Government Attacks On The BBC Reflect Government Totalitarianism, Not BBC Radicalism

Absent Furores

It is clear that the British government’s attacks on the BBC are a deliberate attempt to distract attention from a) the dramatic failure to find any trace of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, b) the fact that the government clearly lied to parliament and country about the threat these fictional WMD posed, and c) the fact that a whole range of media is openly speculating that the government lied in order to persuade the country to go to war.

The BBC has had little choice but to defend its reputation, particularly its appearance of independence, with great vigour. This priority has overridden the close links between senior management and government. The BBC’s chairman, Gavyn Davies, was appointed by New Labour in 2001. Both Davies and the director-general, Greg Dyke, are not just Labour supporters but have both given money to the party. In Davies’s case, the links are even more intimate – Davies’s wife runs Gordon Brown’s office. His children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding and Tony Blair has stayed at his holiday home. “In other words”, Richard Ingrams wrote in the Observer in 2001, “it would be hard to find a better example of a Tony crony.” (Ingrams, the Observer, September 23, 2001)

The post-war media questioning of government policy is certainly not par for the course. In 1999, the US and UK bombed Serbia for 78 days, beginning March 24, in response to an alleged “genocide” taking place in Kosovo. After the war, the media raised few questions about the absence of evidence of the much-discussed “genocide”. In the summer of 2000, the International War Crimes Tribunal reported that some 2,788 bodies had been found, including Serbs, Roma and combatants. There was no furore in the press reminding readers that in an interview in June 2000, George Robertson, British defence secretary during the bombing, had said:

“We were faced with a situation where there was this killing going on, this cleansing going on – the kind of ethnic cleansing we thought had disappeared after the Second World War. You were seeing people there coming in trains, the cattle trains, with refugees once again.” (Jonathan Dimbleby, ITV, June 11, 2000)

The US Defence Secretary, William Cohen, had said during the war:

“We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing… They may have been murdered.” (Quoted, Degraded Capability, The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, edited by Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, Pluto Press, 2000, p.139)

That these were examples of what Clare Short might describe as “honourable deception” and “extraordinary recklessness” was not discussed – there were no high-level resignations to oblige the press to illuminate the chasm between moralising rhetoric and reality.

No questions were raised about the fact that Robertson had said:

“Imagine if almost two million refugees had been expelled from Kosovo and were in the surrounding countries and scattered throughout Europe. Just imagine if Milosevic had succeeded with that ethnic cleansing.”

In reality, as Robertson surely knew, the flood of refugees began immediately +after+ Nato launched its attack. Prior to the bombing, and for the following two days, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported no data on refugees. On March 27, three days into the bombing, UNHCR reported that 4,000 had fled Kosovo to the neighbouring countries of Albania and Macedonia. By April 5, the New York Times reported “more than 350,000 have left Kosovo since March 24” (See Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, Pluto Press, 1999). Robertson was implying that Nato had responded to a cause that occurred after the effect – an absurdity.

Following the attack on Serbia, Robertson was appointed Secretary General of Nato in August 1999. A Guardian editorial commented on Robertson and his appointment:

“It’s hard to resist pride that a Brit has been deemed worthy of presiding at a top table… Even if George Robertson were a shining star of the administration rather than a competent performer whom events have tested and found to have the right stuff, his loss would be a small price to pay for remaking Nato.” (‘A Brit for Nato? Robertson has a lot of the right stuff’, Leader, the Guardian, August 2, 1999)

Every British newspaper except the Independent on Sunday had taken a pro-war line in its editorial column. As for the BBC, veteran corporation broadcaster, John Simpson, responded to claims that he had been a mouthpiece for the Belgrade government, saying:

“Why did… 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.” (Hammond and Herman, op., cit, p.126)

There was no media outrage in response to the kind of obvious conclusions drawn by Philip Hammond of London’s South Bank University:

“We may never know the true number of people killed. But it seems reasonable to conclude that while people died in clashes between the KLA and Yugoslav forces… the picture painted by Nato – of a systematic campaign of Nazi-style genocide carried out by Serbs – was pure invention.” (Hammond and Herman, op. cit., p.129)

Pure invention, like the 45-minute threat posed by Iraq’s mythical WMD. And yet, in typical style, Blair had described Nato’s intervention as “a battle between good and evil: between civilisation and barbarity; between democracy and dictatorship” (ibid, p.123). This, as Nato bombs crashed through 33 hospitals, 344 schools, 144 major industrial plants, and hotels, libraries, housing estates, theatres, museums, farms (setting fields alight), a mosque in Djakovica, a Basilica in Nis, a church in Prokuplje, trains, tractors, power stations, and so on. According to Yugoslav authorities, civilian targets comprised 60 per cent of the total hit by Nato bombs.

