By David Cromwell
‘Propaganda’ sounds like an old-fashioned word from a bygone era. It evokes images of the Nazis in WW2, particularly Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, or Soviet leaders in the Cold War and dictators in ‘Third World’ countries. Propaganda is something spewed out by official enemies of the West, and surely not a vile practice indulged by ‘our’ politicians and business leaders. This is a convenient illusion that serves powerful Western elites very well indeed.
The Russian-born filmmaker Andre Vltchek, who has travelled the world extensively in making his documentaries, relates his experience of appearing in the media in different countries. He observes that when he speaks in China, he does so uncensored:
‘I was on CCTV – their National TV – and for half an hour I was talking about very sensitive issues. And I felt much freer in Beijing than when the BBC interviews me, because the BBC doesn’t even let me speak, without demanding a full account of what exactly I am intending to say.’ (Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek, On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare, Pluto Press, London, 2013, p. 31)
‘people in the West are so used to thinking that we are so democratic in terms of the way our media is run and covers the stories. Even if we know it’s not the case, we still, subconsciously, expect that it’s still somehow better than in other places and it is actually shocking when we realize that a place like China or Turkey or Iran would run more unedited or uncensored pieces than our own mainstream media outlets. Let me put it this way: Chinese television and newspapers are much more critical of their economic and political system than our television stations or newspapers are of ours. Imagine ABC, CBS, or NBC [major US television stations] coming on air and beginning to question the basics of capitalism or the Western parliamentary system.’ (Ibid., p. 32)
A vanishingly rare example of the BBC propaganda system being blasted open was the special edition of the Radio 4 Today programme edited by the English musician PJ Harvey on January 2, 2014. In her opening statement, Harvey explained that she wanted to ‘do something unusual with the format and content of the programme.’ She invited people whom she considers ‘to be highly articulate, stimulating and extremely interesting to listen to – people who challenge us and move us to examine our deepest beliefs and feelings.’
Harvey’s guests included John Pilger talking about the propaganda role of the corporate media; Denis Halliday, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, on the urgent need to democratise the warmongering UN Security Council (here at around 49 mins); Ian Cobain and Phil Shiner on torture committed by UK forces (here at around 2 hrs : 34 mins); and Mark Curtis on how Britain’s arms trade fuels oppression around the world.
Harvey wanted her contributors to be unrestricted in what they could say, and she had asked the Today programme to agree to this before accepting the invitation to be a guest editor. She rightly noted that ‘a great deal’ of her edition of the programme was ‘about censorship in one way or another.’
Predictably, reactionary voices bewailed afterwards that the BBC had broadcast ‘left-wing tosh’ and ‘liberal drivel’. Nick Robinson, the BBC’s ‘impartial’ political editor, took particular exception to the contribution by John Pilger, while the pro-war Murdoch employee David Aaronovitch, a Times columnist with a penchant for wagging a warning finger at Glenn Greenwald, objected to being ‘lectured at in a news programme’.
By contrast, Paul Mason, a former BBC Newsnight correspondent and now the digital editor at Channel 4 News, better captured the public response:
‘Brilliant @PJHarveyUK edition of @BBCr4today demonstrating difference between “truth” and “editorial policy” – amazing how weird it feels’
The veteran Scottish journalist Joyce McMillan astutely summed up the importance of the PJ Harvey-edited Today programme and the dismissive and fearful response to it from elite quarters:
‘For the 21st-century British Right, though – used to seeing their sense of what is important go largely unchallenged in day-to-day political broadcasting – the programme was an outrage. […] Since this year’s group of guest editors also included such establishment figures as Dame Eliza Manningham Buller, former head of MI5, and Anthony Jenkins, CEO of Barclays Bank, there are clearly no grounds for complaint from the Right about the overall balance of this year’s holiday editions.’
‘The British boss class, though, increasingly demand not so much balance as total hegemony. Where a generation ago they would have had the wisdom to welcome Harvey as an alternative voice that demonstrated Britain’s commitment to diversity and freedom, now they just want her and her kind to shut up, before they put any wild ideas into the heads of the compliant masses.’
Although Harvey’s contributors made points that were ‘accurate, truthful and based on fact’, said McMillan, such voices are marginalised in political debate because:
‘they are not part of the dominant grand narrative of our time, which requires constant deference to the priorities of rich so-called “wealth creators”, and a rapid refocusing of any popular anger towards other vulnerable groups, such as this New Year’s imaginary tidal wave of new migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.’
