One of our readers recently took us to task for a serious omission in our new book, ‘Newspeak in the 21st Century’ (Pluto Press, 2009). He asked how we could possibly have failed to include the BBC’s Newsnight presenter, Emily Maitlis. In August 2008, Maitlis opened Newsnight with these words about the conflict between Russia and Georgia:
“Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it ‘peace enforcement operation’. It’s the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.” (BBC2, August 11, 2008, 10:30pm)
When has a BBC journalist so much as raised an eyebrow while channelling US-UK propaganda about the “peace enforcement operation” in Afghanistan or Iraq? It is unimaginable that a Newsnight presenter would declare such claims “the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud”.
Our book devotes two whole chapters to the BBC: the first, exposing the magnificent fiction of BBC “balance”, and the second presenting a handy A-Z compendium of BBC propaganda.
Another ‘Newspeak’ reader was so keen for its arguments to be given a fair hearing that he paid for 100 copies of the book to be sent to the BBC. Thanks to his generosity, and the efforts of our publisher, a copy was sent to virtually all senior BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, as well as the BBC Trustees.
The BBC were unwilling to allow a mass mailing of books via their post room. But after considerable wrangling, Pluto Press tracked down individual postal addresses for 100 BBC professionals and wrote to them individually, enclosing a copy of our book. The publisher also invited comment and feedback on the book through a dedicated email address that was set up especially for that purpose.
To date, only two replies from the BBC have been received. One was from a radio producer who was pleased to be included in such a mailing, he told us, because he’s normally overlooked. The other response came from no less a figure than Sir Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust. Sir Michael wrote:
“Thank you for sending me a copy of ‘Newspeak in the 21st Century’ – interesting in its own right and evidence that the Pluto Press imprint remains strong. I will read it with interest.
“In my first scan, my attention was drawn to the list of BBC Trustees on p. 26 where energetic editing of my CV helps to accommodate the author’s concern to characterise the BBC Trust as distanced from roots and community issues.” (Email, November 3, 2009)
Is it possible that Lyons had flipped straight to the index to search for his name? A celebrity sin ranked marginally below that of Googling one’s own name.
We described Lyons, fairly, as having “held a number of executive and non-executive media and local government positions”. We in fact omitted to mention his links to +central+ government as described on the BBC website:
“Sir Michael has also worked closely with central government, undertaking both an independent study on the scope for relocating public service activities from London to other parts of the UK (The Lyons Review, 2004) and a detailed examination of the role and funding of local government (The Lyons Inquiry, 2007).
“Sir Michael was knighted in 2000 for services to local government.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/about/who_we _are/trustees/michael_lyons.shtml)
Readers can see for themselves how Lyons and the other BBC Trustees present their CVs:
The point we made in our book is that there is clearly a heavy bias towards establishment, financial and corporate links amongst the BBC Trustees:
“There are no representatives from the trade unions, green pressure groups, development charities, child poverty groups or other grass-root organisations. We are to believe there is no reason to doubt that these Trust members are independent from the government that appointed them, and from the elite corporate and other interests that employ them. We are to believe, instead, that these privileged individuals will uphold fair and balanced reporting which displays not a hint of bias towards state ideology or economic orthodoxy in a world of rampant corporate power.” (Newspeak, p.27)
We thanked Lyons for his response and invited him to send us comments on the two chapters devoted to the BBC. Three weeks later he wrote again:
“I have now read the two chapters relating to the BBC as you suggested. I do not think that I can fruitfully enter into a dialogue about my reactions, but I would draw your attention to the fact that the BBC Trust will be undertaking a review of News services in 2010 and you might feel that you want to contribute to that exercise. Your views would be most welcome.” (Email, November 24, 2009)
Again, it was good to receive any kind of reply – it would have been so easy for Lyons to ignore us, and we suspect that he means well. But an interesting question arises: why, in a free society, can Lyons not “fruitfully enter into a dialogue” about his reactions? Is it because nothing much occurred to him as he read through our chapters on the BBC? We very much doubt it. Perhaps, instead, Lyons would agree with the honest and courageous Leo Tolstoy when he wrote:
“One man [indeed one woman] does not assert the truth which he knows, because he feels himself bound to the people with whom he is engaged; another, because the truth might deprive him of the profitable position by which he maintains his family; a third, because he desires to attain reputation and authority, and then use them in the service of mankind; a fourth, because he does not wish to destroy old sacred traditions; a fifth, because he has no desire to offend people; a sixth, because the expression of the truth would arouse persecution, and disturb the excellent social activity to which he has devoted himself.” (Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do?, Green Classics, 1991, p.118)
More jovially, BBC presenter, Times journalist and comedian Jeremy Clarkson writes:
“As you may know, Rupert Murdoch and his son James are engaged in a bitter dispute with the BBC over all sorts of things. This puts me in a tricky spot. Obviously, Rupert and James Murdoch are my bosses, not just here at The Sunday Times but also at The Sun, for which I write a column on Saturdays. I am therefore inclined to nod vigorously when they suggest the licence fee should be scrapped and all BBC web activities halted forthwith.
“But I am also employed by the BBC, which means I am inclined to nod vigorously whenever the director-general says the BBC is a fantastic institution and the envy of every nation in the world. This means I’ve been doing an awful lot of vigorous nodding in the past few months.” (Clarkson, ‘I’m so dead – shot by both sides in the website war,’ Times Online, November 29, 2009; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/ comment/columnists/ jeremy_clarkson/article6936087.ece)
If these are the real reasons why dialogue with us cannot be entered into “fruitfully”, then this is exactly the point we are making in our two chapters, our book, and in our work as a whole. We do not live in a totalitarian society – the BBC is not a totalitarian organisation. But we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are free to speak the truth as a result. To quote another eminent philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, writing in the context of US politics:
“It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1983, p.49)
Near-total silence, then, from the BBC 100 in response to ‘Newspeak,’ a rational, referenced challenge to their capacity for truth-telling. Our freedom is carefully sculpted and constrained by this kind of silence. Whole issues, whole nations, unimaginable crimes and horrors, are swallowed up by it.
What hope, then, for a fair and reasoned reception to honest public challenges when BBC News services are reviewed next year? To be sure, there will be noise and bluster aplenty. But, as usual, it will be delivered in the context of the wider, controlling silence.
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.
Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust
Email: [email protected]
Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Email: [email protected]
Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Email: [email protected]
Ask any other BBC journalist or member of the BBC Trust whether they have read ‘Newspeak’ and, if so, what is their response to the arguments made about the BBC’s systematic failure to uphold their public obligation to provide fair and balanced reporting. BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, and the BBC Trustees, are listed here, respectively: