By David Miller of Spinwatch
Spinwatch investigation has revealed that journalists working for the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) have been commissioned to provide news reports to the BBC. The BBC has been using these reports as if they were genuine news. In fact, the SSVC is entirely funded by the Ministry of Defence as a propaganda operation, which according to its own website makes a ‘considerable contribution’ to the ‘morale’ of the armed forces.
In the US, Washington has been rocked by the scandal of fake journalists. The Bush administration has been paying actors to produce news, paying journalists to write propaganda, and paying Republican party members to pose as journalists. In the UK this has been reported with our customary shake of the head at the bizarre nature of US politics and media. Implicitly we are relieved that, however bad things are here, at least we are not as bad as they are.
But Spinwatch can reveal that we have our very own fake journalists operating in the UK. The government pays for their wages and they provide news as if they were normal journalists rather than paid propagandists. Normally they work in a little known outfit with the acronym BFBS, which stands for British Forces Broadcasting Service. BFBS exists to ‘entertain and inform’ British armed forces around the world and is entirely funded by the British Ministry of Defence. BFBS is run by the SSVC. But on this occasion no mention of Ministry of defence funding was made. She was introduced simply as a reporter ‘from the British Forces Broadcasting Service’ who ‘has been embedded with the Scots Guards’. As one wag inside the BBC puts it, this suggests a process of ‘double embedding’, first working for the MoD and second embedding with a regiment. The report began:
‘Route 6 is the main road North out of Basra. It runs through the badlands of Iraq’s marsh Arabs They make a living from crime – carjackings, smuggling and murder are common place. It’s also the scene of an age old feud between two warring tribes.’ (Good Morning Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland, 25 November 2004 – see below for link to full transcript)
Naturally enough, we are told that the regiment in which the reporter is ’embedded’ has resolved these tribal problems by negotiating ‘a ceasefire’ following which ‘the two tribes had had their first nights sleep in several months’.
The British Army view of the Iraqi people can be less than sympathetic. The army crackdown on looting early in the occupation was codenamed ‘Operation Ali Baba’ after the folk tale ‘Ali Baba and the forty thieves’. Issuing orders for Operation Ali Baba the commanding officer gave what the Army now acknowledges was an illegal order to ‘work them hard’. This led predictably to torture, only discovered when some brave soul in a photo developing shop reported the resulting record of abuse to the police. The view of the Iraq population as thieves is evidently shared by both torturers and propagandists.
The report included interviews with five separate British soldiers including one with a ‘master sniper’ brought in to counter resistance attacks on the Iraqi police. But there are no interviews with any Iraqis. The report concludes with a straight forward piece of propaganda for the occupation: ‘While the Scots Guards remain the ceasefire is likely to hold strong. There’s been little trouble in the area since the peace was brokered and the ceasefire has been extended to December the first. But the Iraqi police and national guard still lack confidence and credibility to keep the peace on their own and should the fighting resume, the governor of Basra has given the go ahead for the Scots Guards to use more force to make route 6 safe again.’ Even though the report has itself hinted that the fighting is targeting the occupation, we are left with the extraordinary statement that the army in illegal occupation of Iraq is actually a ‘peacekeeping’ force.
According to the editor of Good Morning Scotland the piece ‘was a bit a of a one-off because she happened to have been embedded with the Royal Scots. Until a few months ago Martha was a correspondent here at BBC Scotland (had been for several years) and is therefore a journalist we know and trust. It was quite an unusual commission’. Unusual indeed, but not unique. Further inquiries by Spinwatch have revealed that another item from a different BFBS journalist was broadcast on Radio Scotland on Christmas day 2004. Insiders at BBC Scotland are livid about this, indeed several have contacted Spinwatch to pass on their concerns. One reports that colleagues have remarked on the ‘complete lack of balance’ of the piece and one described it as ‘an audio press release for the Army’.*
But were the BBC right to say that the journalist concerned was one ‘we know and trust’? Certainly there has been a significant wave of journalists from the mainstream media signing up to work for the government since the election of the Blair government. Alastair Campbell is only the most famous. BBC journalists too have made the transition to propagandist as in the example of Mark Laity who became a spin doctor at NATO from whom no further work was commissioned.
