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2002

THE BBC'S ROBOTIC ASSERTION OF 'IMPARTIALITY'

According to the late political correspondent Anthony Bevins, who worked for the Sun, Daily Mail and Independent: 'It is daft to suggest that individuals can buck the system, ignore the pre-set "taste" of their newspapers, use their own news-sense in reporting the truth of any event, and survive. Dissident reporters who do not deliver the goods suffer professional death. They are ridden by news desks and backbench executives, they have their stories spiked on a systematic basis, they face the worst form of newspaper punishment - by-line deprivation ... It is much easier to pander to what the editors want.' [Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, James Curran and Jean Seaton, 5th edition, Routledge (London), 1997, pp. 88-89].

The most successful journalists are those who do not even have 'to pander to what the editors want.' They have already assimilated the prevailing values and assumptions of the ruling elite institutions in liberal-democratic society. These journalists think the right thoughts, read the right books, journals and newspapers, and mix in the right circles. 'To be corrupted by totalitarianism', George Orwell once warned, 'one does not have to live in a totalitarian country.' Instead, 'the mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison' in the public domain, making critical commentary on the status quo all but impossible.

The amply-rewarded, influential journalists and commentators who rise to the top of the media empire enjoy great swathes of newspaper column inches, and abundant television and radio broadcast time. They often write and speak with great confidence, skill and erudition, but always within well-policed boundaries that do not seriously challenge established power. 'Probably the truth is discoverable', Orwell wrote, 'but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion.'

In essence, a filtering process ensures that the output of the most influential journalists and editors almost invariably fits the constraints of a corporate media, a media that facilitates the crushing abuses of global capitalism in which it plays a major supporting role. Whether this is achieved by journalists consciously or subconsciously shaping what they write and say, or whether independent-thinking journalists get squeezed out, leads to the same result: a mass media that promotes the interests of powerful elites in society. This is not a fit topic for discussion in the mainstream.

Once in a while, anodyne comment emerges in the mainstream about the 'dumbing down' of news. For example, the Independent's media correspondent Louise Jury reported earlier this year that the BBC's Six O'Clock News 'is coming under increasing fire from some of its most senior staff over its "tabloid" selection and presentation of stories.' Mark Damazer, the BBC's deputy director of news, responded: 'We don't want to make it unbearably facile, but we need clarity in story-telling. It is not that we've abdicated from foreign news on the "Six" or anywhere else - there's a lot of it around and a great deal of it is imaginative.' ('John Simpson joins attack on BBC's dumbed-down "Six O'Clock News"', The Independent, March 29, 2002). 'Clarity' and 'imaginative', as used here, are terms that mask serious and pervasive abuses of media power.

Sadly, any mainstream criticism or comment aimed at the BBC, indeed the mainstream media in general, is almost invariably superficial, gossip-laden or vague. 'There is a new confidence about the place', according to Martin Bell, the former BBC correspondent turned independent MP. 'In Greg Dyke', Bell continues, 'it has its most charismatic and capable director general since Sir Hugh Greene in the 1960.' Nonetheless, Bell is concerned: 'The evening news at six o'clock has been transformed in short order from a serious news programme to a sort of marionette show. I was talking last week to Michael Brunson, ITN's distinguished former political editor. He described it as "buttock-clenchingly" dreadful.' Neither Bell nor Brunson provide concrete examples. Nothing on the BBC's dire performance in (mis-)reporting Iraq, Palestine, poverty in the UK, corporate lobbying on WTO 'free trade' rules. The reader is thus left ignorant or mystified. ('The BBC's no place for fat cats. We sho! uld stop feeding them cream', Martin Bell, The Independent on Sunday, 21 July, 2002.).

One notable exception to such mealy-mouthed analysis of the BBC is the reporting and commentary of the veteran Independent journalist Robert Fisk. For example, he notes that: 'In a major surrender to Israeli diplomatic pressure, BBC officials in London have banned their staff in Britain and the Middle East from referring to Israel's policy of murdering its guerrilla opponents as "assassination". BBC reporters have been told that in future they are to use Israel's own euphemism for the murders, calling them "targeted killings".' Fisk added that: 'Israeli diplomats have been lunching with BBC officials and complaining that the corporations coverage was anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.' ['BBC staff are told not to call Israeli killings "assassination"', Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent, The Independent, 4 August, 2001.]

