A standard technique deployed by corporate journalists to fend off challenges from the public is to point to selected examples of ‘abuse’ and then tar all reasoned criticism with the same mucky brush. Or, if that doesn’t work, to sneer at claims of ‘conspiracy’ or ‘plots’, thus permitting instant dismissal of the arguments made. Polly Toynbee managed to combine the two techniques in a recent Guardian column. It is a near-masterclass in liberal propaganda.
Toynbee began her article by claiming that the BBC, described in hagiographic terms as ‘the nation’s crucible’, is ‘often bad at defending itself’. With BBC journalism supposedly ‘under ferocious and unjustified attack’, in particular from both ‘pro- and anti-Brexiteers’, she was pleased to hear BBC chairman David Clementi ‘standing up for its journalists’ in his speech at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge last week.
Clementi said it was unacceptable for politicians, whom he did not name, to ‘stand by and watch’ heckling at press conferences. He added:
‘I have become increasingly aware of the abuse that some of them – particularly female journalists – are subject to on an almost daily basis.’
‘These days, there is much more abuse. It is increasingly explicit and aggressive. And much of it occurs online.
‘I welcome the work the Government is doing to tackle this, and I’m following closely the efforts of Twitter and Facebook, amongst others, to clamp down on the perpetrators. I hope the social media platforms do even more.’
It is obviously true that sexist and misogynist abuse exists on social media and that threats against women should be taken seriously. But as website Skwawkbox rightly pointed out, the speech by Clementi, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, was actually ‘a barely-veiled attack on new media’. He:
‘ignore[d] the fact that anger toward journalists is, overwhelmingly, precisely because they do not “do their job” and ask the awkward, unwelcome question – and most of the rest of the time, it’s because they ask ridiculous questions.’
‘The BBC angers the aware amongst its viewers and readers precisely by failing to question government policy, instead giving government ministers and spokespeople not just a “free ride” but an untrammelled opportunity to propagandise unchallenged.’
This is not territory that Toynbee wished to explore.
Next, she referred to the reported claim that Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, has been appointed a bodyguard. In the following sentence, Toynbee then mentioned Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was murdered in June 2016. This was an insidious link to make, implying that criticism of Kuenssberg’s journalism would increase the risk of any death threats against her. Toynbee made no reference to a petition by website 38 Degrees being taken down last year after claims of ‘sexist abuse’ against Kuenssberg. The petition, signed by 35,000 people, had protested her blatantly biased anti-Jeremy Corbyn reporting.
The former UK ambassador Craig Murray said that he had read through every single one of the comments on the 38 Degrees website when around 26,000 people had signed the petition. He noted:
‘Of the many scores, possibly hundreds (there is no counter) of comments I read through, only one was sexist. That one was very unpleasant, but totally unrepresentative. I can see no reason why they could not just delete any such stupid comments. Everywhere on the internet gets them, including this blog.’
‘It seems to me astonishing that a tiny and unrepresentative number of people can get a petition scrapped which had been signed by many thousands of genuine people.’
He was later told by 38 Degrees that the alleged abuse was not on the petition website itself; it ‘was on connected social media’. But when Murray asked them for the evidence of abuse, ‘they absolutely refuse[d] to show it.’
‘We have had five people searching all day. So far we have one single tweet, which was nasty – it called Laura K by a expletive reserved for women. And it did refer to the petition. But it was sent by a young man, 90% of whose comments referred to football and 100% of whose tweets used similar expletives. […] But even if there are more nasty examples of abuse, that is not the fault of the 35,000 good people who signed the petition. […] I utterly condemn any such abuse, but it does not negate the genuine concerns of the petitioners. Regular readers know I myself receive constant abuse, sometimes death threats.’
As for the BBC’s political editor, Murray described her as:
‘the most openly biased journalist I have ever seen on the BBC, particularly in her very obvious vindictive hatred of Jeremy Corbyn and of Scottish Independence.’
Inevitably, the corporate media’s focus on a tiny number of abusive comments helped to block any discussion about deep-rooted BBC bias.
Just Swallow This Absurd Fiction
Toynbee also neglected to mention that Kuenssberg was behind the on-air resignation of a Labour shadow foreign minister in an apparent attempt to manipulate the news agenda and thereby heap pressure on Corbyn. Nor did the Guardian columnist refer to Kuenssberg’s hounding of the Labour leader in a skewed BBC interview as to whether he would be prepared, if elected Prime Minister, to ‘push the nuclear button’. Even Sir Michael Lyons, former chairman of the BBC Trust, said that there had been ‘some quite extraordinary attacks’ on Corbyn by the BBC.
