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- Post 19 February 2004
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Hutton, Butler, Blair, and the BBC Governors
Waking Up From The Sweet Song Of Power
It is possible that the establishment is falling out of love with George Bush and Tony Blair. The art of democratic government is to hide the exploitation of people and planet behind fine words and illusions. The philosopher Nagarjuna explained the rule 2,000 years ago:
"If one is plotting evil,
He always uses pleasant words.
When a hunter sees the game,
He sings a sweet song to lure it."
But when the subordination of people to profit is so brazen, the camouflaging lies so transparent, there is a real danger that the population will wake up from the illusion of genteel statesmanship and civilised democracy to the reality of elite violence and control. Thus, today, 54% of the British population believe that Blair simply lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
Ironically, the experience of waking up from the "sweet song" of power feels rather like falling into a Kafkaesque dream. We stumble, confused, from the Intelligence and Security Committee, to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee - no-one has any idea what these are about, how they have been compromised, why they failed to get to the truth - to the Hutton inquiry, to the Hutton report, to the Butler inquiry - the latter held in secret far from public scrutiny.
The Butler in question is Lord Butler of Brockwell, educated at Harrow and University College, Oxford. Butler was private secretary to Edward Heath 1972-74, Harold Wilson 1974-75; principal private secretary to Margaret Thatcher 1982-85, second permanent secretary to Treasury 1985-87; secretary of Cabinet, head of home civil service 1988-98. His clubs: Anglo-Belgian, Athenaeum, Brooks's, Beefsteak.
In our waking dream, the Guardian reports from Butler's world:
"On a hot day last June, all the knights of the garter gathered at Windsor Castle, which was closed to the public, and the master of University College, Lord Butler of Brockwell, was invested by the Queen with his own garter, star, riband, collar and mantle. There was a splendid lunch and, as the college website respectfully records: 'Lady Butler even gave a special wave to the Univ contingent as the knights' wives led the ceremony by.'" ('Lord Butler: the man who will investigate', David Leigh, Richard Norton-Taylor and Julian Glover, The Guardian, February 4, 2004)
During the 1990s, Sir Robin, as Butler was then known, believed the dishonest arms sales minister Jonathan Aitken and attacked journalists investigating him. He then defended Whitehall lies during the infamous Scott inquiry into secret arms sales to Iraq.
Whichever way we turn in our dream democracy we meet Huttons and Butlers resplendent in garters, stars, ribands, collars and mantles. At every turn we find Tony Blair smiling, lying, and killing, but forever protected by establishment friends and allies. We never arrive at the truth. Iraq has shown us that when we follow every 'democratic' recourse to its logical conclusion, we find a system of control that is almost feudal in style, corruption and brutality.
If ministers fail to manage the economy, resignations are demanded and secured. But if ministers fail to manage peace, security and morality - and what can represent a greater failure than fighting an unnecessary war reducing a foreign state to chaos and carnage? - then even transparent lies and widespread public outrage are waved away.
In early February, the latest revelations emerged. Blair claimed that he had found out as late as March 2003 that the (false) claim that Iraqi WMD could be made ready for use in 45 minutes referred only to battlefield weapons, like mortars, not to long range ballistic missiles.
This deception was even more desperate than usual, and as a result, as discussed above, opinion polls show that fully 54% of the population now believe Blair lied. This places the majority of the population far beyond the views of most journalists, who prefer to talk of "flawed intelligence" and "the mishandling of intelligence".
In responding to Blair's claimed confusion, Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor, stood outside Downing Street and insisted that there were now two types of people: those who had "made their minds up" on Blair and "the vast army of the bored witless". (BBC1 News, February 5, 2004)
We at Media Lens had never heard anything more inappropriate. Blair had finally been cornered and had responded with claims of careless ignorance which, coming from one of the world's supreme control freaks, was utterly fantastic. Blair's credibility had finally gone over the edge but, thanks to Marr and co, like a cartoon, he was not falling into the abyss.
Over the next few days it emerged that Marr's jarring statement was exactly the line being pushed by Downing Street. The New Statesman's political editor, John Kampfner, reported in the Guardian:
"In the second full week of life after Hutton, the message from Downing Street to [BBC] corporation executives is that the public has 'tired' of Iraq. Correspondents admit that for the past 10 days ministers have been largely successful in driving WMD off the agenda of television and radio." (Kampfner, 'Don't mention the war', The Guardian, February 16, 2004)
Both the BBC and ITN barely covered subsequent bombings at an Iraqi school and double suicide bombings in Hilla. Iraq had clearly been dropped. The media switched instead to the Conservative's budget plans ahead of the next election. Shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin filled us in. Unlike Lord Butler, Letwin was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. Previously he has been a merchant banker, financial adviser and journalist. Between 1991-97 he was a director at N M Rothschild & Sons.
