In a recent media alert, we noted the occasional tell-tale signs of uncomfortable truths that slip through cracks in the propaganda façade of BBC News. Very occasionally, the propaganda nature is clearly highlighted and can be enjoyed for its directness and the flustered BBC response it provokes.
Such was the occasion last Friday (February 17) when the BBC’s Justin Webb interviewed political journalist Peter Oborne live on BBC Radio 4 Today. It is fair to say Webb wasn’t expecting what happened. His attempts to hide his discomfort by repeatedly laughing can be heard in this clip captured and uploaded to YouTube by Steve Ennever. We have provided a transcript in what follows.
Immediately before Oborne was interviewed, BBC North America correspondent Jon Sopel had delivered his verdict on US president Donald Trump’s ‘most extraordinary’ press conference the previous day. (Sopel’s radio contribution was summed up in a piece by him on the BBC News website). The BBC correspondent claimed that ‘everything about reporting on this presidency is unexpected and unpredictable’.
Justin Webb then began his interview with Peter Oborne:
JW: ‘What do you make of Trump last night?’
PO: ‘Well, I thought it was great entertainment. And I have to say that I was listening to Mr Sopel there who reported the Blair years very enthusiastically, and he was accusing Donald Trump of all sorts of things which he never accused Blair of, and [Alistair] Campbell: he only took one line of argument, he excluded the hostile press, he was obsessed by the media. This just as much applied to the man that Mr Sopel admired so much when he reported it for the BBC, which was this sort of one-dimensional politics and obsession with the press. Welcome to what’s been going on for the last twenty years. Nothing new.’
This was a brave opening gambit by Oborne. To directly challenge the propaganda stance of a BBC correspondent who had just been reporting – to declare that he ‘reported the Blair years very enthusiastically’ – was a remarkable breath of fresh air. Webb laughed in apparent disbelief at Oborne’s criticism and hit back:
JW: ‘Are you saying that…are you seriously arguing that Donald Trump is a kind of extension of Tony Blair?’
Webb’s incredulous response reminded us of a 2004 BBC Newsnight interview, when anchor Jeremy Paxman commented to Noam Chomsky:
‘You seem to be suggesting, or implying – perhaps I’m being unfair to you – but you seem to be implying there is some equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq.’ (BBC Newsnight, May 21, 2004)
Likewise, in a 2001 BBC radio interview, an equally astonished Michael Buerk asked former UN assistant-secretary general Denis Halliday:
‘You can’t… you can’t possibly draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?’
Oborne was unfazed and rose to Webb’s challenge:
PO: ‘Well, what, the mendacity, the lying, the cheating, the obsession with the press. What’s new, of course, is that it’s much more entertainment. The Blair lot imposed this boring message. They just refused to… there was a ban on anybody saying or doing anything interesting. Now with Trump, at least he’s off-message, he’s real, it’s actually happening, and you know BBC correspondents can sneer at it as much….’
JW [interrupting, incredulous] ‘Well…, he wasn’t sneering. He wasn’t sneering. He was just reporting what actually happened.’
Webb’s attempted defence of his colleague Jon Sopel was lame. Anyone who checks Sopel’s remarks will see that he was not ‘just reporting what actually happened’. Sopel’s account was clearly coloured by his own prejudices.
Oborne reasonably countered that ‘it was [sneering]’. He now removed his gloves altogether:
‘The superficial, arrogant smugness with which he [Sopel] condemned the president, the democratically elected, by the way, I know you don’t like elections much at the BBC…’
PO: ‘…democratically elected president of the United States of America.’
JW: ‘We absolutely reported on his democratic election, and on his policies, and on what’s happening. Are you seriously suggesting that the chaos of the Trump presidency, and his approach to the outside world is being got up by a media that don’t like him? And actually behind the scenes, as he says, everything’s running smoothly. Is that a serious position that a serious person can take?’
Oborne dismissed Webb’s blather as a strawman argument:
PO: ‘I didn’t say any of those things. The point I was making was that the characteristics of the Trump presidency, and in particular its media handling, the attempt to side-line the press, the complete contempt for the truth, there’s nothing new here. It happened with the Clinton years, it happened during the Blair years. Actually, it was worse during the Blair years, because the press was so reverential, and they sold us the lie about weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war. And then they sold us – Cameron, the inheritor of Blair – sold us the lie about Libya and that catastrophe in north Africa. And the press and the BBC cheered him along. They didn’t question it and now that they’ve got somebody they don’t like, they’re going after him….’
PO: ‘But when you had liberal leaders who you loved – Iraq, Libya and so forth – you cheered them on.’
This was all much too much for the ‘neutral’ BBC. Webb shut down the discussion:
JW: ‘Well, I’m not sure they felt at the time they were necessarily cheered on. Certainly not the Blair government and the BBC. And indeed not this programme. But, erm, there you go. Peter Oborne, nice to talk to you, thank you.’
This was BBC-speak for: ‘Get lost!’
Oborne was absolutely right to point to the media’s complicit role in enabling the Iraq war and the destruction of Libya. He was also entirely justified in highlighting the media adulation that was showered on Blair; still noticeable at the Guardian, in particular, which is apparently unable to move on from its love affair with the war criminal. For Webb to chuckle his way through these uncomfortable truths says it all. The mocking disdain for the truth encapsulates the complacent, power-serving ‘liberal’ mindset that infests BBC News.
Mark Doran, one of our readers, noted afterwards on Twitter that Webb also laughed out loud with apparent incredulity during an interview with US journalist Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald was challenging Webb’s assertion that Edward Snowden had ‘given away secrets that had been useful to people who want to do harm to other perfectly innocent people’. Greenwald responded: ‘You just made that up’, and proceeded to outline Webb’s ignorance of the facts of Snowden’s revelations.
As is typical for a high-profile BBC journalist, Webb has a long history of subservience to state power. In 2007, we discussed his three-part homage on BBC Radio 4 to the United States, the mythical ‘shining city on a hill’. His paean to the US exposed the ideological blindness that holds sway at the BBC, smoothing over, or ignoring, the brutal realities of US power.
Ten years later, with everything that has happened since, our conclusion has only been confirmed: namely, that Justin Webb, Radio 4 Today editors and senior BBC professionals are doctrinal managers whose task is to deflect attention from the interests, goals and brutal consequences of Western power.
DC and DE