22October2017

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‘The BBC Has Betrayed Its Own Rules Of Impartiality’: Yemen, Saudi Arabia And The General Election

A key function of BBC propaganda is to present the perspective of 'the West' on the wars and conflicts of the world. Thus, in a recent online report, BBC News once again gave prominence to the Pentagon propaganda version of yet more US killings in Yemen. The headline stated:

'US forces kill seven al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, says Pentagon'

Seven 'militants' killed is the stark message. A veneer of 'impartiality' is provided by the weasel words, 'says Pentagon'. BBC News then notes blandly, and without quotation marks:

'The primary objective of the operation was to gather intelligence.'

Nowhere in the short article was there any attempt to provide an alternative view of who had been killed and why. Were they really all 'militants'? How is a 'militant' distinguished from a 'civilian', or from a soldier defending his country against foreign invaders? There was not even a cautious statement to the effect that the Pentagon's claims could not be verified, as one might expect of responsible journalism.

Instead, we have to turn to Reprieve, an international human rights organisation founded in 1999 by the British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. The group reports that five of the 'militants' were civilians, including a partially blind 70-year-old man who was shot when he tried to greet the US Navy Seals, mistaking them for guests arriving in his village. 

But their civilians are mere 'collateral damage' in war. Since January 2017, the US has launched 90 or more drone strikes in Yemen, killing around 100 people, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This death toll includes 25 civilians, among whom were 10 children, killed in the village of al Ghayil in the Yemeni highlands during a US raid that was described by President Trump as 'highly successful'.

Mentions of such atrocities were notable by their absence in 'mainstream' media coverage of Trump's recent trip to Saudi Arabia where he signed trade deals worth around $350 billion. This included an arms deal of $110 billion which the White House described as 'the single biggest in US history.' It would not do for the corporate media, including BBC News, to dwell on the implications for Yemen where at least 10,000 people have been killed since the start of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in 2015. 14 million Yemenis, more than half the population, are facing hunger with the Saudis deliberately targeting food production.

The World Health Organisation recently warned of the rising numbers of deaths in Yemen due to cholera, saying that it was 'unprecedented'. Save the Children says that at the current rate, more than 65,000 cases of cholera are expected by the end of June. The cholera outbreak could well become 'a full blown-epidemic'. Moreover:

'The upsurge comes as the health system, sanitation facilities and civil infrastructure have reached breaking point because of the ongoing war.'

As US investigative journalist Gareth Porter observes via Twitter:

'World leaders are silent as #Yemen faces horrible cholera epidemic linked to #Saudi War & famine. Politics as usual.'

Iona Craig, formerly a Yemen-based correspondent for The Times, notes that 'more than 58 hospitals now have been bombed by the coalition airstrikes, and people just do not have access to medical care in a way that they did before the war.' As if the bombing was not already brutal, Saudi Arabia has imposed a cruel blockade on Yemen that is delaying, or even preventing, vital commodities from getting into the country. Grant Pritchard, interim country director for Save the Children in Yemen, says:

'These delays are killing children. Our teams are dealing with outbreaks of cholera, and children suffering from diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition.

'With the right medicines these are all completely treatable — but the Saudi-led coalition is stopping them getting in. They are turning aid and commercial supplies into weapons of war.'

As one doctor at the Republic teaching hospital in Sanaa commented:

'We are unable to get medical supplies. Anaesthetics. Medicines for kidneys. There are babies dying in incubators because we can't get supplies to treat them.'

The doctor estimated that 25 people were dying every day at the hospital because of the blockade. He continued:

'They call it natural death. But it's not. If we had the medicines they wouldn't be dead.

'I consider them killed as if they were killed by an air strike, because if we had the medicines they would still be alive.'

None of this grim reality was deemed relevant to Trump's signing of the massive new arms deal with Saudi Arabia. BBC News focused instead on inanities such as Trump 'to soften his rhetoric', 'joins Saudi sword dance' and 'no scarf for Melania'. But then, it is standard practice for the BBC to absolve the West of any blame for the Yemen war and humanitarian disaster.

British historian Mark Curtis poses a vital question that journalists fear to raise, not least those at the BBC: is there, in effect, collusion between the BBC and UK arms manufacturer BAE Systems not to report on UK support for the Saudi bombing of Yemen, and not to make it an election issue? He rightly points out that the BAE Systems Chairman, Sir Roger Carr, was also Vice-Chair of the BBC Trust until April 2017 (when the Trust was wound up at the end of its 10-year tenure). The BBC Trust's role was to ensure the BBC lived up to its statutory obligations to the public, including news 'balance' and 'impartiality'. How could Sir Roger's dual role not suggest a major potential conflict of interest?

On the wider issue of 'mainstream' media coverage of foreign policy, the political journalist Peter Oborne notes that:

'Needless to say, the British media (and in particular the BBC, which has a constitutional duty to ensure fair play during general elections) has practically ignored Corbyn's foreign policy manifesto.'

Oborne writes that the manifesto:

'is radical and morally courageous.'

He explains that, pre-Corbyn:

'Foreign policy on both sides was literally identical. The leadership of both Labour and the Conservatives backed the wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, the alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states in the Gulf.

'London did what it was told by Washington. [...] This cross-party consensus has been smashed, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader. Whatever one thinks of Corbyn's political views (and I disagree with many of them), British democracy owes him a colossal debt of gratitude for restoring genuine political debate to Britain.