Fisk has consistently and cogently exposed the myth that mainstream media coverage of the Middle East is balanced. 'The Israeli line - that Palestinians are essentially responsible for "violence", responsible for the killing of their own children by Israeli soldiers, responsible for refusing to make concessions for peace - has been accepted almost totally by the media', Fisk notes. He takes particular issue with the BBC because of the widely held misperception that this world-renowned public broadcaster is an objective provider of news (there are, of course, extreme right-wing commentators who erroneously accuse the BBC of having a left-liberal bias). Fisk provides the example 'of a BBC World Service anchorman [who] allowed an Israeli diplomat in Washington, Tara Herzl, to excuse the shooting of stone-throwers - almost 200 of them - by Israeli soldiers on the grounds that "they are there with people who are shooting". If that was the case - which it usually is not - then why were the Israelis shooting the stone-throwers rather than the gunmen?' ['The biased reporting that makes killing acceptable', Robert Fisk, The Independent, 14 November, 2000.]

There are numerous other instances, some of them analysed in Media Lens media alerts this year (see here). The BBC's response to literally hundreds of challenges by Media Lens readers, has been both pitiful and eye opening. This august, massive publicly funded body is simply incapable of defending itself rationally. Time after time, there has been a clear breach of the BBC's self-proclaimed public duty of providing: 'independent and impartial news [as] a fundamental part of a free society and the democratic process' (email from Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news, to Media Lens, February 4, 2002). We have seen repeated, robotic email replies from the BBC along the lines of:

'The BBC refutes any suggestion that it has become an extension of No 10. We will always listen to and, if necessary, act on any complaints we receive, we will resist pressure from any area which threatens our impartiality. As always the BBC's role is to be fair and accurate, but we will also strive to be independent. Senior editorial staff, the Board of Management and the Board of Governors keep a close watch on programmes to ensure that these standards are maintained. Among other evidence, independent audience research indicates there is widespread public confidence in the impartiality of the BBC's reporting, but I recognise that this may not be a view that you share.

Thank you again for taking the trouble to contact us on this matter.' [Lee Rogers of the BBC's Editorial & Investigation Team.]

When challenged to produce the 'independent audience research [that] indicates there is widespread public confidence in the impartiality of the BBC's reporting', Lee Rogers could do no more than point to the BBC's annual reports, which give precious few details of such audience research.

Occasionally, the response from BBC personnel to challenges by Media Lens readers has been simply banal. One notable case this year involved a BBC2 Correspondent documentary on Iraq by John Sweeney, in which he attempted to absolve the west for contributing to the deaths of half a million young Iraqi children since the Gulf War (see here). When Mark Damazer, the BBC's deputy director of news, attempted to defend Sweeney's documentary in a letter to The Guardian (a letter that had actually been written for him by the documentary's editor) several Media Lens readers wrote to Damazer, making reference to statistics, facts and quotes on the reality of Iraqi life under US-UK imposed economic sanctions. Damazer, presumably with no or little understanding of Iraq's plight, could only respond to these well-argued challenges with a lame, 'We disagree.'

But then, how likely is it that Damazer got to his present position by being a thorn in the side of authority, challenging US-UK government propaganda every step of the way? How likely is it that any journalist who consistently and robustly monitors centres of western political power would rise to the top of an establishment like the BBC? How likely is it that a parliamentary lobby journalist, for instance, who asks awkward questions at press briefings is going to retain high-level access to government ministers, advisers and spokespeople? As journalist Daniel Schorr once observed: 'Attack a government agency like the CIA, or a Fortune 500 member like Chiquita, or the conduct of the military in Southeast Asia and you find yourself in deep trouble, naked, and often alone.' (quoted in Robert McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, New Press, 2000, p. 61).

There is an almost overwhelming imperative for mainstream journalists to appear tough, incisive and manly, while all the time playing safe by not hurting anyone in authority with real power. This means retaining channels of access to those same figures of power, and granting them ample airtime and space to propagate their views: 'According to a senior Washington diplomat....'; 'Bush feels...'; 'Sources close to Blair say...'; 'London fears...'.