All of this went unmentioned by Toynbee who then trotted out line after line of liberal dogma. ‘Walking the BBC line of unbiased reporting is becoming harder by the week’, she claimed, expecting readers to swallow the absurd fiction that BBC News is indeed characterised by ‘unbiased reporting’. Although no secret, at no point did she declare a vested interest: namely, that for seven years she was the BBC’s Social Affairs editor and thus might have a vested interest in upholding the mythology of an ‘unbiased’ BBC.
Sticking to the required script, Toynbee then gave the classic liberal defence of the BBC:
‘Mounting abuse of the BBC could in the end destroy it: it only survives on the trust and affection of most citizens. Those on the left joining in the attack, dismissing the BBC as part of an “MSM” [“mainstream media”] plot, fuel the right’s aim to dismantle and privatise it.’
Here was the rhetorical sneer at ‘those on the left’, unnamed rabble-rousers and miscreants, whose rational arguments boil down to a murky media ‘plot’. The sardonic use of quotation marks around ‘MSM’ was a ham-fisted attempt at a get-out-of-jail-free card. She simply felt no need to address the detailed reasoning, backed by ample evidence, why ‘mainstream media’ is a deceptive term for media that represent and promote the interests of wealthy owners, corporations, banking and financial interests. Such media, including BBC News, have given a free pass to a government that is engaged in Orwellian Permawar. This entails supporting oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia which is dropping British bombs on Yemeni children. BBC News, like the rest of the corporate media, has also been complicit in corporate-fuelled climate chaos, the imposition of ‘austerity’ on the majority of the population, and selling off the NHS to private interests.
In denying the reality of fundamentally biased state-corporate media, Toynbee lives in an elite bubble where books by Noam Chomsky do not exist, or are simply never read. As Chomsky and his co-author Edward Herman showed in their classic 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, the performance of the corporate media is very well explained by a propaganda model based on five ‘news filters’: wealthy ownership, advertising, official sources, flak and fear. Although the first filter – wealthy ownership – does not apply directly to the BBC, the other news filters do operate, including the influence of advertising. After all, the BBC is not, in fact, entirely free of advertising. Overseas visitors to the BBC’s website are assailed by ads. And BBC Advertising, part of the commercially-run BBC Worldwide, boasts in an advert featuring logos for the likes of Airbus, Mercedes-Benz, Qatar Airways and HSBC that:
‘BBC Advertising connects audiences to the brands that matter.’
Moreover, given the BBC’s very close relationship with, and dependence upon, the British government (see below), the BBC heavily reflects state priorities, including endless displays of ‘patriotism’, the Armed Forces, pageantry and sycophantic coverage of the Royal Family. In summary, an adapted form of the propaganda model applies very well to BBC News, as we demonstrated with many detailed examples in our 2009 book, Newspeak in the 21st Century.
Media critic Gavin Lewis notes how similar the output is from BBC News and commercial news media. BBC News, he says, is:
‘a twin of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News. Its editorial values are so identical that viewers get exactly the same hierarchy of news stories, at the same time of day, and predominantly from the same ideological viewpoint.’
Coverage of Western policy is, argues Lewis, ‘driven by a crude, skewed “good guy versus bad guy” narrative formula.’ This BBC agenda is shaped by the compelling need of the state broadcaster to serve power. As a result, ‘it has aligned itself with deeply undemocratic, unrepresentative forces and values.’
In addition, as the writer Steve Rushton observes, the BBC habitually protects power, the monarchy, and an unjust and inequitable class system:
‘The BBC should be seen as no less of an old boys’ network than any other of the UK’s institutions. From the top flights of big business, to the judiciary, to the civil service, to Westminster, the same pattern persists. This problem takes a particularly insidious form in the BBC because of its enormous influence, allowing it both to gloss and to normalise these dynamics not only for its audience in Britain, but around the world.’
‘First it is important to state from the outset what is rarely acknowledged in discussions about the BBC: that it isn’t independent from governments, let alone from the broader Establishment. The BBC has always been formally accountable to ministers for its operations. Governments set the terms under which it operates, they appoint its most senior figures, who in future will be directly involved in day-to-day managerial decision making, and they set the level of the licence fee, which is the BBC’s major source of income. So that’s the context within which the BBC operates, and it hardly amounts to independence in any substantive sense.’
