Jeremy Bowen, The BBC, And Other National Treasures
It is a mistake to imagine that media corporations are impervious to all complaints and criticism. In fact, senior editors and managers are only too happy to accept that their journalists tend to be ‘anti-American,’ ‘anti-Israel,’ ‘anti-Western,’ indeed utterly rotten with left-wing bias.
In June 2007, an internal BBC report revealed that Auntie Beeb had long been perpetrating high media crimes, including: “institutional left-wing bias” and “being anti-American”. (‘Lambasting for the “trendy Left-wing bias” of BBC bosses,’ Daily Mail, June 18, 2007)
Former BBC political editor, Andrew Marr, applied his forensic journalistic skills, noting that the BBC was comprised of “an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large”. This, he deduced, “creates an innate liberal bias”. (Nicole Martin, ‘BBC viewers angered by its “innate liberal bias”,’ Daily Telegraph, June 19, 2007)
On the other hand, despite the fact that the media system is made up of corporations that are deeply dependent on corporate advertisers (for revenue) and official government sources (for subsidised news), other possibilities are unthinkable. If one were crazy enough, one might ask, for example:
‘Is it accurate to describe the corporate media as servile to concentrated power? Or, as a key component of the state-corporate system, is media propaganda best described as a form of self-service?’
Such contemplations are beyond the pale right across the supposed media ‘spectrum’. Ironically, then, the popularity of what might be termed the Left-Wing Fallacy of media performance is a result precisely of a massive right-wing bias – the Left-Wing Fallacy is the only critique the media are willing to tolerate.
There are several good reasons why the media are keen to accept that they are biased to the left. First, the overwhelming preponderance of right-wing flak machines – ‘centre-left’ parties and governments, business front groups and powerful ‘religious’ organisations – persuades media executives that they really are too left-leaning. There is just far less flak criticising journalists from the left, and this flak is far less damaging.
Also, those on the money- and power-grubbing right have always been keen to associate themselves with the popular ethical positions of socialism. Hitler described himself as a “National Socialist”, after all, while Stalin headed an alliance of “socialist” republics. The modern media’s far-right militants – the likes of Christopher Hitchens, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen – all declare themselves to be of the left.
Channel 4 Newsreader Jon Snow typically describes himself as “a pinko liberal hack”. (Quoted, Decca Aitkenhead, ‘That’s Snow business,’ Daily Mail, October 10, 2004)
Decca Aitkenhead noted in the Daily Mail that Snow “has achieved a rare status on television – famous as a radical, yet held in universal affection”. (Ibid) Aitkenhead added:
“There is a risk of his image… even becoming a little cosy. Surely he doesn’t like the idea of becoming a national treasure, Saint Jon Snow, man of the people…”
In a Guardian article, entitled, ‘The moral anchor,’ Jon Henley commented last month:
“Social engagement, and a fine line in self-deprecation, may be two reasons why Snow is so popular; on his way to national treasure status, even.” (Henley, ‘The moral anchor,’ The Guardian, April 28, 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/ 2009/apr/28/jon-snow-interview-channel-4)
Arch-Blairite MP and pro-war propagandist Denis MacShane has described Snow as: “the closest we have to a modern-day George Orwell… Snow has managed to combine a moral commitment to criticising the powerful with a scrupulous care not to bend the facts.” (MacShane, ‘A spokesman for the truth,’ The Independent, October 29, 2004) Snow was, MacShane insisted, a “national treasure”.
Owen Gibson noted in the Guardian that Snow had recently “cemented his status as a national treasure”. (Gibson, ‘Interview: Dorothy Byrne,’ The Guardian, March 12, 2007) Katy Guest wrote in the Independent: “With his cuddly iconoclasm and warm intelligence, Jon Snow is in danger of becoming a national treasure.” (Guest, ‘Cheltenham Literary Festival,’ The Independent, October 14, 2004)
In fact the world does not work this way – serious (rather than “cuddly”) criticism of powerful interests is +never+ greeted with “universal affection” earning “national treasure” status. If George Orwell’s name springs to mind as an obvious counter-example, Noam Chomsky is on hand to clarify:
“Fame, Fortune, and Respect await those who reveal the crimes of official enemies; those who undertake the vastly more important task of raising a mirror to their own societies can expect quite different treatment. George Orwell is famous for Animal Farm and 1984, which focus on the official enemy. Had he addressed the more interesting and significant question of thought control in relatively free and democratic societies, it would not have been appreciated, and instead of wide acclaim, he would have faced silent dismissal or obloquy.” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, 1992, p.372)
Snow benefits from wide acclaim because he has devoted much of his life to emphasising the crimes of official enemies. This can be divined even from the fact that he hosts a high-profile mainstream TV news programme – as a rule of thumb, we can be sure that the demonisation of official enemies is a key requirement of all journalists in Snow’s position. It is simply understood.