McMillan warned that unless any serious challenge emerges to the ‘dominant narrative’ of state-corporate elites, we will be ‘trapped by an account of reality so far adrift of the truth […] that a long age of social, moral and intellectual decline seems almost inevitable.’
Accidental Subversion Flying Beneath The BBC Radar
It is therefore important to grasp, as in fact many people already do, that BBC News is a major influence in projecting what McMillan calls the ‘dominant grand narrative of our time’. Occasionally, very occasionally, the truth will slip out, and it can actually be comical to observe. Consider a report from Paris by BBC correspondent Allan Little on News at Ten on January 14. Little was talking about the reported marital difficulties of François Hollande, the French president. Why had his alleged affair not stirred up greater controversy in France, in contrast to what would surely have happened in this country if similar revelations had appeared about, say, David Cameron?
In a voiceover of footage of the Sorbonne, Little intoned:
‘François Hollande is a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, ENA, which like the Sorbonne here in Paris is an elite institution that trains many of France’s future leaders.’
Then, strolling along beside the Sorbonne, Little continued:
‘It’s often argued that the French ruling elite is a pretty homogeneous group of people. That they’re drawn from a very narrow sector of society. They went to the same elite universities, like this one [nods to the Sorbonne] where they were groomed for high-status, high-powered lives. And that this is why newspaper editors, senior politicians, civil servants, industry chiefs, are connected to each other through a network of lifelong loyalties and old friendships. And that this explains why the sexual peccadilloes of previous presidents stayed out of the news.’
That Little’s comments also apply to the ‘very narrow sector of society’ that runs Britain, with its leading cohorts largely drawn from the elite institutions of Oxbridge and London, is obvious. When I emailed Little to congratulate him ironically on his piece of subversive reporting that he’d managed to slip below the BBC editorial radar I got no response – not surprising.
On the other hand, nobody could ever accuse BBC political editor Nick Robinson of subversion, intentional or otherwise. A week earlier (BBC News at Ten, January 6, 2014), Robinson had performed his usual role of ‘explaining’ – or, more accurately, amplifying – government policy; this time on the increasing levels of ‘austerity’ being imposed on the British public.
He finished his ‘balanced’ report with these words:
‘Whose purse or wallet should be raided next to pay off the deficit? Welcome to one of the main debates between now and election day.’
But how far would Robinson ever extend the ‘main debate’ beyond the usual narrow parliamentary voices, if at all? Would he be likely to give prominence to informed comment about cutting the massive subsidies granted at public expense to the corporate sector, notably the fossil fuel industry? What about a spectrum of views on proper accountability of major banks, and preventing corporations and rich elites from tax-dodging? Would that ever be a significant part of a ‘main debate’ presented by Robinson on BBC News?
We put these questions to Robinson via email, adding:
‘What about going beyond the skewed parliamentary “consensus” that normally shapes your news reporting, and include progressive voices arguing for taxation to reduce the shameful inequities in British society? What about a critical look at the costs of the UK’s militaristic foreign policy, including huge government support for the so-called “defence” industry?
‘Will you canvas wider opinion on all of this, or will you merely include brief snatches of token vox pops on the street?
‘Surely the British public deserves a reasoned debate beyond the usual establishment perspective?’ (Email, January 7, 2014)
Despite several follow-up emails, Robinson ignored us. Perhaps he is too busy propping up the ‘dominant grand narrative of our time’ to answer questions from marginalised voices like ours. Robinson was, however, happy to seek us out a couple of years ago for the source of a quote by Lord Reith, the founding Director-General of the BBC, to include in his 2012 book, Live From Downing Street. What was the Reith quote that Robinson was so keen to source? This one:
‘They [the government] know they can trust us not to be really impartial.’ (C. Stuart, ed., The Reith Diaries, 1975)
Life is full of such ironies.
A key element of the elite ‘grand narrative’ projected by the corporate news media is that the United States is a force for peace in the Middle East. Thus Jeremy Bowen, the BBC Middle East editor, said with a straight face on the BBC Weekend News on January 11 that:
‘These days, the Americans are having another go at brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians.’
Why Bowen, who really should know better, sticks to the discredited script of US as ‘peace-broker’ is an awkward question that only he can answer. Perhaps one day he will do so – after retiring, when he is finally freed from the shackles of BBC ‘balance’.
