The BBC’s Nick Robinson has made a career out of telling the public what leading politicians say and do; sometimes even what they ‘think’. This stenography plays a key role in ‘the mainstream media’, given that a vital part of statecraft is to keep the public suitably cowed and fearful of threats from which governments must protect us. The ‘free press’ requires compliant journalists willing to disseminate elite-friendly messages about global ‘peace’, ‘security’ and ‘prosperity’, uphold Western ideology that ‘we are the good guys’, and not question power deeply, if at all.
But when a senior journalist complains of ‘intimidation and bullying’ by the public, making comparisons to ‘Vladimir Putin’s Russia’, the mind really boggles at the distortion of reality. Those were claims made by Robinson, the BBC’s outgoing political editor, using an appearance at the Edinburgh international book festival to settle a few scores.
As we noted on the eve of last year’s referendum on Scottish independence, Robinson was guilty of media manipulation in reporting remarks made by Alex Salmond, then Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party. During a press conference, Robinson had asked Salmond a two-part question about supposedly solid claims made by company bosses and bankers – ‘men who are responsible for billions of pounds of profits’ – that independence would damage the Scottish economy. Not only did the full version of the encounter demonstrate that Salmond responded comprehensively, but he turned the tables on Robinson by calling into question the BBC’s role as an ‘impartial’ public broadcaster. The self-serving report that was broadcast that night by Robinson on BBC News at Ten did not accurately reflect the encounter. Instead, the political editor summed it all up misleadingly as:
‘He didn’t answer, but he did attack the reporting.’
But the public was able to compare Robinson’s highly selective editing of Salmond’s press conference with what had actually taken place. The episode sparked huge discussion across social media. It even led to public protests outside the BBC headquarters in Glasgow. Some called for Robinson to resign. The protests involved thousands of pro-independence campaigners, although Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s then deputy and now leader of the SNP, distanced her party from the demonstration outside the BBC when she ’emphasised it was not organised by the official Yes Scotland campaign’. The Glasgow protest was but one episode in a bigger picture of considerable public dissent against BBC News; indeed, against corporate news bias generally.
The outcome of the September 2014 referendum, following frantic propaganda campaigns to block Scottish independence by the main political parties, big business and corporate media – akin to what we are seeing today with the establishment targetting Jeremy Corbyn – was 55 per cent ‘No’ and 45 per cent ‘Yes’.
Now Robinson, promoting his latest book ‘Election Diary’, has spoken out about what happened when his reporting was exposed for what it was:
‘Alex Salmond was using me to change the subject. Alex Salmond was using me as a symbol. A symbol of the wicked, metropolitan, Westminster classes sent from England, sent from London, in order to tell the Scots what they ought to do.
‘As it happens I fell for it. I shouldn’t have had the row with him which I did, and I chose a particular phrase [“He didn’t answer, but he did attack the reporting.”] we might explore badly in terms of my reporting and that is genuinely a sense of regret.’
So Robinson’s distorted reporting, caught and exposed in public, led merely to ‘a sense of regret’ which ‘we might explore badly’.
He then launched a bizarre attack on the public:
‘But as a serious thought I don’t think my offence was sufficient to justify 4,000 people marching on the BBC’s headquarters, so that young men and women who are new to journalism have, like they do in Putin’s Russia, to fight their way through crowds of protesters, frightened as to how they do their jobs.’
The hyperbole continued:
‘We should not live with journalists who are intimidated, or bullied, or fearful in any way.’
And yet, in June, Robinson had played down the alleged bullying as ineffectual:
‘In reality I never felt under threat at all’.
Given that the protest was triggered by Robinson’s propaganda, one wonders to what extent the ‘young men and women who are new to journalism’ at the BBC were ‘intimidated, or bullied, or fearful’, or whether this was more tragicomic bias from Robinson. Needless to say, Robinson was silent about how the corporate media routinely acts as an echo chamber for government propaganda, scaremongering the public about foreign ‘enemies’ and security ‘threats’.
A couple of days later, Salmond responded to Robinson. He told the Dundee-based Courier newspaper:
‘The BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum was a disgrace.
‘It can be shown to be so, as was Nick’s own reporting of which he should be both embarrassed and ashamed.’
‘To compare, as Nick did last week, 4000 Scots peacefully protesting outside BBC Scotland as something akin to Putin’s Russia is as ludicrous as it is insulting.
‘It is also heavily ironic given that the most commonly used comparison with the BBC London treatment of the Scottish referendum story was with Pravda, the propaganda news agency in the old Soviet Union.’
The Guardian then gave ample space to Robinson to respond to Salmond with an ill-posed defence of the BBC’s slanted coverage of the independence debate. This was amplified by a news piece by Jane Martinson, head of media at the Guardian, about the ‘row’ between the two.
