Category: Alerts 2016
- Created on 13 December 2016
- 13 December 2016
Even the most powerful systems of propaganda inadvertently allow uncomfortable truths to slip out into the public domain. Consider a recent BBC News interview following the death of Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro. Dr Denise Baden, Associate Professor in Business Ethics at the University of Southampton, who has studied Castro's leadership and Cuban business models, was asked by BBC News presenter Maxine Mawhinney for her views on Cuba and Castro. It's fair to say that Baden's responses didn't follow the standard establishment line echoed and amplified in much of the 'mainstream' media.
Mawhinney kicked off the interview with the standard Western propaganda line about Castro:
'He ruled with an iron fist, didn't he?'
Baden immediately challenged the cliché:
'Well, that's something that everyone's fond of saying. But when I talk to the people who live in Cuba, and the Cubans who've come to live in the UK, that's not the story that I get. The feeling that comes through is of Fidel Castro almost as a father figure. So, the older generation tend to see him as a hero of the revolution. They're aware that many of them wouldn't even be here if it wouldn't have been for the health advances and the equalisation of resources that he provided.'
The academic, who visited the island in 2013 and 2014, 'drawn by its record on sustainability', then pointed out that it was the crippling US embargo on Cuba that was responsible for much of the hardships suffered by the Cubans for over five decades: a crucial point that the BBC interviewer significantly did not pursue.
Mawhinney then raised Castro's human rights record. Baden addressed the issue of free speech first:
'When I went to talk to people in Cuba, I found it remarkable how freely they all spoke about Fidel Castro, and Raul Castro, and the policies. I was expecting from the discourse we hear that people would be afraid to speak out. And that wasn't what I found - people spoke out very freely.'
The BBC interviewer pressed her on whether Cuban people really did speak out:
'Did they criticise the regime?'
'Oh yes. I had the head of a topical newspaper who was quite critical of the government in some ways. Not all ways, but some ways. And I think what it is, is the [Western] media's been dominated by America. So, for example, when Obama visited Havana [in March 2016] you had the Cuban Ladies in White come out to protest against the human rights abuses. And so, of course, that dominates the headlines. But they're paid for by Americans – people don't realise that; an American agency pays for them. The Cubans don't take them seriously.'
Once again, the BBC interviewer did not pick up the uncomfortable point about US support, including financial sponsorship, of anti-Castro activism. Imagine the reverse case if Cuba, or another foreign power, were responsible for funding or otherwise fomenting activism inside the United States. Indeed, look at the media outrage at alleged interference by 'Putin's Russia' in the recent US election, with a new explosion of coverage devoted to evidence-free assertions made by anonymous CIA officials.
The BBC interviewer returned to Castro:
'But he did carry out human rights abuses. Look, let's just take one section. Gay people and those with Aids – completely persecuted.'
Again, Baden's response deviated from the 'mainstream' script:
'I think when you look back at the time at which the revolution was considered to be a little bit homophobic, which was in the 60s, I'm not sure many countries could hold their heads up high and say that they were as open as they should be. So, I think you have to look at it in context of the period as well.'
Trying a different tack, Mawhinney continued:
'You seem quite fond of Fidel Castro.'
Rather than rise to this personalised bait, Baden pointed out that, like many Western consumers of news broadcasts, she had long 'been exposed to the Miami voice [often privileged Cuban exiles], which is the very dominant voice, and I think I was just surprised when I went there not to find this browbeaten people who felt oppressed.'
'And I think that made me a little bit cross actually because I think we have been exposed to a lot of misinformation, and this quite small minority in Florida has dominated the headlines today and over the past fifty years.'
This implicit criticism of BBC News was left hanging in the air.
By now sounding quite incredulous, the BBC interviewer asked:
'So, are you saying that what he did, the things that we would see as a human rights abuse was okay?'
Baden's calm challenge was professorial:
'Well, do you want to be more specific?'
Mawhinney followed up in hand-waving fashion:
'Well, the prisoners, the political prisoners, the problems with gay people, et cetera, et cetera.'
'Well no, I don't think political prisoners are ever okay. And I don't think persecuting gay people is ever okay.'
Crucially, the academic then made the point that matters:
'What I'm disputing is that Fidel Castro of Cuba was any worse than any other country. I think if you expose America to the same lens, then you'd have a stack of crimes that would overshadow what Fidel Castro has done.'
It's a rare moment when even a mention of American crimes is carried on BBC airwaves, never mind stating that they would dwarf the alleged crimes of an Official Enemy.
'I think the important thing to realise is the moment Fidel came into power in the revolution, at the time at which there was very strong anti-Communist feeling, the Americans did everything they could to subvert that. They invaded in the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis was a response to an expected additional invasion, and there was, I think, an estimated 638 CIA-sponsored attempts on Fidel Castro's life. So, I think you have to understand the responses and the fear of open speech in context of a constant aggression coming from ninety miles over the water.'
Again, the notion of 'constant aggression' from the US is virtually verboten on the BBC.
This remarkable segment of BBC News would most likely have been lost down the Memory Hole were it not for Media Lens reader Steve Ennever who captured it, uploaded it to YouTube, and then informed people about it (including us). The clip quickly went viral. At the time of writing, it has had around 140,000 views on YouTube, with around half a million views on the Media Lens Facebook page and 2.7 million views via EvolvePolitics. This truly shows the power of social media.
Most public commenters were highly appreciative of the way Baden handled the BBC interview. A few preferred to say instead: 'Well done BBC for showing this', as though the corporation had upheld its commitment to impartiality. But those people are rather missing the point. The BBC line of interviewing – in reality, assertions with a token question mark added at the end - consisted of propaganda bullet points. Thanks to Baden, here was a rare and welcome example of that propaganda line being dismantled live on BBC News.
Yes, it is possible to praise the interviewer, or BBC News, for 'allowing' that to happen here; Maxine Mawhinny did at least refrain from constantly interrupting the interviewee in the way of Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr or John Humphrys. By 'balancing' praise with criticism, some argue, the BBC will be 'encouraged' to 'improve' its performance. Perhaps marginally. But, as seen over many years, the very structure of the BBC means there is a systemic bias in favour of the state, big business, elites and power. Praising a prison guard for being a little less harsh is futile when the prison system remains essentially unchanged. Are we really meant to be pathetically grateful for tiny bits of comfort?
Such are the perils of live television, then, for BBC News. An interviewee may end up querying, perhaps rejecting, the ideological script presented by a BBC News journalist. The script may even be turned on its head, by pointing out that the West is guilty of far worse crimes than the Bogeyman in question – Fidel Castro, as we saw above.