anti-war bias, [29] criticism that seems difficult to reconcile with the corporation's coverage of Iraq. In an article for the Daily Telegraph entitled “Disinfect the BBC before it poisons a new generation,” Barbara Amiel recommends the effective dissolution of the corporation, arguing that the alleged leftist takeover of the BBC has been so extreme that it needs to be purged of political unreliables:

 

“the hijacking of the BBC by any ideology must end, It is time to clean house. This means a radical purge in order to re-establish the objectivity that is the BBC’s mandate and is practised only in the breach.”  [30]

 

Sadly Amiel doubts the feasibility of such a purge and so suggests some other possibilities; her preferred solutions are to either scrap the licence fee (and presumably privatise the corporation) or (a more novel suggestion) maintain the BBC but scrap its news and current affairs, leaving it to stick to the “intelligent comedy, drama and music that it has always handled well.”

 

Extreme though these suggestions might sound, Amiel reassures us of the gravity of the situation:

 

“those [BBC] departments suffer from a world view that is now infecting a new generation of viewers. Like other nasty viruses, this one requires swift containment.”

 

So grave is the threat from the virus that the Telegraph set up a “Beebwatch” section to monitor the BBC’s performance since it “seems unable to control the political impulses of its journalists, which point with depressing uniformity in a Left-liberal direction.” [31]

 

The Murdoch group were similarly hostile, unsurprising perhaps given Murdoch’s desire to break into terrestrial TV, although thundering editorials from the Times and the Sun neglected to mention this fact. The Telegraph’s Tom Leonard reported that News of the World journalists were ordered to write an editorial attacking the BBC:

 

“Journalists had spent the day working on a piece critical of the Government only to be told late in the afternoon they were now to write one that was sympathetic. Sources on the paper claim the turnaround was ordered “straight from the top”. [32]

 

The evidence offered to support the claims of BBC antiwar bias is extremely selective and presented out of the context of the corporations output as a whole. In an article entitled “It is the BBC’s political agenda that should be investigated” Barbara Amiel had to cite an obscure BBC world service program that was hosting several anti-war speakers as the best evidence to support her argument. [33] Tellingly none of the BBC’s critics (from the right) have cited the findings of Media Tenor or the Cardiff study.

 

It is perhaps an interesting psychological question as to whether commentators such as Amiel believe the analysis that they produce. Maybe they are very consciously distorting the truth, or perhaps they are so rigid in their slavish support for Anglo-American aggression, that in their eyes anything short of total obedience is tantamount to treason; perhaps it is the 2% of dissent aired by the BBC that provokes the fury of Amiel and her kind.

 

Discussing hostile government and press reaction to the BBC’s largely pro-British  coverage of the Falklands war, former assistant Director General of the BBC Alan Protheroe remarked that:

 

“Their ideal for the 9 o’clock news would have been a man in uniform backed by the Union Jack. The signature tune would have been replaced by the National Anthem and it would have been a kind of RaRaRa news bulletin.” [34]

 

Perhaps this is what Barbara Amiel and Lord Black of Crossharbour would prefer.

 

The BBC has been defended by the more 'left wing' sectors of the media, in particular the Guardian, (sometimes described by the right as being the agenda setter for the BBC.) The findings of the Cardiff study were even cited in isolated articles by Justin Lewis and David Miller. However it is interesting to see how the issue was framed by one of the Guardian’s chief commentators, Polly Toynbee. In an article entitled “BBC needs a Bullywatch,” Toynbee made an impassioned defence of the corporation. The BBC was as she put it (probably accurately):

 

In graver danger than many of its friends may realise... It has never come under such an ominous onslaught of attacks from so many directions.” [35]

 

She argues that the government’s attack on the BBC is unjustified since there is “Independent academic evidence showing it was the most balanced”. As Toynbee does not say which “academic evidence” she is referring to we must assume she is referring either to the Media Tenor study or the Cardiff findings (maybe both). However, contradicting Toynbee's assertion, the two studies did not find that the BBC was the “most balanced,” rather they found that the BBC was at the more extreme end of pro-war bias amongst broadcasters. Here Toynbee is setting the limits of acceptable debate: The BBC was either biased against the government or (as is Toynbee’s view) was balanced and objective (regardless of what the facts reveal). This is not to say that the alternative view of a firmly pro-war BBC offered here was entirely excluded from the media (it maintained a toe hold at the Guardian and the Independent), but for the most part this alternative story was articulated by the dissident community through alternative media rather than within the mainstream. Worryingly there is evidence to suggest that the barrage of flak was so effective that it caused a decline in the BBC’s trust ratings during the conflict due not to its pro-war subservience but rather because of its perceived anti-establishment and anti-war bias, a perception that was entirely the creation of the flak producers. [36]

 