‘The BBC’, declaimed Robinson, ‘must resist Alex Salmond’s attempt to control its coverage’. In fact, Salmond had rightly pointed out that the BBC’s broadcasting had been biased and ‘a disgrace’; a view held by many people in Scotland and beyond. Robinson’s pompous response was that, all too often, politicians ‘simply do not understand why the nation’s broadcaster doesn’t see the world exactly as they do.’ Case dismissed.
The BBC political editor then fell back on the old canard that complaints from both sides implied that reporting had been balanced:
‘There were many complaints about our coverage of the Scottish referendum – although interestingly just as many came from the No side as the Yes.’
Deploying this fallacious argument means that the strong evidence of bias against ‘Yes’ need not be examined (see, for example, this book and short film by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland). In its place, Robinson paints a heroic picture of himself and the BBC rejecting demands from ‘politicians’ to ‘control’ news reporting. Robinson declared his unshakeable confidence in:
‘the BBC’s high journalistic standards, which are recognised around the world’.
This is precisely the attitude one would expect from someone who is rewarded handsomely for thinking the right thoughts about their employer.
‘An Epitaph For Establishment Journalism’
On Twitter, George Monbiot succinctly made the point that matters about the Robinson-Salmond ‘row’:
‘Establishment unites to crush popular movements. If movements protest, they’re accused of bullying’
Robinson made himself look more ridiculous when he replied to Monbiot:
‘protests by a governing party outside a media HQ not a good look’
Robinson was claiming, then, that it was not a public protest outside the BBC headquarters in Glasgow. It was a protest by the ruling Scottish National Party.
Monbiot challenged Robinson to back up his allegation with hard evidence:
‘Incidentally, do you have evidence that the protest was organised by the SNP? If so, could you provide it? Thanks.’
As far as we can see, Robinson ignored the challenge to provide evidence for his claim. Instead, he appeared to backtrack when he replied:
‘Don’t know who organised protest.’
adding, in an attempt to justify his earlier unsubstantiated claim:
‘Do know Salmond praised as “joyous”, talked of BBC being “scarred” & “gains” for @theSNP’
For many years now, Media Lens has scrutinised Robinson’s reporting. Notoriously, he was guilty of repeating false government claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, like so many other journalists. When challenged about this, Robinson wrote in a column for The Times:
‘It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… That is all someone in my sort of job can do.’ (‘ “Remember the last time you shouted like that?” I asked the spin-doctor’, Nick Robinson, The Times, July 16, 2004)
As the US journalist Glenn Greenwald remarked:
‘That’d make an excellent epitaph on the tombstone of modern establishment journalism’
But Robinson had also made a solemn promise back then:
‘Now, more than ever before, I will pause before relaying what those in power say. Now, more than ever, I will try to examine the contradictory case.’ (The Times, op. cit.)
To little or no avail, as we have seen in the intervening years. Robinson hates to be reminded of this. Likewise, he bristles whenever he is told that his professed role is more that of a stenographer – an honourable profession in law courts, of course – than a real journalist. Proper analysis and investigation of government claims and propaganda are systematically missing. Reporting of authoritative alternative viewpoints is minimal or non-existent. But then, as Noam Chomsky once noted of corporate journalism:
‘The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.’ (‘Deterring Democracy’, Vintage, 1992, p. 79)
This was emphasised yet again last month when Robinson published a blog piece, ‘Door to RAF strikes in Syria opens’, on the BBC News website.
He plugged his article via Twitter:
‘Why the Defence Secretary thinks there’s a fresh case for airstrikes inside Syria’
Robinson was then challenged by one of our readers, Huw Peach, to provide a link to provide any legal justification for the Defence Secretary’s ‘fresh case’. When the BBC political editor did not do so, we pointed out that it was Robinson’s declared role to report what people in power do and think.
Robinson replied with a seemingly exasperated:
Another of our readers, playwright Torben Betts, noted Robinson’s dismissive tweet and followed up with his own challenge:
‘BBC staff work for us. Arent we within our rights to protest when we feel u r not doing yr jobs properly? Lives r at stake.’
‘Of course. Criticism welcome & listened to. Abuse not’
The problem is, however, that being confronted by Chomsky’s ‘basic principle’ of corporate journalism equates to ‘abuse’ in Robinson’s eyes. Of course, this also applies to many other journalists. Many of them play the ‘abuse’ card as an excuse not to respond to calm and reasoned challenges.
No doubt Robinson did receive abuse on social media from some people about his biased reporting on Scottish independence. It happens to most commentators on public issues, sadly; including us. But Robinson’s pejorative dismissal of all well-justified and predominantly civil public protest as ‘bullying’, and his ridiculous comparisons to ‘Putin’s Russia’, are revealing. They are a measure of how remote BBC News is from the public it is supposed to be serving, and by which it is paid. Indeed, it is a sign of the contempt that elites, including establishment media professionals, have for the public.
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Please contact Nick Robinson, the BBC’s outgoing political editor. (He is shortly joining the BBC Today programme).
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