BBC Director-General Given An Easy Ride By The Independent

Regular readers of Media Lens Media Alerts will be aware of our recent criticism of the BBC and ITN for failing to highlight both Western war crimes and responsibility for the mass starvation of Afghan civilians. By now, an estimated 5,000 civilians have been killed in the ongoing bombing raids, many thousands have died of starvation, and millions remain at extreme risk of starvation.

On February 18, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which screens new arrivals for malnourishment at Maslakh refugee camp, reported that when people first arrive from the provinces they are not severely malnourished. An MSF nurse, Jenny Andersson, noted while there were many malnourished children in the camp, what was particularly alarming was that many of them were becoming so while they were in the camp. Andersson says:

“The food system is not really working. Although WFP has been providing food for more than 300,000 people, it simply isn’t reaching the people that really need it.” (

According to the MSF report, as many as 26 percent of the refugees in Maslakh camp are suffering from malnutrition.

On February 12, a World Vision Health and Nutrition Team reported the results of a five-day assessment of the remote villages of the Qal’eh-Ye-Now district in the north-western Afghanistan province of Badghis. The team found alarming conditions and tremendous logistical difficulties in getting the much-needed food, health, and planting supplies into the region:

“As the team travelled it saw numerous groups of women and children scavenging the valley fields for weeds, roots, and grass to eat. Food stocks are dangerously low. Medical assistance and education is virtually non-existent.” (

On February 8, a Red Cross Red Crescent assessment mission returning from western Afghanistan reported “scenes of great deprivation in villages and remote mountain valleys”:

“We saw children digging in the fields for roots to eat and use as firewood. Leaves from the trees were also being eaten,” says John Watt, operations manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (

In many of the villages there was no agricultural activity because of drought, no seeds were available for planting, and much of the livestock had either died or been sold off. Girls were being offered as brides “for as little as 100 kgs of wheat flour”.

About these horrors, next to nothing has appeared either in the print or broadcast media this year. There have been occasional articles and isolated reports, but nothing to suggest the functioning of a free and independent media system determined to cast light on our government’s responsibility for the mass death of innocents. This is a form of institutionalised, structural bias that is found right across the media, both here and in the United States: the globalised corporate mass media system, indistinguishable from other centres of establishment power, naturally turns away from issues damaging to establishment interests. The BBC, or ‘Auntie Beeb’, is not Big Brother, but it is a very close relative indeed.

The BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook, has responded with identical answers to several cogent and passionate emails from Media Lens readers pointing out the BBC’s dearth of coverage on Afghan refugees compared to that afforded Kosovar refugees (declared our enemies’ victims) in 1999 and to U.S. victims of September 11.

Sambrook writes: “We would like to mention that our correspondent David Loyn has recently managed to reach the Maslakh refugee camp and remote mountain villages, from where he has reported on the hunger and suffering of the Afghan people.”

That BBC TV coverage on the suffering of the refugees is as late and little as this is a shocking indictment of the BBC. Also, to our knowledge, Loyn has drawn no link of culpability between the suffering of those dying of starvation, and dying at the rate of one hundred a day in Maslakh refugee camp, and the US/UK attacks on the Afghan people.

In a recent Media Alert, Media Lens pointed out other instances of the BBC’s failure to live up to its self-proclaimed provision of “independent and impartial news [as] a fundamental part of a free society and the democratic process”: on climate change, the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq, the Gulf War, the Falklands War, the environment, poverty and other major issues.

Given the BBC’s clear vulnerability to informed criticism of its atrocious record, one might imagine that, on being granted a major interview with the BBC’s director-general Greg Dyke, a critical journalist would have matters of substantive interest to place before him. But when Louise Jury, The Independent’s media correspondent, recently interviewed Dyke she was more concerned with Dyke’s “disdain” for the “dull beige-brown” carpet in his office than with the BBC’s performance in reporting September 11 and subsequent events. (‘Dyke vision’, The Independent, 4 February, 2002)

Much of Jury’s piece was devoted to exploring how unhappy Dyke had been in the first year of his new job and how content he appears to be now, two years on. “Life is too short to be miserable”, Dyke says. Jury observes that “his enthusiasm is infectious” and that he displays “bullishness”. No talk of grass-eating Afghans here, or of small children eviscerated by cluster bombs; instead the interview focused on personalities and personal issues of the BBC’s leading lights, with Dyke’s right-hand woman in charge of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, described as “feisty”. Dyke himself “has a remarkably uncorporate air”, who “may have shaved off his beard when he became D-G, but he is not exactly pinstripe man”.

