Update: BBC Director of News Responds on Channeling Government Propaganda

In response to our December 18 Media Alert, ‘BBC Channeling Government Propaganda‘, we have received this response from Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News:

Dear Media Lens

Thank you for your message of 18th December suggesting our reports of government warnings about possible terrorism in the UK were part of a “softening up” propaganda exercise designed to make a possible war with Iraq more acceptable to the public.

I am afraid I don’t agree with your logic. We have broadcast on a number of occasions that no evidence is available that directly links Iraq with Al Qaeda in spite of assertions to the contrary from the United States (Donald Rumsfeld among others). So I do not accept that warnings about a possible attack by Al Qaeda would in some way make war against Iraq more acceptable in the public mind. I credit our audience with more intelligence than that.

Regarding the warnings of terrorist attacks, the police referred to threats from Irish republican groups as well as Al Qaeda. If there is an official warning of a possible terrorist attack, from any source, it would be irresponsible of the BBC not to report it and unacceptable for us to suppress it purely on a political assumption that it might be propaganda rather than real.

In terms of the debate over war with Iraq the BBC has frequently broadcast a range of views including many from those opposed to war – and we shall continue to do so. In recent months we have broadcast views from, among others, Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, Denis Halliday, Hana Ashwari, Kamila Shamsie, Dr Mercy Heatley, Ken Loach, Prof. Paul Rogers, Paul Robinson from Hull University, George Galloway, Scott Ritter, Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and the views of citizens in the UK, Iraq and elsewhere in the world who have all questioned the plans for war. A month ago an entire edition of Panorama was devoted to “The Case Against War” which included views from a number of people connected with the US and British military establishments in the last Gulf War who are opposed to conflict now.

The BBC will continue to report all issues, including Iraq, with impartiality and to provide a platform for a wide range of views.

Thank you for writing. I genuinely find the views on your site valuable and interesting. However I would be grateful if you could urge correspondents not to be personally abusive and to write about programmes they have actually seen or heard, not simply been told about second or third hand.

Yours sincerely

Richard Sambrook – 29.12.02


Dear Richard Sambrook

Thanks for your reply which, once again, is in stark contrast to the silence we receive from newspaper editors. We also regret any personally insulting emails that have been sent to you or anyone else at the BBC. These give ideal ammunition to anyone wishing (consciously or unconsciously) to dismiss rational analysis as irrational abuse. As you know, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive tone at the end of every Media Alert.

We have not argued that BBC reports are “part of a ‘softening up’ propaganda exercise”. This suggests that we believe the BBC is consciously attempting to deceive the public, but this is not the case. We believe that the BBC is allowing itself to be used to channel a deliberate government attempt to deceive the public – an important distinction.

You refute ‘our logic’ on the grounds that the BBC has repeatedly stated that Iraq has no known links to al-Qaeda terrorists said to be threatening Britain, and therefore “warnings about a possible attack by Al Qaeda” would not “make war against Iraq more acceptable in the public mind”.

In fact this is not what we are arguing. We have made a link between the hyping of terrorist attacks and support for a war against Iraq, regardless of the rationale. This is what we wrote:

“It is, after all, well understood in Downing Street and Washington that talk of terror threats increases the public’s support for war.” (December 18, 2002)

We quoted a former intelligence officer insisting that the current barrage of warnings is part of a “softening up process,” for a war on Iraq, “a lying game on a huge scale”. (The Daily Mirror, December 3, 2002) A Guardian editorial has also noted, “it cannot be ruled out that Mr Blair may have political reasons for talking up the sense of unease, in order to help make the case for a war against Iraq that is only backed by one voter in three”. (Editorial, ‘Gloom in Guildhall’, The Guardian, November 12, 2002)

Although you dismiss the link between terror threats and support for war on Iraq as insulting to the intelligence of the BBC’s audience (a familiar device for dismissing rational arguments!), opinion polls suggest a very clear link. Over the last four months a majority of the British public has been consistently opposed to war against Iraq. This trend has been bucked on two important occasions – around the time of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and in the immediate aftermath of the Bali bombing. It seems clear that atrocities, and even the reviewing of past atrocities, increase the public’s appetite for war, no matter how unconnected the issues might be. This link is recognised even by Labour Party politicians. In an earlier Media Alert, we quoted Labour MP Glenda Jackson on her explanation for the split in public opinion on war:

“That’s pretty much understandable. We have also seen the government, quite deliberately in my view, attempting to blur the line between the activities of al-Qaeda and the seeming threat of Saddam Hussein.” (Newsnight, BBC2, November 25, 2002)

By almost completely failing to draw attention to this deliberate blurring (the above quote from Newsnight is a rare exception), the BBC has supported the deception. Also, reports of al-Qaeda threats are generally paired in BBC coverage with reports relating to the crisis in Iraq, so creating an association in the minds of viewers.