As media academic and activist Robert McChesney notes: 'To avoid the controversy associated with determining what is a legitimate news story, professional journalism relies upon official sources as the basis for stories. This gives those in power (and the public relations industry, which developed at the exact same time as professional journalism) considerable ability to influence what is covered in the news.' (Rich Media, Poor Democracy, p. 49).

Echoing the comments of political correspondent Anthony Bevins (see above), reporter Greg Palast of The Observer, and author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, explains how such the mighty force of obedience to power operates on individual journalists: 'After working for years against a brutal onslaught of deadlines, you learn cheap and quick tricks; you learn what's not going to be accepted, what's going to get shot down and you see people who resist that system losing their jobs.' [Interview by Ian Reeves of Press Gazette, posted 3 May, 2002 here]

Media amplification of state policy, pronouncements, even government 'thoughts', 'fears' and 'feelings', not only makes a mockery of the notion of the media as a stalwart defender of freedom and free speech, but it enables and maintains a conspiracy-free adherence to corrupted notions of 'progress', 'security' and 'stability' that strongly favour the elite few, while crushing the rest of us.

Last Saturday (28 September, 2002), up to 400,000 people took to the streets of London to protest the current US-UK stance towards Iraq: the twelve years of devastating sanctions, the little-reported ongoing bombing and the impending threat of a massive attack. The Observer (29 September, 2002), supposedly a left-liberal newspaper, devoted several pages to an old affair between two Tory politicians (as did most newspapers) and to an obsequious interview with Tony Blair, while giving a quarter of a page to trivialising the greatest peace demonstration this country has known for decades (Euan Ferguson, 'A big day out in Leftistan', The Observer, 29 September 2002).

The BBC reported that 'tens of thousands of people' had taken part in the march, grossly underestimating the numbers involved, though quoting both police estimates (150,000 people) and those of the organisers (400,000 people). (BBC news online, 28 September, 2002; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2285861.stm). A BBC news online report 'The View from the March' was a superficial account of the march, and of the views of those on the march, and finished with a banal observation: 'I just want to get to work," says a man grumpily battling against the flow of the march.' [Ryan Dilley, 28 September, 2002; link].

No wonder there is considerable public scepticism of 'news values' and a turning away from mainstream discussion of politics. According to Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news: 'There is a new political divide: no longer "left" and "right"; it's now "us and them", with "them" being politicians, the establishment and the broadcasters and media.' Sambrook is concerned at the prospect of losing large chunks of his audience: 'Some 40 per cent of the audience feel they are outside looking in, offered few real choices.'

So, what is Sambrook's response to this massive wave of public scepticism? Unsurprisingly, a continuation of supposed BBC values - 'expertise, accuracy, fairness, judgement' - that 'have been amazingly resilient through the 20th century.' Sambrook promises to 'take them forward, but in different ways. A wider range of voices, programmes and services, connecting the world with people's lives.' ['As attitudes change, so must news programmes', Richard Sambrook, speech to the Royal Television Society in London, The Independent, 5 December, 2001]. In the meantime, BBC news directors continue to repeat the standard and utterly discredited line that: 'Being impartial and being seen to be impartial are values BBC News strives to achieve every minute of the day.' [Mark Damazer, Deputy director, BBC News, Letter to The Guardian, 1 October, 2002].

Such complacency and self-deception is, sadly, par for the course. 'When I joined the BBC', joked Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor, 'my Organs of Opinion were formally removed.' (The Independent, 13 January, 2001). The reality is that Marr's 'Organs of Opinion' did not have to be removed at all. Following stints as political editor, then editor, of The Independent, he slotted neatly into place in the BBC establishment, his worldview intact.

The integrated consequences of this continuous process of personnel management and ideological thought control- namely, the suppression of public knowledge and understanding of the true nature of societal and environmental breakdown - are almost too awful to contemplate. As the philosopher Herbert Marcuse observed: 'Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell and we are well on the way to doing so.' But greater public critical awareness and questioning of elite authority, coupled with compassion for all, can reverse this process.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

In your own words, please write to:

Mark Damazer, deputy director of news: mark.damazer@bbc.co.uk

Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news: richard.sambrook@bbc.co.uk

Roger Alton, Observer editor: roger.alton@observer.co.uk

Copy your letters to editor@medialens.org

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