We were back in the same dream world inhabited by Hutton, Butler and Blair. Fresh from seeing how every avenue to truth, accountability and change is barred to the public, we now had to listen to Letwin's nonsense offering a "radical alternative" to New Labour's spending plans.
The Architecture Of Establishment
Readers will have noticed that the architecture of establishment is not deemed an important or proper subject for media discussion. The political and cultural arches and colonnades supporting power are depicted as simply 'there'. The gubernatorial pillars of the BBC's management structure, for example, are surely not man-made - not the handiwork of self-interested, powerful groups - they are the work of nature, perhaps even of God, and so beyond discussion.
We have heard much impassioned talk in recent weeks about the desperate need to preserve the fundamental independence of the BBC from external state and commercial pressures. But what do we actually know of how the BBC is run? Who are these governors that are to resist these external pressure? Who selected them? On what basis? Might they themselves be the product of the same external pressures to be resisted? If the independence of the BBC is really so important, why are these issues never discussed?
Journalists talk grimly of the possibility of the government doing away with the system of governors when the BBC's charter comes up for renewal. But as the public knows nothing about the governors, just as they know nothing about the charter or its renewal, they are unable to form any kind of rational opinion. And that is exactly as it should be, from the point of view of power - the establishment is to be accepted, not understood. To facilitate understanding is to invite challenge.
In reality, former BBC chairman Gavyn Davies was appointed by the Blair government. So was Greg Dyke. So was Hutton. So was Butler. So were the BBC governors - establishment figures all. The issue of who the governors actually are is central but shrouded in silence. Here they are:
Lord Ryder of Wensum, former chief whip in John Major's government and political secretary to Margaret Thatcher.
Mark Byford, a BBC "lifer" since 1979.
Sir Robert Smith, vice-chairman of Deutsche Asset Management and director and chairman designate of Weir Group plc.
Dermot Gleeson the Executive chairman of the MJ Gleeson Group plc.
Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of Defence and Overseas Secretariat of the joint intelligence committee.
Professor Fabian Monds, chairman of Invest Northern Ireland, the economic development agency.
Dame Ruth Deech, barrister and academic, Chairman of English National Forum.
Professor Merfyn Jones, historian and broadcaster, and member for Wales at Broadcasting Standards Commission.
Angela Sarkis, former chief executive of the Church Urban Fund.
Deborah Bull, member of Arts Council for England.
Ranjit Sondhi, a Birmingham University academic who has done work in race and ethnic studies.
We are told the great issue at hand is the need to preserve the independence of these governors from the government that appointed them. The fact that they are all members of the establishment elite, that they were appointed by members of that elite, is presumed to be unproblematic. Some thoughts are unthinkable - obviously true but too radical to be discussed.
In a 2,700-word piece on the BBC governors in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman asks 'Who's in charge around here?' If the article was to answer the question in its own title, it would clearly have to address the system by which governors are appointed. This it does not do. Instead there are brief references to the corporate and establishment nature of the governors but no exploration of why they have been selected, by whom, or the significance for democracy. We wrote to Burkeman:
Dear Oliver Burkeman
I was interested to read your article on the BBC in today's Guardian. The title of your piece read: 'Who's in charge around here?' Surely the only way to rationally consider the question is to examine the system by which governors are appointed: who decides who becomes a governor and on what basis? How does the public know the appointees are representing popular rather than elite interests? A lot of journalists are currently talking of the need to defend the BBC's independence from government and commercial influence - but does the appointment procedure already call into question the notion that the BBC is independent?
Why did you not consider these issues? Is it really more important to focus on particular individuals - for example, on the experience of former governors - rather than on the nature and mechanics of the system that appoints them? Why did you not review the proportion of senior corporate executives, government insiders and other establishment figures that have made up the numbers of BBC governors over, say, the last 50 years?
David Edwards (Email sent, February 19, 2004)
Thanks for reading the piece. I think you're right - it would have been good to do more on the appointments procedure and the types of appointees, and I'll certainly bear that in mind in returning to the subject.
The only point I'd make in counterweight to that is that I don't think it was the sole aim of the piece to provide a systemic analysis of BBC governance along the lines you suggest. To the extent that readers may have become curious, during Hutton, about exactly who were the personalities involved in handling the controversy, simply responding to that curiosity seems to me to be a valid thing to do too. Both, I reckon, are appropriate things to be doing in the paper. But I definitely take your points.
All the best
Oliver (Email to Media Lens, February 19, 2003)
Burkeman may well return to the subject. Meanwhile we will all continue to wander the labyrinthine corridors of establishment illusion, obfuscation and imposed confusion, pursuing a mirage of democracy that forever retreats ahead of us as we wander on.
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.