Down The Barrel Of A Gun

BBC Newsnight, Iraq And The Export Of Democracy

By David Cromwell

It is a prerequisite for corporate journalists that they respect the ideological conventions of their paymasters and of state power – a vital source of ‘news’ and ‘informed’ comment, after all. At the same time, the corporate journalist likes to project a self-serving image as a valiant investigator, a champion of democracy, and a facilitator of fair and balanced debate. All too often, of course, the public can see through the charade.

Huw Edwards, the BBC newsreader, once related an anecdote about being accosted on a train by an ‘enraged’ man:

‘Shortly after my return from Lashkar Gah [a city in southern Afghanistan and the capital of Helmand Province] in 2008, I was confronted by a man on a train heading for London. In a blistering conversation that lasted no more than five minutes, he raised fundamental concerns about the BBC’s coverage of Afghanistan. They were all linked in some way to the nature of the British media’s relationship with the armed forces.

‘He had been enraged by our “twisted” reporting, our status as “prisoners” of the forces during our stay in Helmand, and our seemingly wilful refusal to report “the truth”. Ah, yes. The truth.’ (Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, editors, Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines, Arima Publishing, Bury St Edmunds, 2010, p. ix)

The BBC man’s airily dismissive response – ‘Ah yes. The truth’ – may play well on the page, in black and white. But he doesn’t tell the reader what he actually said to the challenger in the train, and how their exchange ended. After all, that would involve Edwards revealing his opinion, which BBC journalists are ostensibly not allowed to do!

Instead, he sighs philosophically and tells his readers that ‘the truth’ is the journalist’s ‘most elusive aspiration’, adding:

‘In war reporting, that elusiveness is taken to even more daunting levels.’

Huw Edwards makes accurate reporting sound like some abstruse problem in quantum gravity, something ‘elusive’ that will perhaps forever be out of reach. But his fellow train passenger was surely right. There are ‘fundamental concerns about the BBC’s coverage of Afghanistan’ – and Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Syria, poverty, global capitalism, impending climate chaos, and on and on. But Edwards – someone entrusted with reading the News at Ten and commenting on royal pageants, no less – is part of the exclusive inner BBC News circle characterised by institutional groupthink that permits no fundamental concerns about the broadcaster’s role.

As sociologist Stuart Hall correctly observes:

‘The media define for the majority of the population what significant events are taking place, but, also, they offer powerful interpretations of how to understand these events.’

And in any ‘responsible’ discussion of events and issues, the boundaries are set within manageable limits that preclude serious challenges to the establishment. As a prime example, historian Mark Curtis cites the BBC programme Question Time – chaired by David Dimbleby, another senior corporation man (and former Bullingdon Club member) entrusted with live commentary of state events – as ‘a microcosm of how the media works’:

‘rarely are critical voices invited. If they are, it is so rare that their views can end up sounding ridiculous in comparison with the “normal” and “balanced” views of the other panellists. It is acceptable for Question Time panellists to criticise each other from within the elite consensus but not for anyone to criticise all of them from outside that consensus.’ (Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p. 378)

Curtis continues:

‘The evidence is overwhelming that BBC and commercial television news report on Britain’s foreign policy in ways that resemble straightforward state propaganda organs. Although by no means directed by the state, their output might as well be; it is not even subtle. BBC, ITV and Channel 5 news simply report nothing seriously critical on British foreign policy; the exception is the odd report on Channel 4 news. Television news – the source of most people’s information – provides the most extreme media distortion … playing an even greater ideological function than the press.’ (Ibid., p. 379)


Crafty Propaganda

This ideological function was clear in the BBC Newsnight ‘special’ edition on February 26, 2013, titled ‘Iraq: 10 Years On’. One of the guests on the platform in front of an invited audience was the grandly titled ‘World Affairs Editor’, John Simpson. The veteran journalist has an air of avuncular gravitas, like a political-reporting version of David Attenborough, which helps to promote the notion of BBC News as authoritative and insightful. But look at his words in the cold light of common sense, stripped of the ponderous tone and stolid presentation, and they actually contain little of substance, far less anything that seriously challenges power (as we have documented before: see here and here). Indeed, sometimes those words are simply deceptive. For example, at one point in his Newsnight contribution Simpson really did say:

‘It came as a genuine shock to Blair and Bush to find that Saddam had craftily got rid of his weapons beforehand.’