We can easily imagine the reaction if a western journalist had interviewed the chief of Pravda at the height of the ‘Cold War’, dwelling largely on appearance, mood, office decor, with a few mild questions about the conduct of business. Wouldn’t the western audience expect challenging questions about such an organisation’s fundamental legitimacy, its responsibility for suffering, its ideological support for a particular world view?

It may seem outrageous to compare the BBC with Pravda, but only because we live in a society that suppresses all serious dissent. The BBC has consistently supported UK/US policies described as “genocidal” by highly credible voices. In 1998 and 2000, senior UN officials Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck resigned from their posts as humanitarian coordinators in Iraq accusing the west of “genocide” and responsibility for “destroying an entire generation”. These accusations are only unknown and irrelevant because the media chooses for them to be. 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)

It is these same sanctions, promoted so aggressively by the BBC, that Halliday has described as “genocidal” – this is the reality of BBC performance.

One useful detail that we do learn from Jury’s piece is that Dyke has “an estimated personal wealth of £15m” – a standard example of the vast wealth of major British media players standing neutrally between elite interests and ‘Joe six-pack’. Media Lens readers will recall that BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, is estimated to be worth £150 million.

The BBC under Dyke, we learn, is “reinvigorated”. Jury describes the institution as being “on a roll”. But Jury’s presentation of BBC output is restricted to the politically safe topic of acclaimed drama (‘The Way We Live Now’ and ‘Conspiracy’), “brave” new art documentaries (‘Rolf on Art’) and Mr Dyke’s observation that programmes such as ITV’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ is the kind of thing “the BBC should have done”. There is no reference to the BBC’s news output or challenging political documentaries (or lack thereof).

The only hint that there may have been something substantive to discuss is restricted to the following short cryptic paragraph:

“[Greg Dyke’s] own big ‘but’ is that the BBC hasn’t rocked enough boats. ‘I’m a bit disappointed in the last two years how few programmes have been controversial. One of the roles of a broadcaster is to challenge. I’m a bit disappointed we haven’t challenged enough.'”

No suggestion is given by either Dyke or Jury on what it is about our corporate-controlled society, politics and media that might need challenging, or what form such a challenge might take.

The Independent’s interview continues the standard unwritten rule of ‘liberal’ press reporting: focus with sustained and detailed attention on trivial issues in such a way that the broader economic and political context is presented as a given, perhaps even a god-given. After all, why challenge what simply ‘is’? Likewise, why should the media section of newspapers involve the public (let alone public dissent) when the current version, for media insiders only, simply ‘is’? Such reporting is not news; it is propaganda promoting powerful interests. As Noam Chomsky has written:

“The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, New York, 1992).


Contact Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director-general, and ask him what he meant when he said: “I’m a bit disappointed we haven’t challenged enough.” Mention specific topics that he might have had in mind: our government’s reponsibility for the mass starvation and death of refugees in Afghanistan and cynical big business obstruction of action on climate change, for example. (Email: mailto:[email protected])

Contact Louise Jury ([email protected]), media correspondent of The Independent, and ask her why she failed to address the BBC’s bias and omissions in news reporting on major issues of importance, such as the mass death of Afghan refugees and climate change. Copy your email to Simon Kelner ([email protected]), the editor of The Independent.


“War or no war, many journalists are instinctively protective of the legitimacy of the institutions they cover. But the job of a journalist is not to promote but to question.” (Jim Naureckas of U.S. media monitoring group FAIR, November 15, 2001. FAIR media alert, ‘Burying the Lead: Democracy Denied.’