The BBC editor claimed in defence that ‘I should stress too that BFBS is not controlled by the MOD. It is funded by them in much the same way the BBC World Service is funded by the Foreign Office. Their journalists are actually employed by the SSVC, the Services Sound and Vision Corporation, which is a charitable organisation with editorial independence from the MoD.’ (email to the author, December 2004)
This is not quite accurate. A quick visit to the website of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) which is the parent of the BFBS reveals that ‘Our work makes a considerable contribution to the maintenance of the efficiency and morale of the three Services. Our activities are carried out directly for the Ministry of Defence. Any profits are donated towards Forces’ welfare.’ Whatever might be said about the World Service relationship with the Foreign Office, it has not ever been accused of donating its profits to the welfare of Britain’s diplomats. The notion that the SSVC which is wholly funded by the MoD serves any other purpose than propaganda is fanciful.
The BBC editor also noted: ‘Nonetheless we did flag up in the cue that she was embedded for the BFBS.’ They did indeed, but very few radio listeners are familiar with what the BFBS is. This is true of the whole network of propaganda agencies in the UK – little is known, but anyone with an internet connection can find out about the organisations involved. The Foreign Office runs a network of fake news operations and has done for years. In recent times these have been contracted out to private production companies with the helpful effect that the government funding is further camouflaged. They have also been extended markedly to focus more centrally on the middle east since 2001. One such is the London Press Service which is described as follows on the government I-uk site: ‘an agency offering the latest British headline news, news round-ups, features and pictures for use by journalists overseas.’
This is a rather coy way to describe a government propaganda service. Click on its website for an admission of the defining feature of this whole network of agencies; that the news on the site ‘is for free use by journalists’. Look in vain for an indication of who really funds this service. All you will see is a notice at the bottom of the home page: ‘The London Press Service is operated and maintained by Intelfax Ltd.’ Intelfax is in turn an independent production company but the London Press Service is funded entirely by the Foreign Office.
Or take the example of British Satellite News (BSN) broadcast for free over the Reuters World News Service. According to its website, BSN ‘is a free television news and features service, which provides you with coverage of worldwide topical events and stories from a British perspective. Our dedicated team of experienced television journalists specialise in producing topical stories that inform and entertain a global audience.’ Again not much in the way of a clue that this is a fake news site.
BSN is run by a company called World Television which does work for the BBC such as the live coverage of the TUC conference and also works for multinationals such as GSK and Nestle. The Foreign Office helpfully tells us that BSN has ‘a particular focus on the Arab/Islamic world.’ It also mentions that BSN’s fake news ‘is currently used by 35 broadcasters in the Middle East and over 440 worldwide.’ The secret of all this material is that it is not only free to use but that it is used as if it was genuine news and not British propaganda.
The UK is awash with fake news, of which the examples here are only a taste, it is just that we don’t pay much attention to it. The American scandals over fake news are played out against the background of some pretty clear laws forbidding propaganda with a disguised source within the borders of the US. There are no laws forbidding fake news in the UK. Perhaps we need some.
* Comments to the author from a BBC staffer, who, not unnaturally, prefers to remain anonymous, January 2005.
To read the transcript for Good Morning Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland, 25 November 2004, please go to:
Spinwatch hopes to foster greater awareness of spin techniques and provide support for journalists who try to resist them.
Stephen Whittle Controller, Editorial Policy: [email protected]
Ask if the use of propagandists as journalists is a breach of the BBC Producers’ guidelines. Ask if he will now write a more explicit prohibition of the use of propagandists paid for by the government. Ask if he will take steps to ensure that this does not happen again. Ask if the use of propagandists had been referred to him and what judgement he made.
Helen Boaden, Director of BBC news: [email protected]
Ask how many times this has happened on BBC News in the past year. Ask if she will take steps to ensure that this does not happen again.
Ken McQuarrie, Controller BBC Scotland: [email protected]
Ask if he will take steps to ensure that this does not happen again. Ask if the use of propagandists had been approved by BBC management.
Blair Jenkins, Head of News & Current Affairs: BBC Scotland [email protected]
Ask if the use of propagandists had been approved by him and on what grounds. Ask how many times they have broadcast reports from BFBS in the last year. Ask if he will take steps to ensure that this does not happen again. Ask about the contractual arrangements with BFBS: Were they paid? Did the BBC get the report for free?
Judith Mackay, Editor Good Morning Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland: [email protected]
Ask if she will take steps to ensure that this does not happen again. Ask about the contractual arrangements with BFBS: Were they paid? Did the BBC get the report for free?
Also, copy your correspondence to Fraser Steel, Head of the BBC Programme Complaints Unit: [email protected]
Make sure that you specifically request a response from them.
Please also send all emails to Spinwatch
Email: [email protected]