What secret psychic powers could Simpson possibly possess to detect ‘genuine shock’ inside the brains of Blair and Bush? Rather than Saddam ‘craftily’ getting rid of his weapons, why didn’t Simpson report, as he should have done 10 years ago, that Iraq had been effectively disarmed of its WMD?

The BBC website itself still has a transcript of an interview with Saddam Hussein, conducted by Tony Benn in February 2003, in which Saddam says: ‘Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever.’ Indeed, the Iraqi weapons chief General Hussein Kamal, who defected from the regime in 1995, told the CIA, British intelligence and UN inspectors that Iraq had got rid of its WMD following the 1990-91 Gulf War:

‘All weapons– biological, chemical, missile, nuclear, were destroyed.’

This was revealed in an issue of Newsweek magazine published in February 2003, before the invasion of Iraq.  But it was to no avail in halting the predetermined course for war set by Bush, with Blair a willing accomplice. Indeed, the US media watchdog, FAIR, reported that ‘no major U.S. newspapers or national television news shows’ touched the story; it was ignored. Craftily, or otherwise, the BBC’s John Simpson did not mention any of this on Newsnight.

Later, Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark addressed Hans Blix via video link:

‘You were the senior weapons inspector. You were tasked with looking for and finding WMD. We’re in a position now where Iran may well be on its way to having WMD.’

This was outrageous bias by a high-profile, ‘impartial’ BBC journalist. It was positively Kafkaesque for a senior BBC journalist, in discussing the propaganda-led catastrophe of Iraq, to repeat the same invented WMD scare story in relation to Iran, apparently with complete unawareness!

There is no solid evidence at all, only supposition and fear-mongering by powerful Western countries and Israel, that Iran is developing WMD (see The Iran ‘Threat’ in a Kafkaesque World by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson). But the bias was persistent in Kirsty Wark’s approach throughout Newsnight as BBC ‘moderator’. In her interview with former prime minister Tony Blair, Wark even asked:

‘But isn’t it terrible in a way that in this country now we cannot go to war on the basis of intelligence again, can we?’

Wark’s ignorance of the realpolitik of the motivation for war is unforgiveable and all but inexplicable.The Iraq war was certainly not waged ‘on the basis of intelligence’. Instead, as the infamous Downing Street memos revealed, ‘the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’. And the policy was to launch a war of aggression against Iraq.

Indeed, Washington and London conspired to lure Saddam into supposedly obstructing the UN, thus providing an insidious pretext for war. As we noted in 2005, the ‘real news in the Downing Street memos’ was spelled out by reporter Michael Smith in the Los Angeles Times:

‘Although Blair and Bush still insist the decision to go to the UN was about averting war, one memo states that it was, in fact, about “wrong-footing” Hussein into giving them a legal justification for war.

‘British officials hoped the ultimatum could be framed in words that would be so unacceptable to Hussein that he would reject it outright. But they were far from certain this would work, so there was also a Plan B… Put simply, US aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone were dropping a lot more bombs in the hope of provoking a reaction that would give the allies an excuse to carry out a full-scale bombing campaign, an air war, the first stage of the conflict.’

Smith’s insightful conclusion was that the ‘way in which the intelligence was “fixed” to justify war was old news.’ Instead:

‘The real news is the shady April 2002 deal [when Blair visited Bush in Crawford, Texas] to go to war, the cynical use of the UN to provide an excuse, and the secret, illegal air war without the backing of Congress.’

Alan Greenspan, the long-serving chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, famously wrote:

‘I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.’ (The Age of Turbulence, Penguin, New York, 2007, p. 463)

And Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies and author of Resource Wars, observed that:

‘Controlling Iraq is about oil as power, rather than oil as fuel. Control over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan, and China. It’s having our hand on the spigot.’ 


Exporting Democracy Down The Barrel Of A Gun

But such realism is not ideologically acceptable, perhaps not even thinkable, to anyone with aspirations to be a safe pair of BBC hands; and it is seemingly not permitted to intrude into any prepared BBC script.