Amnesty International claimed that during the bombing: “NATO forces…committed serious violations of the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of civilians.” (‘NATO violations of the laws of war during Operation Allied Force must be investigated’, Amnesty International press Release, June 7, 2000)

Amnesty focused in particular on the April 23 bombing of the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television, which left 16 civilians dead, describing it as “a deliberate attack on a civilian object”, which therefore “constitutes a war crime”. The report also noted that the requirement that Nato aircraft fly above 15,000 feet to provide maximum protection for aircraft and pilots “made full adherence to international humanitarian law virtually impossible”.

For some reason, the fact that this mass slaughter had been based on a set of lies – lies quite as outrageous as those now being exposed – just didn’t matter in 1999. No wonder Blair was so confident in lying his way to war on Iraq.

Similarly, in 2001, the US and UK governments knowingly risked the lives of 7.5 million starving people in Afghanistan as winter approached and the aid convoys stopped in response to the threat of bombing. Dire aid agency warnings of possible mass death were simply ignored by the media after Kabul fell and Osama bin Laden slipped the net. Few questions were raised about the morality of the action – the media were unconcerned with establishing how many civilians had died in the winter snows, although the Guardian conservatively estimated 20,000 deaths. Kate Stearman, head of communications at the British branch of Care International, said:

“After September 11 there was widespread panic in Afghanistan with soaring food prices and mass flight from cities… The bombing and the deteriorating security situation meant huge and largely unrecorded population movements. While the expected one million-plus refugees in Pakistan did not appear, this in itself was worrying because it indicated that many more were trapped inside Afghanistan, their situation unknown.” (Jonathan Steele, ‘Forgotten victims – The full human cost of US air strikes will never be known, but many more died than those killed directly by bombs’, the Guardian, May 20, 2002)

Swallowing The Government Line

New Labour’s attack on the BBC is plainly irrational – similar claims of government mendacity have been made throughout the media. Moreover, the idea that the BBC was pursuing an “anti-war” agenda – as the government’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, has claimed – is a further example of “pure invention”.

In fact the BBC faithfully echoed government propaganda in the lead up to the war, and even more so during the war itself. The issue raging now is over whether the BBC was impartial or anti-war. The impact of this false debate has reached even dissident circles. In an article published on ZNet, Danny Schechter of MediaChannel writes:

“The BBC boasts, often with legitimacy, of the impartiality it brings to the coverage of the news.” (Schechter, ‘Behind Blair vs The Beeb The BBC’s Next War – Why The Knives Are Out for Aunty’,, July 23, 2003)

This is remarkable. As Schechter himself acknowledges, a Cardiff University report found that the BBC “displayed the most ‘pro-war’ agenda of any broadcaster” (Matt Wells, ‘Study deals a blow to claims of anti-war bias in BBC news’, the Guardian, July 4, 2003). Over the three weeks of conflict, 11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters. The BBC was less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent sources, who also tended to be the most sceptical. The BBC also placed least emphasis on Iraqi casualties, which were mentioned in 22% of its stories about the Iraqi people, and it was least likely to report on Iraqi opposition to the invasion.

It is easy to select examples at random indicating how the BBC swallowed and then regurgitated government propaganda. The BBC’s Jane Corbin stated on Panorama that Unscom weapons inspectors “were thrown out [in 1998]… 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) In fact inspectors were withdrawn by the UN after the Iraqi regime had cooperated in delivering 90-95% disarmament of WMD.

