Alert Update – Director of BBC News Responds

On January 22, Media Lens wrote to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News, concerning BBC coverage of Afghanistan. On February 4, we received this reply:

Dear Mr Cromwell,

Thank you for your further email about our coverage of Afghanistan. Since I wrote to you our Correspondent David Loyn has reached the refugee camp at Maslakh, near Harat and reported on the plight of the people there. This is the text of his piece on the Ten O’clock News (January 25):

David Loyn

There can be few places anywhere as wretched to live as this camp. Possibly the largest gathering on earth of internally displaced people, refugees in their own country. I say possibly the largest because no-one knows quite how many people live here. Estimates range from 150,000 to more than 300,000, the size of a substantial British city. They’re not about to leave. More have come since the American bombing, and they’re settling in for the winter. This woman has just been issued with a stove to keep her two children warm in a hut the size of a dog kennel. There is one way out of this camp. In a cemetery on the other side of the road, most of the graves are of children. This family mourn for a father who died of appendicitis, a condition which is hardly ever fatal in the West.

Just staying alive is the daily battle for the tens of thousands of people who live here. Some just lose the fight. The camp authorities can’t just give out food to anyone, otherwise millions would come. But the dividing line they draw is causing increasing unrest. This man took me to the tent he shares with his brother and 12 other members of his family. Another brother was killed in recent fighting. He says that, whenever he goes to try to get food, he is turned away because he is not on the list. But from inside his compound, the camp manager denies that any here go hungry.

MARC PETZOLD:(International Organisation for Migration)
No, we have enough food. We have problems in this camp We know about the problems, and we are solving them by the way we are redistributing the people.

LOYN Stale fragments of bread are on sale. The fact there is any market at all for this shows that the system is not coping. Billions of dollars are promised now for the long-term rebuilding of Afghanistan. Some of these people may not live to see it.

I totally reject your assertion that our coverage is determined by our support of western institutions of power. From early in the conflict, we have resisted any pressure from Downing Street about how to cover the story. We made our independence clear, publicly stating that “we believe that the provision of independent and impartial news is a fundamental part of a free society and the democratic process.” You argue that we gave more coverage to the Kosovar refugees because that was a powerful tool supporting the UK government policy, whereas the suffering of Afghan refugees is a very real embarrasment to the British Government. I can assure you that we do not make editorial decisions on the basis of what will please the government. We did address the issue of the military action creating more refugees. You seem to have forgotten our reports about the Afghan people arriving at the Pakistan border, who were fleeing the bombing.

Since the liberation of Kabul safety considerations have been very important and should not be dismissed. You may remember 8 journalists were murdered in two weeks. Correspondents say it is one of the most dangerous locations they have been sent to.

In all I am proud of our coverage of September 11th and the aftermath, which has received global acclaim. We remain committed to reporting what is happening in Afghanistan. Thank you for continuing interest.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Sambrook
Director, BBC News


Dear Mr. Sambrook

Thank you for your lengthy response; it is much appreciated. It is welcome news indeed that BBC TV news has at last presented a report on conditions in Maslakh refugee camp in Afghanistan. We look forward to David Loyn revealing the true horror of conditions in Maslakh. We hope he will mention that 100 people have been dying every day in the camp, that thousands of people elsewhere are surviving on grass, and that untold numbers are dying in villages beyond the reach of aid agencies. We hope that Mr. Loyn will point out that considerable moral responsibility for all of this lies with British and U.S. politicians who rejected aid agency warnings last September. Those warnings made clear that the threat, much less the execution, of bombing would place the lives of 7 million Afghan civilians in peril. We await the BBC’s investigation into the true scale of the slaughter and whether the results of the war merited the appalling human cost. We hope, in short, that Mr. Loyn will have the courage to reject the advice given to staff by the BBC’s Newsnight editor, Peter Horrocks, in 1997:

“Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” (Quoted, Robert Newman, the Guardian, August 7, 2000)

We note that hundreds of aid agency staff have been continuously operating in, and reporting back from, Maslakh for many months. If Maslakh really has been too dangerous for reporters, then perhaps some kind of communication link could have been established with aid agency workers willing to take the risk. Why has the BBC not established lines of communication with an agency such as Feed the Children in Maslakh? Frankly the argument makes little sense to us.

