On April 17, we published our Media Alert, ‘The BBC’s Gavin Esler Interviews US Undersecretary Of State Nicholas Burns’.
We noted how Esler had completely failed to challenge Burns on the catastrophe afflicting Iraq, despite damning reports just published by the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the desperate plight of the civilian population. On April 24, Newsnight’s editor, Peter Barron, responded as follows:
Thanks for your note of 13 April concerning Gavin Esler’s interview with Nicholas Burns.
I’m sorry you were unhappy with the way the interview was conducted. In particular that you felt Gavin failed to challenge Nicholas Burns. Having watched the entire Iraq section of the programme I cannot find any evidence to support your accusation. I have transcribed Gavin’s questions from the seven minute interview with Mr Burns on Iraq, and on Iran, which was the topic Mr Burns had agreed to be interviewed about that evening. The questions are below and despite what you say each one challenges Mr Burns’ and Britain and America’s policies in the region.
On this occasion we picked up on Mr Bolton’s points and challenged Mr Burns from that perspective. That does not mean that the BBC shares Mr Bolton’s views or – as you suggest – that we are preparing the ground for attacking Iran. It is surely right to challenge politicians from a range of angles over time, and surely impractical to do so within the same interview.
One point I would concede is that the way the interview was recorded did perhaps leave the impression that the questions were served up. The interview was conducted earlier in the day because it was impossible to arrange a live link from Mr Burns’ location. In that situation, where the questions are recorded in the studio later, it is more difficult to conduct an interview with natural interruptions and interjections.
As for repeating a claim such “this is the Iraqis’ fight” such claims are always attributed to those who make them and not to the BBC. We are always very careful to make sure all claims made on air are carefully attributed to those who make them. The BBC does not make this sort of claim.
Q1. Today’s Baghdad bomb means of course that no one in Iraq is safe ?
Q2. But do you worry that it is however demoralizing, 4 years after the invasion of Iraq and after several weeks of the so called ‘surge’ in US troops, more Iraqi troops are on the street and so on ….that you cannot guarantee the safety of people in what’s suppose to be the safest part of the country ?
Q3. Can I turn now to Iran, how far is the United States convinced that Iran in some way behind any of the violence in Iraq ?
Q 4. John Bolton, your former colleague, the ex-US Ambassador at the United Nations, want you to go further though, he said you should move towards regime change in Iran ..that’s the only way to stop them getting the bomb ?
Q5 . But with the Iranians boasting this week of industrial scale uranium enrichment John Bolton’s point is that they’re stringing the Europeans along, there’s no point in continuing a dialogue with them if you’re not prepared to do something ?
Q6. How concerned are you by the apparently rather easy way in which the Iranians were able to kidnap British sailors at gun point, do you think something serious has gone wrong here ?
Q7. But you know some people here think it has been a propaganda victory for the Iranians because of the way it has been handled by the British Government ?
We’re grateful for Peter Barron’s response. We are also, frankly, surprised. In our experience, Barron is one of the more reasonable and responsible mainstream editors we have encountered. This is not saying much, of course, but the fact remains that he does take the trouble to respond to challenges – many editors do not – and he has allowed us to state our case on the Newsnight website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ newsnight/20 07/03/bbcs_iraq_coverage_ biased_or_balanced.html. We were therefore surprised to receive this irrational brush off. We wrote to Barron on April 24 asking if he in fact did write the email – it has the whiff of a bureaucratic BBC response about it – but he has so far not replied.
Barron writes of the questions put by Gavin Esler to Nicholas Burns: “each one challenges Mr Burns’ and Britain and America’s policies in the region“. He then clarifies the nature of the challenge:
“On this occasion we picked up on Mr Bolton’s points and challenged Mr Burns from that perspective.”
One might almost think this was intended humorously. Imagine if Esler had been interviewing one of the most senior members of the Soviet politburo during the invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Imagine if the invasion had slaughtered upwards of 655,000 people. Imagine if, one day before the interview, the Red Cross had reported the “immense suffering” of “the entire population” in Afghanistan; and if two days before, UNHCR had reported that some 4 million Afghans had been displaced by the violence. Would it have been deemed appropriate by the BBC to pick up the criticisms of a right-wing critic from within the Soviet government – a key figure behind the catastrophic and illegal invasion? Would this have been deemed a reasonable focus in the face of such a crime against humanity? Would the emphasis of the questioning have been on the failure of the Red Army to “guarantee the safety of people”, such that this was “demoralising” for the population and its occupiers?
With hundreds of thousands lying dead in Afghanistan, can we conceive of a BBC journalist uncritically putting to a senior Soviet politician that the same warmonger responsible was calling for the same military sledgehammer to “move towards regime change” in a neighbouring country? Would the concern, again, be the right-wing Soviet suggestion that the possible neighbouring target had recently scored a “propaganda victory” over the military goliath devastating Afghanistan? If we are able to perform this thought experiment with any kind of honesty, we have to conclude that it is simply inconceivable that a BBC journalist would respond in this way.
