- In Alerts 2009
- Post 15 September 2009
- Last Updated on 27 March 2013
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At the Edinburgh International Television Festival last month, James Murdoch, News Corporation's chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia, attacked the BBC, calling for comprehensive deregulation and warning of the dangers of state interference in the "natural diversity" of the media industry. It was a threat to the provision of "independent news", Murdoch claimed, that the state-sponsored BBC was able to provide so much online news free of charge.
Murdoch's speech was the headline event at the Guardian-sponsored festival and the paper duly devoted precious newsprint to an extract:
"There is a land grab going on - and it should be sternly resisted. The land grab is spearheaded by the BBC. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling." (James Murdoch, 'Put an end to this dumping of free news', Guardian, August 29, 2009)
Murdoch made a noble plea for press freedom:
"Above all, we must have genuine independence in news media. Independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency. Independence of faction, industrial or political. Independence of subsidy, gift or patronage. [...] people value honest, fearless, and independent news coverage that challenges the consensus."
Murdoch wrapped up his speech with "an inescapable conclusion":
"The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit."
The lack of self-awareness was stunning. The Murdochs of this world are naturally unable to conceive that corporate sponsorship compromises news reporting, showering pound and dollar-shaped sticks and carrots that inevitably cause journalism to slither in corporate-friendly directions. The speech was widely reported but debate was mostly facile, deflecting attention from the corporate media's systemic failings; not least those of the BBC itself.
The liberal press reacted in a suitably 'nuanced' way to Murdoch's salvo. An Independent editorial had "much sympathy with Mr Murdoch's [...] cri de coeur about the lack of restraints on the BBC's growth, in particular on the internet." The struggling newspaper bemoaned that:
"As long as the BBC provides what amounts to an all-encompassing news service on the internet within the price of the licence fee, it will be nigh-impossible for anyone else - on the internet or in print - to charge. [...] In highlighting how the BBC's dominance distorts the news market, James Murdoch has done all the British media a favour." (Leader, 'The BBC's unhealthy dominance', Independent, August 29, 2009)
A Guardian editorial argued that Murdoch had "made some good points":
"There are aspects of the BBC's size and purpose that should be scrutinised. Regulation should change with the times."
Fanciful waffle about "media ecosystems" followed:
"What works rather well in the UK is a mixed economy of private and public. Newspapers are lightly regulated, fiercely opinionated and proudly independent. Public-service broadcasters are more heavily regulated in return for their subsidy. It's not a perfect mix, but its (sic) part of the texture of life in the country." (Leader, 'An American in Edinburgh', Guardian, August 31, 2009)
"Not a perfect mix" is an interesting way to describe a media system that is innately, and massively, biased towards power and profit. Peter Preston, veteran Guardian columnist and former editor, was 'pragmatic':
"Forget 'chilling' hyperbole about 'state-sponsored news' and standard Orwellian allusions: James Murdoch is right - or at least not far wrong. [...] How does a newspaper that wants (nay, needs) to move on to the web and pay for the words it puts there, cope when the BBC dishes them out for free?"
Participating in the controversy his newspaper had concocted, Jonathan Freedland responded to Murdoch in the Guardian:
"The BBC is one of the few British exports to be universally recognised as world class. That's why BBC programmes from The Blue Planet to the Dickens adaptations are snapped up around the globe. They may not be watching Bleak House in Burma or Iran, but they are relying on BBC News for an independent, truthful view of the world." (Jonathan Freedland, 'Don't let Murdoch smash this jewel', Guardian, September 2, 2009)
In his dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell described the art of thought control called "Newspeak":
"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."
We are offered a "debate" confined between two false poles: the claim that the BBC is a threat to the "independent news" provided by commercial interests, and the claim that the BBC is a rare source of "independent, truthful" reporting. Modern journalism acts to "narrow the range of thought", thus serving the powerful interests that control the mass media. It is not Big Brother; but it is certainly a form of "Newspeak".
We're Independent And Impartial Because We Say So
The fact that BBC journalists perform as they do without overt external interference is offered as proof of their independence. In 2007, Justin Webb, then the BBC's North America editor, rejected the charge that he is a propagandist for US power, saying: "Nobody ever tells me what to say about America or the attitude to take towards the United States. And that is the case right across the board in television as well."
Webb began a radio programme from the Middle East thus:
"June 2005. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flies to Cairo and at the American University makes a speech that will go down in history: 'For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East; and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
(Justin Webb, 'Death to America', BBC Radio 4 series, part three, first broadcast on April 30, 2007; http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/deathamerica)
Webb told his listeners in all seriousness: "I believe the Bush administration genuinely wanted that speech to be a turning point; a new start." Nobody had to tell Webb to say these words; he really believed them.