As the British media exulted in Baghdad’s rapid fall to US tanks on April 9, 2003, Snow interviewed then foreign secretary Jack Straw – one of the key Iraq war conspirators. Straw told Snow that, earlier in the day, he had met with the French foreign minister, who was fiercely opposed to the war. Snow asked wryly: “Did he look chastened?” (Channel 4, April 9, 2003)
In his book, Shooting History, Snow described a visit to the United States:
“As the plane touched down at Dulles airport in the Virginia wastes beyond Washington, my thoughts were of mistrust for what America had done, of the death squads that flourished under the protection of US-backed military forces, of the dictators like Pinochet whom the Cold War had rendered ‘best friends’. I would expose it all!
“But within twenty-four hours of landing my mistrust began turning into an improbable and lifelong love affair with ‘can-do’ America.” (Snow, Shooting History, HarperCollins, 2004, p.212)
Snow wrote of NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999:
“With a million refugees already outside Kosovo and more coming, the pressure was on Blair, Clinton and the other Western leaders to move quickly.
“The point was emphasised when we reached the border the next morning. Straggling along the single-track railway line were unbroken lines of refugees stretching as far as the eye could see. It was like a scene out of Schindler’s List.” (p.353)
In fact independent observers reported at the time that the flood of refugees from Kosovo began immediately +after+ NATO launched its 78-day blitz. Following the war, NATO sources reported that 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo on all sides in the year prior to bombing – tales of a Holocaust-style Serbian genocide prior to bombing were as fraudulent as tales of deadly Iraqi WMD three years later. Snow added of British troops in Kosovo:
“I have never more wanted a force to go to war. This time I had none of the misgivings that were to dog the Iraq adventure four years later. The sheer mass of humanity in peril had convinced me.” (pp.353-354)
In similar vein, the Times’s foreign editor, Richard Beeston, wrote last month:
“[Iranian] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extraordinary performance today at the United Nations conference on racism confirmed that Iran’s leader is determined to retain his title as uncrowned king of the world’s awkward squad and speaker of the unspeakable.
“Hugo Chavez might exchange handshakes and gifts with President Obama and other formerly hostile world leaders may now be prepared to open a new chapter with Washington, but Iran by its most recent words and deeds has demonstrated that it is not budging.” (Beeston, ‘Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes fervently in what he says,’ The Times, April 21, 2009; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/ news/world/middle_east/article6134666.ece)
Notice that the “awkward squad” – Ahmadinejad and Chavez – is +contrasted+ with “Washington”. The United States has never been described as a member of “the awkward squad”, or as “hostile”, by any foreign editor in any mainstream national newspaper. One might ask why. After all, we do not live in a police state – we live in an ostensibly free society. No one is holding a gun to the heads of our foreign editors.
Perhaps, then, the evidence is lacking. But how much proof do we need that the United States conspired with Britain to invade Iraq on utterly false pretexts causing the virtual destruction of an entire nation? What worse crimes have Ahmadinejad and Chavez perpetrated to earn themselves membership of the “awkward squad”? What would it take before Britain and America were inducted? The answer is that it could never happen because this kind of media labelling is a function of power, not of rational thought. The technical term: ‘propaganda’.
For our neutral media, ‘we’ are always reasonable, civilised, benign – it us up to ‘them’, the crazies, to reach out to ‘us’ in peace and friendship. Peace will reign when those who are “hostile” renounce their baseless aggression towards ‘us’. The myth of media objectivity obscures the deep mendacity of the mainstream stance: the world is always viewed from ‘here’, and ‘here’ is always high and moral.