Sometimes Conspiracies Are Real
In 2009, no less a figure than a former BBC director-general said that the BBC was, in effect, part of a ‘Westminster conspiracy’ preventing the ‘radical changes’ needed to UK democracy. Greg Dyke, who resigned in 2004 in the wake of the Hutton report, explained:
‘The evidence that our democracy is failing is overwhelming and yet those with the biggest interest in sustaining the current system – the Westminster village, the media and particularly the political parties […] – are the groups most in denial about what is really happening to our democracy.’
He included the BBC in those powerful groups that are responsible for blocking real democracy, adding:
‘collectively, they are all part of the problem. They are part of one Westminster conspiracy. They don’t want anything to change. It’s not in their interests.’
Toynbee steered clear of all of the arguments discussed above, just as might be expected of a well-rewarded BBC employee or ex-employee, especially one who gets invited on to high-profile BBC programmes as a commentator who can be relied upon to stay within safe bounds.
She then played her trump card against those who would criticise the BBC:
‘Murdoch and his press seize every chance to attack it [the BBC], mainly for commercial reasons. He has always argued for the BBC to lose the licence fee, and to become a small subscription service. Today his bid is referred to the Competition and Markets Authority: if he takes over Sky, he will push next to abolish laws obliging broadcasters to be unbiased, Foxifying our news networks. Where does that leave the BBC?’
In essence, Toynbee argued that any criticism of the BBC will fuel Murdoch’s bid to destroy the public broadcaster or, at best, turn it into a weak and tiny service, cowering in a corner. Imagine if, as a parent, you complained to a school headteacher about the poor education your child was receiving, and you were told bluntly: ‘Don’t whinge publicly – we’ll have our funding cut, and perhaps the school will have to close’. Or imagine telling the manager of your GP surgery that you weren’t happy with the way your GP was treating you, but you were fobbed off and told it could be worse – the surgery might become a commercially-run practice. Would that buy our silence? Should it?
Towards the end of her piece, Toynbee dropped an almighty clanger when she posed this ‘perplexing question’:
‘If we have this great national broadcaster, why is British political knowledge and understanding so weak? Shouldn’t we have the best-informed democracy?’
The obvious answer – that we do not have a ‘great national broadcaster’ – stared Toynbee in the face and she refused to see it. Truly, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
Could it be that the British people are routinely soaked in elite-serving propaganda and mind-numbing ‘entertainment’ from ‘this great national broadcaster’? The BBC has totally failed to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis; it has repeatedly been complicit in criminal Western foreign policy, including Iraq, Libya and Syria; it has essentially buried the UK government’s shameful support of Israel which is constantly engaged in the violent oppression of Palestinians; and it has given scant coverage of the UK’s toxic relationships with ‘valued allies’ such as Saudi Arabia, even as the Saudi regime crushes Yemen using British weapons. And that is just to scratch the surface. Could all of this help to explain why we do not have ‘the best-informed democracy’? Toynbee did not – cannot – go anywhere near such dangerous territory.
The fact that a systemic reappraisal is needed about how the BBC is structured and run, so that it is truly a public broadcaster, does not apparently enter Oxford-educated Toynbee’s mind. It certainly does not enter her Guardian journalism where she faithfully performs the liberal propagandist role that is required. But then, as John Pilger once noted:
‘Propaganda is most effective when our consent is engineered by those with a fine education – Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Columbia — and with careers on the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post.’
In a recent article, he adds that these ‘narcissistic media’, again notably including the BBC and the Guardian, with ‘their fossilised anti-Russia agenda’ are guilty of ‘warmonger[ing] on a scale I cannot remember in my lifetime.’ This troubles Toynbee not one jot.
Meanwhile, the views of major war criminal Tony Blair are still sought out by BBC News. We learn the fascinating titbit that he ‘became “obsessed” with creating a British football league as a way of bringing the UK together’. There was no mention of the Middle East country that he helped tear asunder. But then, no matter how much blood is on this man’s hands – likely one million Iraqis, and many others too – BBC News will happily sit down and have a chat with him, helping to ‘normalise the unthinkable’, to use the phrase introduced by Edward Herman.
BBC News has a central shameful role in normalising the unthinkable; something which a privileged liberal like the Guardian‘s ex-BBC Polly Toynbee will never acknowledge.