The assault on the corporation is likely to constrain BBC reporting even further; the Telegraph’s Tom Leonard reported on the 3rd June 2003 that the BBC board of governors had requested quarterly reports on the BBC’s impartiality. The governor’s stated that they wanted to “track performance over the year and examine specific aspects of new coverage”. [37]

 

 

The War on Terror: the dominant discourse:

The Fifth Filter:

 

The last filter in Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model is the ideology of anti-communism. This filter operates as the prevailing ideology which is accepted and shared by the major media institutions and operates as the orthodox underlying framework for mediating events for a variety of useful purposes:

 

“This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. It therefore helps fragment the left and labor movements and serves as a political-control mechanism. If the triumph of communism is the worst imaginable result, the support of fascism abroad is justified as a lesser evil. Opposition to social democrats who are too soft on Communists and “play into their hands” is rationalized in similar terms.” [38]

 

In the wake of the September 11th attacks it was widely perceived that anti-communism had been superseded by the “anti-terror” discourse articulated by the Bush and Blair administrations (with enthusiastic support from others), however this is misleading. It is closer to the truth to say that the two ideologies are complementary; indeed they buttressed each other long before the atrocities of September 11th. As Chomsky pointed out, the war on terror was first declared by the Reagan administration in the 1980’s [39] (which comprised many members of the second Bush administration). Initially the state sponsor of terrorism was alleged to be the Soviet Union and its allies (real and imagined). Their counterparts following September 11th were Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cuba and any other state that was insufficiently subordinate to the United States (with the usual gloss of human rights concerns and terrible threats; in this case “weapons of mass destruction,” that highly dubious conflation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons).

 

The elevation of the anti-terror discourse following September 11th stemmed from two factors: First and most obviously the collapse of the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and secondly the catastrophic and spectacular character of the September 11th attacks. Prior to the attack it had proven difficult (though by no means impossible) to present terrorism as much more than a worrying security problem, given the relatively small body count that could be attributed to non-state or “retail” terrorism (as opposed to the vastly greater numbers killed in acts of state terror.) The spectacular nature of the attack made it far easier to present terrorism as a genuine threat to Western civilization and made it highly serviceable as the kind of control mechanism that anti-communism had operated as in the recent past. This aspect of the atrocity also served to mask some of the fundamental characteristics of that act and subsequent acts of retail terrorism: while the attack was devastating it was a low-tech operation exploiting a weakness in US security systems. The attack revealed that while terrorists may be able to carry out isolated atrocities against civilians they have no substantial arsenal of advanced weaponry (as the Soviet Union most certainly did), and are unable to offer a meaningful challenge to the US military.

 

In the annals of retail terrorism September 11th was unusual in the scale of the atrocity, not in its method. It did not represent a new and unusually dangerous form of terrorism except in the narrow sense, (it was obviously the first terrorist act to utilize passenger jets in this way.) It revealed the ability of fanatical terrorists to kill huge numbers of civilians - it did not reveal their ability to inflict meaningful military or economic damage on the United States, (despite appearances the targets chosen were probably selected for their symbolic rather than their perceived military or economic value), nor an ability to challenge the United States’ global dominance.

 

The discourse of anti-terrorism is rather similar to that of anti-communism: both offer a radically distorted Manichean view of the world. The favoured states (the US and UK and, to a lesser extent, their allies) are cast as the repositories of freedom and justice, engaged in a desperate struggle with what George W Bush, echoing Reagan and other illustrious predecessors, calls “the evil doers”, (Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the Islamic Iranian regime at present, the Soviet Union and its satellites in the past). The simplicity of the position was eloquently put by Bush Jr. when he stated that “you are either with us or with the terrorists.” Terrorist acts are typically presented by the BBC and the rest of the mainstream as discrete events separated from all historical, social and political contexts. Within the mainstream (particularly in the United States but also in the UK) it is verging on the treasonous to even investigate the reasons for such acts. It takes some effort to avoid the historical context of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, since the terrorist perpetrators were drawn from the pool of violent radical fundamentalists that the United States had trained, supplied and funded during the 1980’s, specifically during the Mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. (At the time the radical fundamentalists were portrayed as brave freedom fighters both in the mainstream news and in popular culture more generally; for example the third Rambo film found Sylvester Stallone fighting heroically alongside the Mujahedeen).

 

For this reason the attack is sometimes cited as an example of what is called 'blowback,' whereby US covert operations rebound disastrously upon the United States, however this is somewhat misleading since the events of 9/11 were, patriotic posturing aside, largely welcomed by the US administration which immediately recognised their utility for pursuing its radical agenda at home and abroad. The term 'blowback' might have been more appropriate had the attack been symptomatic of a meaningful threat to US economic and military hegemony, which it was not. From the point of view of the Bush administration the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon is probably better conceived as a welcome, though unintended side benefit to the covert operations of the 1980’s. In the broader context of the long history of American aggression the mainstream media also neglected to mention that September 11th was the date of another terrible tragedy: the overthrow of the democratically elected reformist socialist government of Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet with the help of the CIA, which led to the deaths, disappearance and torture of thousands of Chilean leftists and others, (quantatively a tragedy roughly comparable to September 11th 2003).