As to your main rebuttals, we find it remarkable that your response to a set of serious and detailed arguments on such a vital issue is largely limited to quoting the BBC’s declaration of its independence, and to your own personal pledge: “I can assure you that we do not make editorial decisions on the basis of what will please the government.” We accept that you have given some coverage to refugees fleeing to Pakistan. What you have not reported is the mass death of the people they left behind.

We should be clear that we do not at all argue that BBC reporting is “determined by [its] support of western institutions of power”. Our argument is that the BBC, like the mass media generally, is an integral part of an economic and political system that systematically distorts public understanding of the world in a way that favours powerful corporate and state interests. The revolving doors spinning between the BBC and government, between the BBC and big business, between big business, government and the media generally, move so continuously and fast that these organisations appear to us to constitute one extended system of establishment influence and control.

Media Lens has previously noted the manner in which BBC chairmen are traditionally appointed by government ministers. In 1980, George Howard, the friend of Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, was appointed BBC chairman because Margaret Thatcher was opposed to Liberal Mark Bonham-Carter being promoted vice-chairman. Stuart Young, the brother of one of Thatcher’s staunchest cabinet allies, succeeded Howard in 1983. He was followed in 1986 by Marmaduke Hussey. According to the then-Tory chairman, Norman Tebbit, Hussey was appointed “to get in there [the BBC] and sort the place out, and in days not months”. (Steve Barnett, ‘Right man, right time, for all the right reasons’, the Observer, September 23, 2001) In January of this year, Lord Birt, the former director general of the BBC, was appointed transport advisor to the government. Before last year’s election Lord Birt was instrumental in drawing up an anti-crime strategy for the government.

These problems are hardly peculiar to the BBC, as a recent Guardian article makes clear:

“Blair’s government is stuffed with journalists. In Downing Street there is Alastair Campbell (Mirror), Phil Bassett (Times and Financial Times), David Bradshaw (Mirror), Andrew Adonis (Observer) and Fiona Millar (Express). Lance Price (BBC) has just left to open a bar, a more traditional route out of the trade. At the foreign office, John Williams (Mirror) rules the media roost, aided by David Shaw (Evening Standard). Sheree Dodd of the Mirror is senior spinner at the Department for Work and Pensions, having previously been Mo Mowlam’s spin doctor at the Northern Ireland Office. Peter Hooley (Express) is senior press officer at Defra, the food and environment department, and Sian Jarvis (GMTV) is director of communications at the Department of Health. Peter McMahon (Mirror, Scotsman) held ex-First Minister Henry McLeish’s hand at the Scottish Office.” (‘Jumping ship’, Paul Routledge, Guardian, December 10, 2001)

The BBC’s links with big business also speak for themselves. We have noted that BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, was touted as the next Governor of the Bank of England in 1997. Prior to joining the BBC, Davies was chief economist of the powerful global bank Goldman Sachs. The outgoing BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, left the BBC to become chairman of British Telecom.

In an article in today’s Guardian, George Monbiot reveals the appalling truth about the media:

“The gorilla at the head of the line is the media. Most of it belongs, of course, to major corporations, some of which also have substantial interests in other sectors. They rely for much of their income on corporate advertisers. The proprietors’ political project is to create a better world for corporations and multimillionaires.

