Update: BBC World Service Editor Responds on Panorama



14th November 2002

Media Alert 

In response to our recent Media Alert – Our Pravda: The BBC, Panorama and Iraq (November 8, 2002) – we received these emails from Bill Hayton of the BBC’s World Service:

Having read some of your material from time to time and agreed with parts of it, I wondered if you might be interested in seeing a corporate news organisation at work. I’d be happy to have you shadow me during a working Monday to see how the news agenda is planned and executed. You’d have to be here by 8:30 in the morning.

Bill Hayton
Acting Europe Region Editor
BBC World Service – 12.11.02

Dear Bill

Many thanks for your kind offer to “shadow” you at work. To be honest, I’m not sure what the point would be. We would no doubt witness a group of highly professional and honest journalists sitting around planning and executing the news agenda according to their sincerely held beliefs of what constitutes objective and balanced reporting. Our point is that if they believed something different they wouldn’t be sitting where they’re sitting. We would, however, be very interested to hear any responses you might have to our recent Media Alert on the BBC and a recent Panorama documentary, below [attached].

Thanks for your time.

Best wishes

David Edwards
Co-Editor – Media Lens – 12.11.02

Dear David,

It was your media alert which prompted me to write. While much of what Media Lens writes is reasonable, at its heart lies a simplistic and mechanistic analysis of the causes of bias. I think your pieces will be much more sympathetically received by working journalists with a slightly defter touch and more sophisticated understanding of what working in journalism is actually like.

Your analyses repeatedly assert that there is a propaganda machine at work within the BBC – that because governors are appointed by the government that journalists’ work is necessarily tainted. That’s about as correct as saying that all academics are propagandists because their work is government-funded. I note for example that the research of your co-worker, David Cromwell used to be (perhaps still is?) part-funded by the Ministry of Defence but that doesn’t mean that his mind was owned by the MOD.

There are clearly problems with working at mainstream media organisations but your analysis does not clearly frame them. I’d like to help “correct the distorted vision” (to coin a phrase) with the intention of making the analysis sharper, not blunter. At the moment you are regarded (in so far as you are regarded) as, “the Mary Whitehouse of the Green movement” as a colleague remarked. And mistakes such as your comment, “The moral and legal right of the United States to “get rid of him” was of course beyond the remit of the BBC’s leading investigative programme, as it is beyond the remit of all BBC reporting.” does not help you case. Take this, for one example:

DATE: 7/10/02 N.208
CUE: Britain has refused to comment on a report in the Financial Times that the government’s senior law officers {the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General} have advised it that an attack on Iraq undertaken to change the regime would be a breach of international law. But British officials say this issue is a red herring, since legal authority for military action would be likely to come from the Security Council — either through existing resolutions or the new one the United States and Britain are trying to get the Council to pass. Our diplomatic correspondent, Barnaby Mason, looks at the arguments:

It’s clear that international legal authority cannot be found for military action specifically designed to overthrow President Saddam Hussein. That’s the main reason the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, declines to adopt President Bush’s regime change as his own policy; instead, he says, the objective is disarmament (– though it would of course be wonderful if the Iraqi leader were to disappear). British officials say the question of whether there is a legal basis for regime change, or for the other American concept of pre-emptive action in self-defence, is a red herring. The authority for military action, they argue, derives from the Security Council. France and Russia and many others insist that there must be a new resolution giving explicit authorisation. But a British Foreign Office memorandum to a parliamentary committee in June (the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons) looked back to the Security Council’s authorisation to use force to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait twelve years ago. According to the memorandum, the authorisation was only suspended at the end of the Gulf War, not terminated, and could be revived if Iraq was in breach of the disarmament obligations laid down in the ceasefire resolution. That argument was used to justify the American-British air attacks on Iraq in 1998 after the blocking of UN weapons inspections. However, the difference now is that the Iraqi government has promised unrestricted access for the inspectors. Another objection was raised by Richard Holbrooke, American ambassador to the UN under President Clinton. He said the argument that existing Security Council resolutions already provided sufficient legal authority might have some merit in legal circles, but it had none in political or practical terms. // The issue of international legality is one where the United States and Britain do not speak with one voice. And the Bush administration is impatient with fine legal points that inhibit its freedom of action.

I’m not expecting you to experience a Pauline conversion but your critique might benefit from a better understanding of the way things work inside a media organisation.


Bill – 13.11.02

Dear Bill

Many thanks for your response and for your generous offer to help us sharpen our analysis. I think you should be very cautious before deciding that at the heart of what we’re doing “lies a simplistic and mechanistic analysis of the causes of bias”. There is an enormous temptation when facing criticism to manufacture a ‘straw man’ version of the actual argument in order to easily dismiss it as fundamentally flawed. In fact we have published over 50 Media Alerts this year alone, and in these (and in our books – three of them between us) we have explored the many political, economic, structural and psychological pressures that constrain media reporting. You surely don’t believe that we imagine that government appointment of the chairman is in itself sufficient to account for the performance of BBC journalists. The recent Panorama Alert asks how the BBC gave in to strong-arm political tactics that resulted in the temporary banishment of John Simpson. The answer given was that political influence extends right to the highest levels of BBC management, so such punishment should come as no surprise. But this is only one factor in constraining journalistic independence.