An Independent leader writes of the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen: “Mr Bowen’s work has always been scrupulously unbiased.” (Leader, ‘Bad judgement,’ The Independent, April 16, 2009; http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion /leading-articles/leading-article-bad-judgement-1669307.html)
The comment was made in response to the decision of the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee to censure Bowen for breaching the corporation’s guidelines on accuracy and impartiality. Adel Darwish, the political editor of The Middle East Magazine Group, commented:
“I don’t think this will be damaging to him but I think it will increase the polarisation regarding Jeremy Bowen.
“He will be falsely applauded by the left-wing organisations, the Arabs and the anti-American groups. But on the other hand he will be seen as a villain by the pro-Israeli lobby who have a view that the BBC is biased against them.” (‘Bowen “breached rules on impartiality”,’ The Independent, April 16, 2009; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/tv-radio/ bowen-breached- rules- on-impartiality-1669278.html)
Bowen will indeed be lauded by pro-Palestinian groups and villainised by pro-Israeli groups. The problem is that Darwish has restricted the range of thinkable thought in a way that excludes the truth – that Bowen’s reporting consistently reflects exactly this pressure to toe a pro-establishment, pro-Israeli line.
Bowen was censured for a piece he wrote for the BBC website last June under the headline “Six days that changed the Middle East,” in which he provided background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by describing the events of the 1967 Six Day War. He accurately described “Zionism’s innate instinct to push out the frontier” and wrote of how Israel showed a “defiance of everyone’s interpretation of international law except its own”. The BBC’s editorial standards committee ruled that even these very mild gestures in the direction of the truth – a truth that is unrecognisably uglier than Bowen described – breached the BBC’s rules on accuracy and impartiality. It commented:
“Readers might come away from the article thinking that the interpretation offered was the only sensible view of the war. It was not necessary for equal space to be given to the other arguments, but… the existence of alternative theses should have been more clearly signposted.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/ news/media/tv-radio/bowen-breached-rules-on -impartiality-1669278.html)
We are to believe that the BBC’s internal watchdogs are somehow blind to the lack of “alternative theses” in a mountain of other news reports. Readers will be familiar with (then) BBC political editor Andrew Marr’s assertion, on the same night that Jon Snow interviewed Jack Straw, that the rapid fall of Baghdad to US tanks meant that Tony Blair “tonight stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)
This was on the main evening news, in time of war – a war that was bitterly opposed by much of the British population. It was “not necessary for equal space to be given” to other arguments, but Marr might have mentioned that much of the world deemed Tony Blair a war criminal responsible for the supreme war crime – the launching of a war of aggression.
Or consider BBC world affairs editor John Simpson’s recent analysis of the British pull-out from Iraq:
“The British themselves tend to think of their time in Basra as a failure. The Americans told them bluntly that they were much too soft. They patrolled in berets instead of helmets, and were not allowed to wear sunglasses; they did not want to seem menacing. That worked well, until neighbouring Iran decided to stir up the militias to attack the British.” (Simpson, ‘UK combat operations end in Iraq,’ BBC website, April 30, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8027797.stm)
“Alternative theses” involve the obviously criminal nature of the occupation, and the utter catastrophe that has befallen Iraq, including Basra, since the invasion, which “worked well”. Another excluded “sensible view” is provided by Chomsky:
“Would we have had a debate in 1943 about whether the Allies were really guilty of aiding terrorist partisans in occupied Europe? The absurdity of the whole discussion was highlighted by a marvellous statement by Condi Rice a few days ago. She was asked what the solution is in Iraq, and said something like this: ‘It’s obvious. Withdraw all foreign forces and foreign weapons.’ I was waiting to see if one commentator would notice that there happen to be some foreign troops and weapons in Iraq apart from the Iranian ones she was of course referring to. Couldn’t find a hint.” (Chomsky, email to Media Lens, May 24, 2007)
A Media Lens reader made an interesting point in an email to the BBC’s Paul Reynolds regarding his article, ‘UN condemns N Korea rocket launch.’ (Reynolds, April 13, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ world/asia-pacific/7997336.stm)
“I refer to the above article and in particular the following paragraph:
“‘The BBC’s Paul Reynolds says it remains unclear what Pyongyang’s intentions were in launching the rocket. The country may be attempting to develop a useable nuclear weapon and the means to carry it, or it may just be seeking to hold the world’s attention, making concessions which can easily be withdrawn, says our correspondent.’