 

The anti-terror discourse underpins BBC reporting; terrorism is primarily discussed as

a security matter and the terrorists themselves are portrayed as vicious sub-humans motivated by the desire to inflict pain and suffering and rob us of our political and religious rights. Claims that terrorists “hate our freedom” are accepted without question and the idea that the atrocities committed by terrorists might stem in part from legitimate grievances is not to be countenanced. Disturbingly the discourse also underpins BBC coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Watching the BBC’s coverage of the conflict we see the brutal ethnic cleansing and violent oppression of an entire nation transformed into a mere 'security problem'. Palestinian suicide attacks are prominently featured while the vastly greater number of atrocities carried out by the Israeli army are downplayed, and the daily misery and horror of the illegal Israeli occupation is barely reported at all. Following the December 26th suicide attack carried out by the PFLP, which killed three Israeli soldiers and one Israeli civilian, the BBC reported that this had broken a “lull” in the conflict. Mere moments before the attack Israel had fired rockets into the Gaza strip killing five Palestinians including two civilians. [40] Two days earlier on Christmas Eve Israel raided a refugee camp in the southern Gaza strip killing eight Palestinians including at least three civilians, and wounding forty-two others whilst demolishing ten houses leaving their inhabitants homeless. [41] On the twentieth a five-year-old boy Muhammad Naim Tesrida was shot in the chest and killed. The same day Nur Imran, 13, was also shot and killed by the “Israeli Defence Force.” [42] On the 19th four more Palestinians were killed in a raid on the West Bank town of Nablus [43] and on the 18th a 17-year-old boy was killed in the Rafah refugee camp. [44] This is what the BBC calls a “lull in the conflict.”

 

Another effect of the discourse is to exclude the idea that the British and American Government and military might be acting for malevolent reasons: (to maintain control over the valuable resources of other countries for instance). Instead in the media portrayal we are always fighting with good intentions and for noble purposes. Occasionally of course we may go awry but this is because of “mistakes” often stemming from being too zealous in our desire to see freedom and justice triumph, or else it is the result of corrupt individuals who are not a reflection of the institutions they represent. This is what the British historian Mark Curtis calls the concept of “basic benevolence”:

 

“The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy.” [45]

 

This underpinning leads to the casual acceptance of establishment claims, no matter how ludicrous. Those departing from the dominant discourse find themselves in an essentially hostile environment where the questioning is vastly more aggressive than the treatment meted out to faithful servants of power. As such the fifth filter helps to create an environment where certain views flourish and where others are drowned out, if they are even featured at all.

 

Conclusion

 

It should be emphasized that all institutions no matter how totalitarian are subject to countervailing forces [46]. The BBC does respond to popular pressure to a limited degree. In the liberal tradition the media is portrayed as an arena where the various views of society are presented and interact, however this portrayal ignores the fact that certain groups within the society, namely the sectors which dominate the economic, political and juridical systems are at an enormous advantage. It is an exaggeration to say that the BBC always follows the two party line or that it always operates as a propaganda weapon for elite sectors of our society given the capacity of the general population to pressure it into more accurate reporting (there is also the issue of professional objectivity which offers at least a mild counter measure to the pressure of the filters). Nevertheless the BBC mostly follows the two party line and it mostly operates as a propaganda weapon (of an unusually subtle type).

 

The public perception of the BBC is not a trivial matter. Those within the anti-war movement work, (or at least should do), on the assumption that the greater the dissemination of accurate information on the alleged reasons for the invasion of Iraq the greater public opposition would have been. It is a tribute to the movement that it was able to foster the level of dissent that was achieved given the powerful government/media nexus arrayed against it. However the failure to spread a more serious critical understanding of the media and in particular the BBC may have been a factor in the failure of the opposition to rise yet further. [47] Had opposition to the war reached higher levels it is probable that Britain might well have pulled out of the invasion force, indeed the level of opposition that was achieved was sufficient to cause the MOD to draw up contingency measures for doing just this:

 

“The Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper most closely linked to the British Armed Forces, went on to reveal that on Tuesday 11 March, “Mr Hoon’s department [the Ministry of Defence] was frantically preparing contingency plans to “disconnect” British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” [48]

 