As he stood in the dock at Nuremberg, Hermann Goering explained the link between fear and control of public opinion:

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and then denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” (Quoted, John Pilger, ‘To The Streets’, The Daily Mirror, September 30, 2002)

Noam Chomsky has summarised well the practical consequences of this strategy in our time:

“The support you see in US polls for the war is very thin, but it’s based on fear. It’s an old story in the United States. It’s very consciously engendered. These guys now in office, remember they’re almost entirely from the 1980s. They’ve been through it already and they know exactly how to play the game. Right through the 1980s they periodically had campaigns to terrify the population.” (‘Wake Up! Wake Up! It’s Yer Christmas Schnews, Chomp’in At The Bit’, Winter Solstice 2002, Issue 386)

You write of terrorist warnings, “it would be irresponsible of the BBC not to report it and unacceptable for us to suppress it purely on a political assumption that it might be propaganda rather than real”.

It is remarkable that only these two responses are conceivable to the BBC’s director of news. There is a third possibility – you could report the views of informed individuals who believe the warnings are sincere alongside the views of informed individuals who believe the warnings are cynical propaganda. You could also, for example, compare the number of warnings before and since UN Resolution 1441 ‘set the clock ticking for war’ with Iraq on November 8.

Why is the BBC so willing to seek out agendas hidden behind the words and actions of governments targeted as ‘rogue states’, but not behind the words and actions of our own government? The BBC consistently portrays US/UK foreign policy as fundamentally sincere, benign and well intentioned, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Why is it ‘balanced’ and ‘responsible’ to report official warnings at face value as obviously credible? Is this not, in fact, deeply irresponsible, given the plausibility of the contradictory view, and given the possible consequences for hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and conscript soldiers in Iraq?

You claim that the BBC has featured a large number of dissident voices in recent months. We tend to concentrate on the performance of the BBC’s more important TV output, and here leading dissident voices have, of course, been almost completely invisible. There has been no attempt whatever to balance the huge number of appearances of warmongers like Bush, Blair, Perle, Rumsfeld and Powell, with appearances of anti-war dissidents. By the way, we look forward to BBC1 News highlighting the Washington Post’s recent revelations concerning Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein in December 1983, one month after then US secretary of state George Shultz was passed intelligence reports of Iraq’s “almost daily use of CW (chemical weapons)” against Iran. In his meeting with Saddam, Rumsfeld “passed on the US willingness to help his regime and restore full diplomatic relations”. (Julian Borger, ‘Rumsfeld “offered to help” Saddam’, the Guardian, December 31, 2002) The BBC has, after all, been unceasingly keen to report Rumsfeld’s more recent opinions on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In August, for example, Rumsfeld said the risk of a terrorist attack with a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon was so high, that the US could not wait for more evidence before acting:

“The people who argue have to ask themselves how they’re going to feel at that point where another event occurs and it’s not a conventional event, but an unconventional event.”

You might like to speculate in your news reports on how Rumsfeld would feel, and why, should such an “unconventional event” occur.

The BBC’s version of ‘balance’ has involved ignoring Western anti-war campaigners as incidental to a ‘debate’ between US/UK politicians promoting war, on the one hand, and utterly demonised and discredited Iraqi politicians rejecting war, on the other. This is truly outrageous – it was not the views of Ho Chi Minh that turned Western public opinion against the monstrous US assault on Vietnam. Why does BBC TV news ignore the vast number of politicians and people opposed to war in other European countries such as Germany, France and Spain? The Pew global attitudes project revealed in December that when asked if Saddam Hussein should be removed by force 71% said no in Germany, 64% in France and 79% in Russia. In Turkey – a major US ally – 83% are opposed to the use of Turkish bases for an attack on Iraq. In Britain 47% said no, and 47% yes to the removal of Saddam Hussein by force. In the US 62% favoured war and 26% were opposed.

We have seen next to nothing on BBC TV news exploring the strong anti-war sentiment in other European countries. German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, for example, made his outspoken refusal to participate in military action a central plank of his 2002 election campaign, but his views have been ignored, with the UK media, as ever, resolutely turned towards America (the Guardian/Observer, for example, mentioned Schroeder in 13 of their 3,450 articles on Iraq in 2002. They mentioned the US leader in 1,707 of them). A BBC news online search for 1 January, 2002 – 31 December 2002 recorded the following mentions:

Noam Chomsky, 5. Noam Chomsky Iraq, 1. Donald Rumsfeld, 302. Donald Rumsfeld Iraq, 164. Richard Perle Iraq, 6. Denis Halliday, 0. George Bush Iraq, 1,022. Tony Blair Iraq, 651. Tony Benn Iraq, 14. George Galloway Iraq, 42. Dick Cheney Iraq, 102.