“It is surely right to challenge politicians from a range of angles over time, and surely impractical to do so within the same interview.”
Of course it is. And of course it doesn’t happen. Politicians working for the ‘official enemy’ are regularly subjected to fierce critical challenge, but ‘our’ politicians – frequently referred to by Newsnight journalists as ‘us’, ‘we’ – are rarely challenged from a robustly critical perspective.
When have leading US and UK politicians been challenged by the BBC from a ‘left’ perspective – for example, on the basis that their governments have a 60-year post-war track record of subordinating human rights, independent nationalism and democracy in the Third World to power and profit? When has evidence been presented to these politicians of the central role Western corporate greed for natural resources, including oil, has played in determining US-UK policy? If these suggestions are deemed outrageous, are they more outrageous than anything Bolton dreams up before breakfast? When has even the truth of US-UK intervention in Iran – involving the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected regime of Mossadegh in the name of access to cheap oil – been raised?
Barron concedes that the questions were “served up”; the problem being that “where the questions are recorded in the studio later, it is more difficult to conduct an interview with natural interruptions and interjections”. But that is not at all what we had in mind. We meant that the questions were served up like tennis balls lobbed to just the right height for Burns to smash them away for winners: “How far is the United States convinced that Iran in some way behind any of the violence in Iraq?” That was the perfect focus for Burns – an ideal opportunity to continue demonising Iran on national TV with no risk of challenge from Esler.
Or consider the suggestion: “you should move towards regime change in Iran… that’s the only way to stop them getting the bomb.” Again, this supplied a perfect chance to reinforce the demonisation of Iran, the new enemy. “John Bolton’s point is that they’re stringing the Europeans along, there’s no point in continuing a dialogue with them if you’re not prepared to do something?” Likewise, ideal, allowing Burns to present Bush administration policy as moderate, restrained, committed to peaceful solutions – one of the big lies ahead of the invasion of Iraq – while continuing to demonise the enemy.
“How concerned are you by the apparently rather easy way in which the Iranians were able to kidnap British sailors at gun point, do you think something serious has gone wrong here?” Again, the focus is on the new ‘bad guy‘ on the chopping block. Newsnight could not have given the Bush administration easier opportunities to push their propaganda.
Gavin Esler Interviews John Bolton
In response to our Media Alert, a substantial number of emails were sent to Gavin Esler and the Newsnight team. Despite Peter Barron‘s casual dismissal, it seems likely that these emails had an impact.
On April 24, Esler interviewed John Bolton. This was a different Esler from the anchor who interviewed Burns. Bolton was visibly irked by the confrontational tone. Indeed the interview involved a standard and somewhat comical Newsnight approach – asking questions in an aggressively shrill manner in order to suggest incisive dissent, when in fact the substance of the challenge is bland and toothless. Thus the challenge, here, was framed in terms of whether the US-UK was “winning” or “losing” the “war” (in fact an occupation) – a focus of second order importance for anyone who understands the gravity and extraordinary scale of the crimes committed in Iraq in our names.
But the fact remains that Bolton was not treated with the usual deference – this was closer to authentic journalism. It seems likely that Esler was reacting to the criticism he had received over the Burns interview. In other words, as a result of the actions of just a few emailers, a leading US warmonger had been given a tougher ride – his propaganda was at least to some extent challenged. This is the power of the media activist Few!
Media corporations are of course authoritarian hierarchies. But they are run by human beings. Moreover, these human beings may often be well-intentioned. It is important to remember that elite journalists are the product of privileged cosseting, of elite public school and Oxbridge education – their world view is the result of socialisation, education, training, and unconscious compromise. In other words, elite journalists are not generally liars or conspirators – they are not monsters.
To send polite criticism based on rational arguments, credible evidence, and sincere concern for human suffering, is to powerfully challenge this social conditioning. We all like to see ourselves as reasonable, rational, compassionate people – or at least we all recognise that these are valuable human qualities. In the face of the awesome suffering in Iraq, it is difficult, perhaps close to impossible, for even the most blinkered journalist to reject a rational argument based on a compassionate impulse in response to that suffering – especially when they know they are in a key position to make some kind of difference.
Anger and hatred prevent us from recognising this reality – we will likely perceive journalists as cynical bad guys, as liars and monsters. Then, our indulgent emails will be focused mainly on venting our anger, on punishment, so triggering instant rejection – delete buttons will be hit and nothing will have changed.
As ever, the crucial factor for anyone hoping for progressive change is motivation. A compassionate motivation has a power which, while perhaps not immediately discernible, can manifest in unexpected and potent ways.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Newsnight editor Peter Barron
Email: [email protected]
Write to Helen Boaden, head of BBC news
Email: [email protected]