As Milan Rai has documented this might well have derailed (or at least postponed) the entire operation and saved the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and Iraqi troops (who should be viewed as essentially the same as male adult civilians, given the vast majority were conscripts unlike their professional adversaries from the US and UK). This is not to say that there has not been an excellent sustained critique of the BBC’s coverage, however this has mostly focussed on what the BBC has done rather than the reasons motivating its actions. The view that we have a relatively free press that broadly tells the truth is still much too prevalent, and while this background of relative trust persists the public might well dismiss examples of BBC dishonesty as 'marginal' or 'lapses'. Rather, they should be viewed as the near inevitable product of a largely systematic process whereby those views that faithfully serve power and privilege dominate, whilst views which instead serve their victims are marginalized or excluded altogether. This failure must not be allowed to continue. Lives depend on it, perhaps even our own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Additional research and material: Robert Wotherspoon and Christian Hunt

 

 

 

 

Notes:

 

 

1. James Curran, Media and Power, Routledge 2002, p.188.

 

2. BBC Annual report 2002/03, Review of Services: News -

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/report2003/pdf/news.pdf

 

3. Cited in Mark Curtis,‘Web of Deceit: Britain’s real role in the world’, Vintage 2003, p379

 

4. Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2003

 

5. Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2003

 

6. Independent on Sunday, 27 July 2003

 

7. Christian Science Monitor, 10 July 2003

 

8. BBC Press release http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2003/07_july/06/gavyn_daives_statement.shtml

 

9.  The Guardian, 4 July 2003

 

10. The Guardian, April 22 2003

 

11. The Guardian, July 4 2003

 

12.Medialens Media Alert: The Ruthless and the Dead, March 18 2003

 

13.Medialens Media Alert: BBC Channelling Government Propaganda, December 18 2002

 

14. Cited in Milan Rai ‘War Plan Iraq’, Verso 2002, p67

 

15. Saddam – A Warning from History transcript, http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/panorama/transcripts/03_11_02.txt

 

16. Medialens Media Alert: Beating up the cheerleader, 24 July 2003

 

17. BBC1, News at ten, April 9 2003

 

18. The Guardian, April 22 2003

 

19. BBCi Web site

 

20. BBCi Web site

 

21. The government has been amusingly brazen in its failure to give even the pretence of impartiality in its appointments; as Medialens revealed Gavyn Davies wife runs Gordon Brown’s office, his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown’s wedding and Tony Blair has stayed at his holiday home.

 

22. BBCi website

 

23. The Guardian, October 6 2003

 

24. George Orwell, Proposed Preface to Animal Farm, Secker and Warburg 1995,   

      p162

 

25. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ , Routledge 1997, P. 216

 

26. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ , Routledge 1997., p122

 

27. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ , Routledge 1997, p220

 

28. Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage 1994,

p22

 

29. It has also been criticised for being pro-Palestinian –on the 11th of November 2003 the Daily Telegraph reported that the BBC had appointed a “Middle East policeman” because of supposed “pro-Arab bias”, a sane viewer of the BBC might be forgiven for thinking that the corporation might require a “Middle East policeman” to do a rather different job.

 

30. Daily Telegraph, June 7 2003

 

31. Daily Telegraph, November 26 2003   

 

32. Daily Telegraph, June 23 2003

 

33. Daily Telegraph, July 8 2003

 

34. Cited by Greg Philo, Television, Politics and the New Right, Glasgow University Media group, online article- http://www.gla.ac.uk/departments/sociology/Television.pdf

 

35. The Guardian, September 19 2003

 

36. The Guardian, August 4 2003

 

37. Daily Telegraph, June 3 June 2003

 

38. Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage 1994, p29

 

39. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p109

 

40. The Guardian, December 26 2003

 

41. The Guardian December 24 2003

 

42. Al Jazeera website, 22 december-http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C23EAAF6-3600-44D8-8A17-B70D94A64491.htm

 

43. Al Jazeera website, 19 December 2003- http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/606D86E6-358F-4973-BBA9-A7B91CCA9D6A.htm

 

44. Al Jazeera website, 18 December 2003- http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/442443B7-B68C-45C4-80AA-4AA1B51895FC.htm

 

45. Mark Curtis, Web of deceit, Vintage 2003, p380

 

46. As anyone who has spent time organising on the left will be aware the feeling of powerlessness remains disturbingly widespread amongst the general population this is particularly concerning given the great opportunities for effecting change in a relatively free society such as ours. Just as an example of the possibilities for effecting change it is worth remembering that even National Socialist Germany was subject to popular influence to some extent; - the T4 program – the mass murder of German mental patients the precursor to the holocaust- was temporarily halted due to popular outcry. And this in a society where public opposition carried with it punishments immeasurably worse than those that exist in a society such as ours.

 

47. There are of course other things that could have been done - the failure to mobilise the existing anti-war population into engaging in sustained civil disobedience was a terrible mistake.

 

48. Milan Rai, ‘Regime Unchanged: Why the war on Iraq changed nothing’, Pluto Press 2003, pxxi