We have reported similar figures for the Guardian/ Observer and the Independent. It’s a familiar story – overwhelming coverage of establishment views with very occasional mentions of dissident views.

The US/UK media, the BBC included, we believe, have a lot to do with the difference between US/UK public opinion and that found in other European countries. In 1997 Media Channel director Danny Schechter titled his book The More You Watch, The Less You Know. The inspiration for the title was research conducted by Professor Michael Morgan of the University of Massachusetts, which found that during the Gulf War people who relied most on US television coverage for their news knew the +least+ about the war and its origins. Schechter wrote:

“Many of them also had the strongest opinions, which not coincidentally echoed precisely what they had been hearing. Like the media they depended on, they were virtually of one mind in uncritically embracing the US government position.” (Schechter, The More You Watch, The Less You Know, Seven Stories, Press, 1997, p.42)

Historian Howard Zinn has said of US media performance:

“The American population was bombarded the way the Iraqi population was bombarded. It was a war against us, a war of lies and disinformation and omission of history. That kind of war, overwhelming and devastating, waged here in the US while the Gulf War was waged over there.” (Zinn, Power, History and Warfare, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, No. 8, 1991, p.12)

Nothing could be clearer than that the last Gulf War was fought to protect Western oil and strategic interests. In his analysis of UK media performance during the war, British historian Mark Curtis noted:

“The major achievements of the propaganda system during the crisis were, however, to elevate US-UK actions to grand principle, to suppress the gruesome reality of the slaughter, and to frame the relevant issues according to precepts acceptable to the state.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.196)

A Guardian report cited by Curtis found that the issue of oil featured in 4% of BBC1 reports and in 3% of BBC2 reports – a remarkable achievement, given the blindingly obvious central concern. The fiction that this was a ‘clean war’ with ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘precision bombing’ was parroted from beginning to end, as a quarter of a million people were massacred (there was no war) and much of Iraq’s life-preserving infrastructure was mercilessly destroyed. The BBC reportedly told its reporters to be “circumspect” about pictures of death and injury (‘”Circumspect” BBC’, the Guardian, January 15, 1991). Your leading political commentator, David Dimbleby, asked at the time:

“Isn’t it in fact true that America, by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, is the only potential world policeman?” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.45)

Only 7% of the bombs dropped actually employed ‘smart’ technology. The accuracy of even these weapons was summed up by the performance of the much-vaunted Patriot missile system, declared 98% successful in intercepting and destroying Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War. Professor Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was subsequently asked by Congress to investigate the 98% claim. Much to his surprise, Postol found that the Patriot’s success rate in the Gulf War was rather different:

“It became clear that it wasn’t even close to intercepting +any+ targets, let alone some targets.” (Postol, Great Military Blunders, Channel 4, March 2, 2000, original emphasis)

Postol’s findings – that the Patriot’s success was “close to zero” – were quickly buried by politicians and media in the frenzy to promote National Missile Defence, also described by Postol as a fraudulent and unworkable system.

Given the similarly servile UK media performance today, the BBC very much included, it seems likely that British public opinion has fallen victim to a media bombardment comparable to that described by Schechter, Zinn and Curtis.

Mr Sambrook, we believe you are a sincere and well-intentioned person – your willingness to respond to, and even to praise, our Media Alerts suggests as much – but you are at the heart of a system of lethal, institutionalised deception. Like it or not, believe it or not, by choosing to participate in this propaganda system, you and the journalists around you may soon be complicit in mass murder. As things stand, you and your journalists are facilitating the killing and mutilation of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of innocent men, women and children. Reports emerging from the Pentagon suggest that a second war on Iraq could begin with the most ferocious pre-invasion bombardment ever seen.

We hope that you and other BBC journalists will seriously consider your position with the BBC at this time. Anyone contemplating resignation – a powerful act of protest, particularly now – and willing to tell the truth about constraints on BBC reporting should contact us at the address below. We urge you to consider the words of the Vietnamese Buddhist and peace campaigner Thich Nhat Than:

“Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.”

Yours sincerely

David Edwards and David Cromwell
The Editors – Media Lens


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.

Write to Richard Sambrook expressing your views:

Email: [email protected]