“Or indeed North Korea may simply have launched a communication satellite!?! Why is this option omitted from your analysis given America and Britain’s track record in ‘intelligence’? Iraq’s non-existent WMDs spring to mind!!”
The email was ignored.
In March, a different reader asked BBC reporter Reeta Chakrabarti why she had claimed that Blair had “passionately believed” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. After all, an alternative thesis – based on a ton of compelling evidence – is that Blair was lying. Chakrabarti responded:
“I said Mr Blair passionately believed Iraq had wmd because he has consistently said so.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, March 2, 2009)
Hard to believe, but senior BBC journalists and editors consistently present this argument: leading politicians must be sincere because, well, they say so! What possible reasons could they have for saying one thing and believing another?
In January 2006, as Iraq collapsed under the violence and chaos of military occupation, Jeremy Bowen commented:
“Thanks to the Americans, Iraq had elections in December 2005. Voting in itself is not a magic formula to make people’s lives better. Just because they cast their ballots the violence won’t stop and the electricity won’t run all day. But voting is the way to create a fairer system, so something better might have started. Under American protection, Iraq’s newly elected politicians now have to show they can build a democracy.” (Bowen, ‘Middle East on the road to change,’ January 2, 2006; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ world/middle_east/4551726.stm)
“All this does not mean that the dreams that the Bush administration has for the region are coming true… The Americans are discovering that the problem with democracy is that it can produce results that you don’t like. That’s just the way it is.”
Imagine these words being said of any other superpower occupation in history. Was it “scrupulously unbiased” to suggest that post-invasion Iraq was free to seek genuine democracy under “American protection”? Was it unbiased to portray the destroyers of Iraq – big business cynics like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell – as political ingénues dreaming of freedom for the world’s oil-producing nations, and then feeling dismayed as the latter made choices discordant with the dreams of US oil giants? Needless to say, there were no BBC committee rulings on the matter.
Returning to the present, the second finding of the BBC’s editorial standards committee related to a broadcast Bowen had delivered on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent in January last year, in which he referred to a contemporary Israeli settlement, Har Homa. Bowen said the US government considered the settlement illegal. He should have said that +even+ the US government considered it illegal. The committee decided the assertion was inadequately sourced:
“The Middle East Editor had stated his professional view without qualification or explanation, and that the lack of precision in his language had rendered the statement inaccurate.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/ tv-radio/bowen-breached-rules-on- impartiality-1669278.html)
This absurd comment was used as justification for its finding that the report had partially breached accuracy guidelines. Robert Fisk commented in the Independent:
“The fact that the BBC Trust uses the Hebrew name for Har Homa – not the original Arab name, Jebel Abu Ghoneim – shows just how far it is now a mouthpiece for the Israeli lobby which so diligently abused Bowen.
“Whenever I’m asked by lecture audiences around the world if they should trust the BBC, I tell them to trust [Israeli journalists] Amira [Hass] and Gideon [Levy] more than they should ever believe in the wretched broadcasting station. I’m afraid it’s the same old story. If you allow yourself to bow down before those who wish you to deviate from the truth, you will stay on your knees forever.” (Fisk, ‘How can you trust the cowardly BBC?,’ The Independent, April 16, 2009; http://www.independent.co.uk/ opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk -how-can-you-trust-the-cowardly-bbc-1669281.html)
The same can be said of Fisk’s equally “wretched” newspaper – the Independent. Although, as discussed, it arguably does not “bow down” to power for the reason that it is itself a key element of the power that keeps us all on our knees. This is something Fisk will never accept, nor even discuss, in our strange ‘free’ society where the limits to free speech are subtly understood and crudely ignored.
The issue is not complex, not esoteric: in a world dominated by corporate power we rely on media corporations for news about that world. Future generations will surely be aghast that so few people today are able to perceive the perfectly obvious problem, the very clear source of mass control, that this implies.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Jeremy Bowen at the BBC
Email: [email protected]
Helen Boaden, director of news, at the BBC
Email: [email protected]
Richard Beeston at the Times
Email: [email protected]