'And of course his extremely brave and radical decision to break with the foreign policy analysis of Blair and his successors explains why he is viewed with such hatred and contempt across so much of the media and within the Westminster political establishment.'

But, as Oborne notes, this important change has not been fairly represented in media coverage. In particular, on Yemen and Saudi Arabia:

'it is deeply upsetting that the BBC has betrayed its own rules of impartiality and ignored Corbyn's brave stand on this issue.'

We challenged Andrew Roy, the BBC News Foreign Editor, to respond to Oborne's observations. He ignored us (here and here). Roy's silence is especially noteworthy given that he had once promised:

'If there is a considered detailed complaint to something we've done, I will always respond to it personally.'

Perhaps Oborne's challenge to the BBC was not deemed sufficiently 'considered' or 'detailed' by the senior BBC News editor. Likewise, our own challenges over many years in numerous media alerts addressing BBC foreign coverage have been ignored or, at best, brushed away.

It was noteworthy that Corbyn's considered response to the most recent terrorist attack in London was selectively reported, arguably censored, by BBC News. Corbyn said:

'We need to have some difficult conversations, starting with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have funded and fuelled extremist ideology.

'It is no good Theresa May suppressing a report into the foreign funding of terrorist groups. We have to get serious about cutting off the funding to these terror networks, including Isis here and in the Middle East.'

Sky News broadcast Corbyn's comments, but they do not appear to have been covered by BBC News. Certainly, as far as we can see, there is no mention of them in their 'Live' blog on the London attack or in Laura Kuenssberg's analysis, 'Election 2017: Impact of London terror attack on campaign'. And nothing about the Saudi link with terrorism appears in the BBC's online report on Corbyn's speech, focusing instead on the issue of May's cuts to police numbers while Home Secretary. Even this issue alone, if properly and fully addressed by the media, should be a resigning matter for May as Prime Minister. Responding to the London attacks, Peter Kirkham, a former Senior Investigating Officer with the Metropolitan police, accused the government of lying over police numbers on UK streets. And a serving firearms officer says that:

'the Government is wrong to claim police cuts have nothing to do with recent attacks.

Despite her denials, Theresa May's cuts to police numbers have made attacks like London and Manchester much more likely.'

Kuenssberg's piece included passing mention of 'the Tories' record on squeezing money for the police'. But she gave no figures showing a reduction in the number of armed police; crucial statistics which she could have easily found from the Home Office.

Mark Curtis gives a damning assessment of BBC reporting on foreign affairs, particularly during the general election campaign. Noting first that:

'One aspect of a free and fair election is "nonpartisan" coverage by state media.'

He continues:

'Yet BBC reporting on Britain's foreign policy is simply amplifying state priorities and burying its complicity in human rights abuses. The BBC is unable to report even that Britain is at war – in Yemen, where the UK is arming the Saudis to conduct mass bombing, having supplied them with aircraft and £1 billion worth of bombs, while training their pilots.'

Curtis then provides some telling statistics:

'From 4 April to 15 May, the BBC website carried only 10 articles on Yemen but 97 on Syria: focusing on the crimes of an official enemy rather than our own. Almost no BBC articles on Yemen mention British arms exports. Theresa May's government is complicit in mass civilian deaths in Yemen and pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation; that this is not an election issue is a stupendous propaganda achievement.'

Indeed, our newspaper database searches reveal that, since the election was called on April 18, there has been no significant journalistic scrutiny of May's support of Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign in Yemen. The subject was even deemed radioactive during a public meeting in Rye, Sussex, when Amber Rudd, standing for re-election, appeared to shut down discussion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Electoral candidate Nicholas Wilson explains what happened:

'At a hustings in Rye on 3 June, where I am standing as an independent anti-corruption parliamentary candidate, a question was asked about law & order. Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in answering it referred to the Manchester terrorist attack. I took up the theme and referred to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia & HSBC business there. She spoke to and handed a note to the chairman who removed the mic from me.'

The footage of this shameful censorship deserves to be widely seen. If a similar event had happened in Russia or North Korea, it would have received intensive media scrutiny here. Once again, we note the arms connection with the BBC through BAE Systems Chairman, Sir Roger Carr. Wilson has also pointed out a potential conflict of interest between HSBC and the BBC through Rona Fairhead who was a non-executive director of HSBC while serving as Chair of the BBC Trust.

These links, and Theresa May's support for the Saudi regime, have gone essentially unexamined by the BBC. And yet, when BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg responded to Corbyn's manifesto launch, her subtle use of insidious language betrayed an inherent bias against Corbyn and his policies on foreign affairs. She wrote: 'rather than scramble to cover up his past views for fear they would be unpopular', he would 'double down...proudly'. Kuenssberg's use of pejorative language - 'scramble', 'cover up', 'unpopular' – delivered a powerful negative spin against Corbyn policies that, in fact, as Oborne argues, are hugely to his credit.

When has Kuenssberg ever pressed May over her appalling voting record on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen? In fact, there is no need for May to 'scramble' to 'cover up' her past views. Why not? Because the 'mainstream' media rarely, if ever, seriously challenge her about being consistently and disastrously wrong in her foreign policy choices; not least, on decisions to go to war.

DC & DE

 

Correction (June 6, 2017)

We have removed these two lines as the BBC, in fact, has written a handful of articles mentioning this issue, mostly in passing:

'Curtis also notes that the BBC has not published any online article about UK arms being sold to the Saudis for use in Yemen since as far back as January. This, he says, is "misinforming the public, a disgrace".'

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