The author and political analyst Nafeez Ahmed was present at the recording of the Newsnight special and he was given a few seconds to speak from the audience. The very same day that the Newsnight special was broadcast, he published a piece that exposed and demolished the principal ‘seven myths’ underpinning the BBC’s limiting and distorted framing of debate. These included the mendacious claim that decision-making in Washington and London had been skewed by ‘wrong intelligence’, and that the Blair government’s decision to go to war was based on legitimate parliamentary process. In short, says Ahmed:

‘Newsnight ignored the now well-documented fact that the war was conceived for a set of narrow strategic goals which did not genuinely have the interests of the Iraqi people at heart…. Despite the facts being widely and easily available in the public record, Newsnight’s programme on the 10 year anniversary of the war obfuscated them to such an extent that the real, serious questions were largely overlooked.’

If one single, loaded question epitomised the BBC’s service to state propaganda, it was when Kirsty Wark asked her colleague, BBC Newsnight diplomatic and defence editor Mark Urban:

‘Do you think the idea of exporting democracy at the end of a barrel of a gun has gone?’

Media Lens reader Tony Shenton challenged Kirsty Wark on email (February 26, 2013):

‘You clearly believe that Britain invades other countries to export democracy and freedom. Thus, please can you explain why Blair and Cameron et al continue to be friends with brutal dictators such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain etc?

‘Isn’t Noam Chomsky correct when he says Britain and the US will support the most brutal regimes as long [as] they remain subservient to Western elites?’

Wark responded (February 27, 2013):

‘Thank you for your email. You are entitled to your opinion, but I don’t know how you can presume to know what I think, I was simply framing a question.’

Shenton replied (February 28, 2013):

‘As you know, how you frame a debate reveals a lot about your ideological beliefs.’

Wark’s ideologically-loaded question about the West ‘exporting democracy’ recalls a bizarre email once sent to Media Lens by Helen Boaden, then BBC News director. She had attached six pages of quotes from Bush and Blair supposedly proving their benign intentions behind invading Iraq!


The Function Of BBC News? Preserving The Balance Of Power!

Nick Robinson provides a succinct job description of his role as BBC political editor in the book Live From Downing Street:

‘My job is to report on what those in power are thinking and doing and on those who attempt to hold them to account in Parliament.’ (Bantam Books, 2012, foreword).

This notion of public service broadcasting has been around since the early days of the BBC, all the way back to the 1920s. Commercial stations followed suit. Stuart Hood, a former Controller of BBC Television, once observed of both the BBC and commercial stations that they:

‘interpreted impartiality as the acceptance of that segment of opinion which constitutes parliamentary consensus. Opinion that falls outside that consensus has difficulty in finding expression.’ (James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The press and broadcasting in Britain, 5th edition, Routledge , London, 1997, p. 170)

Author Dan Hind notes correctly that when society is already dominated by corporate interests, corporate media ‘balance and impartiality’ heavily favour those who have already secured huge power, ‘while making this bias seem both natural and just.’ (The Return of the Public, Verso, 2007, p. 56).

Hind adds:

‘…the BBC’s managers remain convinced that they can discern what the population needs to know and that they can frame political and economic controversies in a balanced and fair way. The notion of public service helps them to see themselves as high-minded professionals. Their right to decide what receives publicity derives from their technical accomplishments, their experience and their commitment to a quite specific ideology.’ (Ibid., p. 56)

This ‘specific ideology’ is, as we have elucidated in several books and numerous alerts, the false assumption that ‘our’ government will act out of benign intent, even when inflicting humanitarian catastrophes on other countries; and that corporate-led capitalism is a natural – or, at least, unchallengeable – state of affairs.

BBC managers, senior editors and journalists have internalised this false notion, so that they are incapable of treating state propaganda and disinformation with the requisite scrutiny and scepticism. The results of this gross failure for democracy include Permanent War, rampant corporate capitalism and effectively zero government response to the threat of climate chaos. Is it not time, then, for a Gandhi-style campaign of peaceful disobedience towards the corporate media, not least the BBC?



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.

Kirsty Wark, BBC Newsnight presenter
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @KirstyWark