Fracking The Climate System And Defending War
Propaganda was once again in full flow when Huw Edwards introduced BBC News at Ten with this beauty:
‘We’ll have more on the government’s plan to give local authorities financial rewards for allowing development of shale gas.’ (January 13, 2014)
‘Financial rewards’? That is BBC News echoing government-speak. Although the actual news report mentioned in brief that opponents of fracking use the more accurate term ‘bribes’, it was the government spin that got top billing.
After the broadcast of the report, Nick Robinson sat in the studio facing Huw Edwards across a big polished round table in the tired news-theatre format of presenter and correspondent exchanges masquerading as genuine ‘conversation’. As ever, Robinson’s purpose was to ‘explain’ the government’s message. This essentially comprised a series of corporate-friendly, pro-fracking bullet points on the ‘potential big gain in terms of jobs’, ‘potentially cheap energy’ and ‘security of supply’.
There was not a single direct reference to climate change; only an implicit, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hint in Robinson’s brief nod to green campaigners’ wish for ‘clean energy’. The very real risk of climate chaos under business as usual fossil-fuel consumption was not worth discussing, obviously.
In its report, BBC News gave prominence to David Cameron’s claim of 74,000 new jobs linked to fracking. Email correspondence between the government and companies involved in fracking, made public after a Freedom of Information request, has since revealed that Cameron’s figure comes from the ‘Big Six’ energy company Centrica. The ‘74,000 jobs’ assertion has been repeatedly used by Cameron and ministers, even though the government’s own study estimated far fewer jobs: a ‘peak’ of 16,000 to 32,000 jobs.
Moreover, the email correspondence showed that:
‘Shale gas executives and government officials collaborated in private to manage the British public’s hostility to fracking.’
As Green party MP Caroline Lucas said:
‘This is yet more evidence of the creepily cosy relationship between [the government] and big energy. Apparently it’s not enough to give fracking companies generous tax breaks, the government also has to help them with their PR. Instead of cheerleading for fracking, the government should be working with community and renewable energy to move us towards a low carbon future.’
Liberal Apologetics: War Crimes as ‘Failures’
Of course, it’s not just the BBC that deploys its ‘serious journalism’ credentials to promote the grand narrative that props up elite power. The British flagship of supposedly progressive print journalism, the Guardian, relentlessly plays its part too. A recent editorial on UK ‘defence’ policy, titled ‘Military options: sense about defence’, was a prime example of pro-power liberal posturing. The editorial was a response to a question posed by former US defence secretary Robert Gates; namely ‘whether the UK now has the ability to act alongside the US in the Middle East or Asia.’ The Guardian argued that this was ‘not the only or even the main [question] that needs to be answered.’
The editorial asserted that:
‘It is high time that Britain, and Europe, had a serious, effective and public strategic examination of defence needs and affordable options for the mid-21st century.’
By contrast, a genuinely progressive editorial would have argued that:
‘It is high time that Britain, and Europe, had a serious, effective and public strategic examination of the elite interests that drive foreign policy and instead consider sensible options for the mid-21st century.‘
The editorial continued:
‘The question that needs answering is how Europe and Britain can best defend ourselves against the threats of today and tomorrow, and how we can play an appropriate military role in the world.’
rather than the more rational:
‘The question that needs answering is how Europe and Britain can best reduce the threats we pose to everyone else, and how we can instead play an appropriate peaceful role in the world.’
The Guardian added:
‘the public is war-weary from the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan’
‘the public is sick of the West’s war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan…‘
which we could follow up with:
‘...but voters are deprived of any peaceful party political alternative.‘
Of course, it is a classic trope of liberal apologetics to describe war crimes by the state as mere ‘failures’ or ‘mistakes’. And so, shamefully, the Guardian was once again showing its true colours as the liberal wing of a voracious power elite. For those with a black sense of humour, it was all summed up by the headline of a satirical piece in the Daily Mash: ‘Britain could miss out on crazy, pointless war with China, says important American’.
Today, it is clearer than ever to a growing number of people that there is something seriously wrong with ‘the news’. The current system of planet-crushing propaganda relies on a mere façade of overall ‘balance’, ‘reasonableness’ and ‘range of views’. In the UK, BBC News is the crucial foundation stone of this propaganda system, with the Guardian playing an accompanying role, almost as the print equivalent. In an era of Permanent War and climate chaos, it is time for the public to raise our voices in protest at all parts of the corporate media, and to build a ‘grand narrative’ that represents reality.
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.
Nick Robinson, BBC political editor
Email: [email protected]
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
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