In November 2002, the BBC broadcast a Panorama programme: ‘Saddam: A Warning From History’, (BBC1, November 3, 2002). The title was clearly intended to resonate with that of an earlier BBC series: ‘The Nazis – A Warning From History.’ Compare and contrast the implied parallel with this statement from Blair in an ITN interview:

“What does the whole of our history teach us, I mean British history in particular? That if when you’re faced with a threat you decide to avoid confronting it short term, then all that happens is that in the longer term you have to confront it and confront it an even more deadly form.” (ITN News at 6:30, January 31, 2003)

The BBC’s Guto Hari was typical of BBC news reporters in appearing convinced that Blair was pursuing a peaceful settlement, even as hundreds of thousands of troops poured into the Gulf, with the “coalition” clearly hell-bent on war. Of a peaceful solution, Hari said:

“Of course that’s his [Blair’s] preferred option. He keeps saying it’s his preferred option. But he won’t rule it [war] out in the event that the UN, perhaps, will not endorse it, and he feels that war becomes necessary; he will not rule it out as that last resort. Why? Well privately Labour MPs – who are craving him to do this – are being told that he couldn’t do so for tactical reasons, because to do so would be to give a signal to Saddam Hussein that the international community is going soft. As things stand, Saddam Hussein is left thinking that he might be able to play the UN but he won’t be able to stave off an attack from the US and Britain. And if that’s the way he’s thinking he’s more likely to cave in and that’s what Tony Blair wants to happen.” (Guto Hari, BBC1 News at One, January 23, 2003)

This is all very reasonable and rational. Alas, cabinet insiders have since revealed that Blair had long since agreed with Bush to go to war to topple Saddam Hussein – the UN ‘diplomacy’ was a fancy PR exercise.

Andrew Bergin, the press officer for the Stop The War Coalition, said of the BBC:

“Representatives of the coalition have been invited to appear on every TV channel except the BBC. The BBC have taken a conscious decision to actively exclude Stop the War Coalition people from their programmes, even though everyone knows we are central to organising the massive anti-war movement… The Corporation is an Oxbridge graduate elite which does not understand that millions of men and women in this country have a real intellectual understanding of the arguments put forward for war – and reject them.” (Email to Media Lens, March 14, and The Mirror, February 10, 2003, ‘Fury at BBC gag on war protesters’, Gary Jones and Justine Smith)

Infamously, the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr said of Blair as Baghdad fell:

“…it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)

A BBC news online search for 1 January, 2002 – 31 December 2002 recorded the following mentions:

George Bush Iraq, 1,022.
Tony Blair Iraq, 651.
Dick Cheney Iraq, 102.
Donald Rumsfeld, 302. Donald Rumsfeld Iraq, 164.
Richard Perle Iraq, 6.
George Galloway Iraq, 42.
Tony Benn Iraq, 14.
Noam Chomsky Iraq, 1.
Denis Halliday, 0.

This is hardly scientific, but it does give an idea of the extent to which official spokespeople are afforded huge levels of coverage while dissident voices are largely excluded.

Marginal Deviations

Despite all of this, it is plausible to argue that the overwhelming national and global (including establishment) opposition to unilateral military action without a second UN resolution, combined with a flood of emailed, complaints from members of the public, did have an impact on the BBC. Also, director of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, does appear to be unusually sincere in aspiring to some semblance of balanced and honest reporting.

It is possible that these factors combined to raise the BBC’s level of performance, however marginally, above its usual level of servility. Because it is so unusual, this improved performance may have helped attract a disproportionate level of hostility from government media minders who, given their experience during the assaults on Serbia and Afghanistan, understandably took media support for granted. But, as discussed, the main motive for attacking the BBC is surely to recast widespread scepticism of the government as a much more localised problem rooted in ‘unreasonable’ BBC ‘anti-war bias’.

The final effect of government bullying of the media is impossible to predict, depending on unknown events, revelations and outcomes. If journalists and even senior managers within the BBC were to resign, it would doubtless have a chastening effect on the media more generally. The rewards for subservience and punishment for dissent are already very real and keenly felt – it would take little to encourage journalists to be even more ‘even-handed’ in presenting the government’s version of events. On the other hand, senior resignations within government, and/or a lasting decline in the political fortunes of the Bush and Blair regimes, might encourage the honest and reasonable journalists who are striving to tell the truth in the mainstream.