Consider, too, the pronouncements of one BBC correspondent, reporting from Iraq:
"This is not promising soil in which to plant a western-style open society."
"The coalition came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights." (Paul Wood, BBC1, News at Ten, December 22, 2005)
When we challenged BBC news director Helen Boaden on whether she thought this version of US-UK intent perhaps compromised the BBC's commitment to impartial reporting, she replied that such "analysis of the underlying motivation of the coalition is borne out by many speeches and remarks made by both Mr Bush and Mr Blair."
If we are to take Boaden's comments at face value, she was arguing that Bush and Blair must have been motivated to bring democracy to Iraq, because they said so! In other words, "impartial" reporting means that we should take our leaders' claims on trust - to challenge the idea that they mean what they are saying is to stray into unprofessional bias.
In 2004, Boaden told one viewer:
"People trust the BBC because they know it is an organisation independent of external influences. We do not take that trust lightly." (Helen Boaden, email forwarded to Media Lens, December 2, 2004)
And yet the BBC's senior management is appointed by the government of the day. In 2001, Steve Barnett noted in the Observer that "back in 1980, George Howard, the hunting, shooting and fishing aristocratic pal of Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, was appointed [BBC chairman] because Margaret Thatcher couldn't abide the thought of distinguished Liberal Mark Bonham-Carter being promoted from vice-chairman.
"Then there was Stuart Young, accountant and brother of one of Thatcher's staunchest cabinet allies, who succeeded Howard in 1983. He was followed in 1986 by Marmaduke Hussey, brother-in-law of another Cabinet Minister who was plucked from the obscurity of a directorship at Rupert Murdoch's Times Newspapers. According to Norman Tebbit, then Tory party chairman, Hussey was appointed 'to get in there and sort the place out, and in days not months.' " (Steve Barnett, 'Right man, right time, for all the right reasons', Observer, September 23, 2001)
The same machinations continue to this day. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, both the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies and his director-general, Greg Dyke, were supporters of, and donors to, the Labour party. Davies's wife ran Gordon Brown's office; his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding. Tony Blair had stayed at Davies's holiday home. "In other words", noted columnist Richard Ingrams, "it would be hard to find a better example of a Tony crony." (Richard Ingrams, 'We don't need Tony's cronies at the BBC,' Observer, September 23, 2001).
Readers will recall that BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan lost his job, along with Davies and Dyke, after intense government flak in response to Gilligan's report that the Blair regime had manipulated intelligence over Iraq's supposed WMD.
Displaying a wilful blindness to all of the above facts, the Observer described the BBC this week as "genuinely independent of government." (Leader, 'A bold BBC does not need to be a bigger BBC', Observer, September 13, 2009)
Consider, too, the establishment links of the members of the BBC Trust whose duty it is to ensure that the BBC upholds its public obligations, including impartiality. One of these worthies is Anthony Fry, formerly of Rothschilds and later the ill-fated Lehman Brothers where he was head of UK operations. Fry boasts on the BBC website:
"Having spent my career in the City as an investment banker, for over a decade specialising in the media industry, it's a great privilege to bring my commercial understanding of the sector to help the BBC deliver value for licence fee payers in today's rapidly changing broadcasting environment." (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/about/ who_we_are/trustees/anthony_fry.shtml)
The Trust consists of twelve safe pairs of hands with extensive backgrounds in large corporate media organisations, advertising, banking, finance and industry. We are to believe that these individuals are independent of the government that appointed them, and of the elite corporate and other vested interests in which they are deeply embedded. We are to believe that they will uphold fair and balanced reporting which displays not a hint of bias towards state ideology or economic orthodoxy in a world of rampant corporate power.
Corporate reporters are required to be oblivious to such simple realities. Thus the Guardian could once again find space to allow Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC Trust, to insist that the broadcaster provides "free, impartial, accurate news". (John Plunkett, 'Sir Michael Lyons: BBC will not retreat from news', guardian.co.uk, September 9, 2009, 15.49 BST, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ media/2009/sep/09/michael-lyons-bbc-no-retreat)
Just days later the Guardian gave free rein to Mark Thompson, BBC director general:
"The absolute first building block keystone of the BBC is delivering impartial, unbiased news." (Jane Martinson, 'Mark Thompson: "People want the BBC to step backwards" ', Guardian, September 14, 2009)
But Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, put it rather differently when he wrote of the establishment in his diary: "They know they can trust us not to be really impartial." (Quoted, David Miller, 'Media wrongs against humanity', TruthOut.org, June 24, 2005; http://www.truthout.org/article/david-miller- media-wrongs-against-humanity-witness-statement- including-evidence-media-wrongs)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Peter Preston, Guardian columnist
Jonathan Freedland, Guardian columnist
Please copy to:
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Siobhain Butterworth, Guardian readers' editor