Our Alerts are sent to thousands of regular readers and much as we would love to keep repeating the five filters outlined in Edwards Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model of the media in every Alert (and we have repeated them many times), it would simply drive people crazy. So we sometimes reluctantly take a certain level of awareness as read by our readers – the latest Alert on Panorama was intended as one more piece in the jigsaw. If you are determined to dismiss our view on the basis of that one Alert, then you are free to do so, but your judgement won’t be based on the reality of what we’re arguing, just as it would be absurd for us to judge the BBC’s performance on the basis of one documentary.

In an earlier Media Alert, for example, we wrote “dissident arguments do not depend on conspiratorial self-censorship, but on a filter system maintained by free market forces – bottom-line pressures, owner influence, parent company goals and sensitivities, advertiser needs, business-friendly government influence and corporate PR ‘flak’ – which introduce bias by marginalising alternatives, providing incentives to conform and costs for failure to conform”. (Guardian Journalist Responds on Dissidents, 12th January 2002 )

We quoted Orwell in another Alert:

“George Orwell wrote about censorship in ostensibly free societies, noting ‘that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban.’ In other words, no conspiracy is necessary for the establishment – including the mass media – to police legitimate dissent.” (Liberal Herrings Part 2 – The Guardian’s John Vidal Responds on Climate Coverage, 8th August 2002)

In another we wrote:

“The point is not that journalists or commentators are dishonest conspirators; rather, unless they happen to conform to institutional requirements, they will find no place in the corporate media. Journalists either consciously understand this, or so successfully internalise the required views that they are unable to think anything else. Dissenting voices do exist in the mainstream media, but they are few, marginalised, and, in the words of John Pilger describing his own position, act as ‘fig leaves’ hiding the general level of servility to power.” (BBC Correspondent Responds on Red Cross Report, 4th January, 2002)

Sometimes we use analogies from the natural world to try and communicate the subtlety of the problem we are exploring:

“Chemistry teachers have long delighted students by showing how near-perfect symmetrical structures can be produced by pouring a large number of small balls into a square box, whereupon a perfect pyramid is inevitably produced. The balls either land in a pyramid-building position, bounce into such a position, or bounce out of the structure. The resulting pyramid – like crystalline structures found in the natural world – looks for all the world like it has been carefully designed; in fact it is merely a consequence of the random flow of small round objects over a square framework.

We believe that the flow of journalists in and out of the framing structure of the mainstream corporate media accounts, in a roughly analogous way, for the remarkably uniform patterns found in mainstream reporting. As we have shown in earlier Media Alerts, the corporate media is structured in a way that protects and furthers the interests of state-corporate power in the absence of any conspiracy, or even overt interference. The uniformity of reporting simply follows from the interaction of human nature with the framing structures of state-corporate capitalism – journalists with the correct views, priorities and goals ‘fall into place’ in the media pyramid, while others bounce (or are bounced) out.

This does not mean that there is no dissent in the mainstream; on the contrary the system strongly requires the +appearance+ of openness. In an ostensibly democratic society, a propaganda system must incorporate occasional instances of dissent. Like vaccines, these small doses of truth inoculate the public against awareness of the rigid limits of media freedom. The honest dissident pieces which occasionally surface in the mainstream are quite as important to the successful functioning of the propaganda system as the vast mass of power-friendly journalism. Dissidents (a tiny number of them) also have their place in the pyramid – the end result, however, is an overall performance that tends to mould public opinion to support the goals of state-corporate power.” (Conspiracy-Free Conformity – How the Mainstream Smears Dissident Output, 26th July, 2002)

The quote you cited was interesting, and rare. But it can hardly be considered a serious challenge to the legal and moral right of the US to “get rid of” Saddam Hussein. That would involve an exploration of the US’s atrocious record of selecting and installing, and/or arming and defending a long list of Third World dictators (Saddam Hussein included) for the purpose of protecting Western corporate interests against the demands of Third World people. It would involve a detailed analysis of how the US continuously undermines and compromises the UN – for example by employing massive bribery and threats in building a UN mandate and coalition ahead of the last Gulf War – and completely ignores the UN as suits. It would involve a detailed analysis of Bush appointees, pointing out that 32 major policy makers had significant financial ties to the arms industry prior to joining the administration, as compared with 21 appointees with ties to the energy industry. Honest dissident commentators would be brought in to the studio to explain how these interests, not 9-11 or the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction, were driving policy. It would examine the US’s record of promoting democracy in the region, by looking, for example, at Iraq’s neighbour, Iran. BBC viewers would be fascinated, I’m sure, to know the details of how the US installed the murderous Shah in 1953 in a military coup to safeguard access to Iranian oil. The Shah quickly came to have a record of murder and torture that was “beyond belief”, according to Amnesty International. But all of this belongs to an alternate reality that doesn’t exist as far as the BBC is concerned. The three main BBC1 News programmes forever depict the US and UK governments as fundamentally respectable, law-abiding, reasonable and benign when it comes to international affairs, as a matter of long-established tradition. There are doubtless occasional exceptions, but they are invisible beside this basic deference to power – Stephen Sackur reporting from Washington, James Robbins outside the UN, for example.