Their attitudes appear to have reached parts of the non-commercial sector. Last year, Private Eye published a leaked memo sent to the BBC’s director general Greg Dyke by the business editor Jeff Randall. He attacked a reporter for questioning a corporate executive about high prices during an interview for the Today programme’s business report. ‘Nobody in their right mind would put up with that. It was crude consumerism of the worst kind. If that slot is on Radio 4 simply to champion the downtrodden shopper, then why not drop the business tag and rename it the Ralph Nader memorial lecture? No serious business people will be interested in listening to, much less participating in, that kind of crap.’ Since then, “that slot” has been used to give business executives the unchallenged access otherwise reserved only for God on Thought for the Day.” (‘Where the real power is’, George Monbiot, Guardian, February 5, 2002)

The result of all this has been explained by John Pilger:

“[The BBC’s] terms of reference are so narrow and so integrated into a consensus view, the prevailing wisdom, the establishment view – whatever you want to call it – that it is a form of propaganda. If you turn on the BBC television news, the way the news agendas are presented is something that is simply an extension, in my view, of an established, an almost accredited, point of view.” (Interview with David Cromwell, June 3, 2001)

Your declarations and assurances appear empty indeed, Mr. Sambrook, when set alongside the mountain of evidence supporting the argument that the mainstream media, the BBC included, operate as a de facto propaganda system for powerful interests.

The myth of BBC objectivity is exposed by the briefest of glances at the historical record. Leaked minutes of one of the BBC’s weekly Review Board meetings during the Falklands war reveal that BBC executives directed that the weight of their news coverage should be concerned “primarily with government statements of policy”. An impartial style was felt to be “an unnecessary irritation”. (Quoted John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, p.492)

It is notable that, following 78 days of Nato bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the BBC’s John Simpson said: “Why did British, American, German, and French public opinion stay rock-solid for the bombing, in spite of Nato’s mistakes? Because they knew the war was right. Who gave them the information? The media.” (Quoted, Charles Glass, ZNet Commentary, August 1, 1999)

Simpson’s career history is itself revealing. He “was promoted with spectacular rapidity to the post of political editor,” the Guardian notes. “That came to a swift end when he compiled a report on the Falkland’s war which appeared to suggest that UK foreign policy had invited the invasion. Downing Street made calls; three days later he was taken off the air. It was 1988 before he returned from the wilderness to a role as a foreign affairs specialist.” (Oliver Burkeman, ‘Simpson of Kabul’, the Guardian, November 14, 2001)

Is this the kind of reality you “totally reject”?

Although Simpson famously irritated government spin doctors with his reports from Belgrade, the BBC did not inform its viewers and listeners of the outrageous terms of the Rambouillet ‘peace treaty’, which paved the way for bombing. The BBC has also consistently supported Nato and UK government claims that the Serbs were responsible for “genocide” in Kosovo. A recent BBC documentary (‘Exposed’, BBC2, January 27, 2002), billed as a special programme marking Holocaust Memorial Day, dealt with this supposed “genocide”. This despite the fact that the final count of the Tribunal set up to investigate war crimes in Kosovo was under 4,000 dead – from unknown causes and on all sides in the conflict. Presumably, then, the 4,000 Afghan victims of U.S. bombing mean that the West is also responsible for a genocide that merits comparison with one of the greatest atrocities in human history.

Or consider the UN sanctions against Iraq, imposed and maintained with unbending enthusiasm by the US and its British ally. Denis Halliday, the former UN Assistant Secretary-General who resigned in protest at the deaths of 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 every month, has said of the BBC: “I’m very disappointed with the BBC. The BBC has been very aggressively in favour of sanctions.” (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000)

In 1998, the BBC was called to account for its Scare Stories documentary which covered the Brent Spar and which inaccurately portrayed the views of environmentalists. The BBC later publicly apologised for its unfair coverage.

The list could go on.

We respect your willingness to debate with us, and we believe that you are sincere in your arguments. We believe that many honourable people in the BBC are doing their best within the constraints of a globalised political and economic system that makes honest reporting all but impossible. It is not our intention to point the finger of blame, but to illuminate the role of compromised reporting in promoting the subordination of people and planet to profit. Ultimately, I’m afraid, we have to reject your responses to our arguments as trivial. This may sound harsh, but as the humanist and dissident thinker, Erich Fromm, wrote:

“To be naive and easily deceived is impermissible, today more than ever, when the prevailing untruths may lead to a catastrophe because they blind people to real dangers and real possibilities.”


David Cromwell and David Edwards


Contact Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news, with your views on BBC performance:

Email: [email protected]