Beyond all this, the fact is that the record of BBC performance – we tend to concentrate on TV news because it’s so influential – indicates transparent servility to establishment interests. On issue after issue, facts and voices that are damaging to powerful interests are passed over, barely hinted at, or simply ignored. To take just one tiny, obvious example at random: Noam Chomsky is currently the most popular writer on international politics in the UK, and one of the greatest dissident thinkers ever to have lived. Can we imagine that he could ever appear on the BBC’s News At Ten? Well why not? And yet the idea is absurd, it just couldn’t happen. We can fantasise, of course:

Peter Sissons: “Professor Chomsky, what +is+ the goal of Western policy in Iraq?”

Chomsky: “Unfortunately, the elite interests controlling US/UK policy – and much of the media, incidentally, the BBC included – have a long and bloody history…”

Ultimately “what working in journalism is actually like” is really not the issue, the issue is what journalistic +performance+ is actually like. This is what interests us, what determines whether people live or die under Western bombs abroad. Anyone interested enough to check, and with a reasonable level of honesty, can very quickly see how compromised the media really is.

The idea that we are “the Mary Whitehouse of the Green movement” sounds about right. We offer serious structural analyses of media performance backed up by credible sources and verifiable facts, and promote democratic challenge of, and participation in, the media. This is threatening to the media we are exposing, and the many interests that depend on them, so of course we are dismissed by them as ridiculous, trivial and extreme – this has always been the response to our kind of analysis, it’s a way of avoiding serious discussion. We’ve actually written about the constant charge of extremism, implied also in your comment, in several Media Alerts. We selected some typical descriptions from the press:

On Chomsky: “Chomsky knows so much but seems impervious to any idea of nuance.” (Steve Crawshaw, The Independent, February 21, 2001)

On Pilger: “The brilliance of John Pilger’s reporting is, or ought to be, beyond dispute.” But he “can never end his criticisms and condemnation at the point when most people would think it reasonable to stop.” (Roy Hattersley, the Guardian, July 20, 2002)

On Pinter: “He has this terribly imaginative vision of the world and everything has to fit it.” (Jay Rayner, The Observer, May 16, 1999)

Or as you said, almost paraphrasing the above: “While much of what Media Lens writes is reasonable, at its heart lies a simplistic and mechanistic analysis of the causes of bias.”

The idea that we are part of “the Green movement” is also suitably divorced from the reality of what we are doing.

In my first email I invited you to respond to the points we made in the Panorama Alert. Your failure to respond is a perfect example of the kind of silence on important issues we keep having to describe. So what +do+ you have to say about the claim made by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian on John Simpson?

“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 true? Is it a regular occurrence? Does this kind of event influence journalistic performance? If not, why not? Might it be in some way connected to the government appointment of senior BBC managers?

And what did you make of the quote from Newsnight editor, Peter Horrocks?:

“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)

Is this acceptable, in your view?

And what did you make of the fact that John Simpson passed over the US/UK slaughter of a million civilians in Iraq in 16 words on sanctions?:

“They [sanctions] were indeed a savage punishment, for they chiefly hurt the ordinary people of the country.”

And why is it that BBC TV news essentially never mentions that arms inspectors were infiltrated by the CIA, that the information gained was used for bombing Iraq, or that inspectors were pulled out of Iraq after achieving 90-95% success, because of a dispute manufactured by the US government? The BBC’s Jane Corbin stated on Panorama, “the inspectors were thrown out… and a divided UN Security Council let Saddam get away with it.” (Panorama, The Case Against Saddam, BBC1, September 23, 2002)

On the BBC’s Lunchtime News, James Robbins reported that inspectors were “asked to leave” after relations with Iraq broke down. (BBC1, September 17, 2002)

On BBC Radio 4, foreign secretary Jack Straw was allowed to promote the deception unchallenged by interviewer John Humphrys:

“The inspectors were able to get in and to do their work until the international community’s resolve, I’m afraid, fractured rather, and Saddam Hussein was able to exploit that and expel the inspectors.” (Jack Straw, Today, BBC Radio 4, October 12, 2002)

Humphrys said:

“Well much of that may be true, surely is true, certainly when you talk about Saddam’s record and nobody would argue with any of that.” To his credit, Humphrys subsequently challenged Straw, after complaints from Media Lens readers.

Can you provide a different explanation of why the BBC’s consistent misreporting of these events so closely echoes US/UK lies? That would certainly help sharpen our analysis.

Best wishes

David – 14.11.02


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.

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