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In the run up to the Iraq war we were fed Perle, Wolfowitz, Edelman, endlessly on Newsnight. And anyone like myself who spoke against the Iraq War was only given 2% of broadcasting time on the BBC. David Halpin, Alternative View II conference lecture 31st May 2009, ‘The Vortex Sucks Ever Louder’
I’m sick to death of the ‘I’m going to tell you everything about me and what I think’ school of journalism. You don’t watch the BBC for polemic. John Simpson, interview Radio Times August 1997
[voice on radio] Good afternoon. This is the objective and strictly impartial BBC World Service operating on behalf of the Conservative Party. The Young Ones: Time, BBC 1984
... There are bad times just around the corner,
The horizon’s gloomy as can be;
There are black birds over
The greyish cliffs of Dover,
And the rats are preparing to leave the BBC ...
We’re an unhappy breed
And very bored indeed
When reminded of something that Nelson said
While the press and the politicians nag nag nag
We’ll wait until we drop down dead. Noel Coward, There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner, 1953 song
Nation Shall Talk Peace Unto Nation. BBC motto, Montague John Rendell, member of first BBC board of governors
The words, ‘I heard it on the BBC’ had a new meaning: ‘I know it must be true’. George Orwell
28th August: I am now definitely an employee of the BBC. George Orwell, cited Arena: George Orwell IV: The Lion & the Unicorn, BBC 1981
The BBC began in 1922 just before the corporate press began in America. Its founder was Lord John Reith, who believed that impartiality and objectivity were the essence of professionalism. In the same year the British establishment was under siege. The unions had called a general strike, and the Tories were terrified that a revolution was on the way. The new BBC came to their rescue. In high secrecy Lord Reith wrote anti-union speeches for the Tory prime-minister Stanley Baldwin and broadcast them to the nation, while refusing them to allow the Labour leaders to put their side until the strike was over. So a pattern was set. Impartiality was a principle – a principle to be suspended whenever the establishment was under threat. And that principle has been upheld ever since. John Pilger, author Freedom Next Time
Anyone with a sense of decency opposes Burt’s vandalism and his dismantling of the World Service. But what there’s never been is a real debate around the myths surrounding the BBC as a public broadcaster, especially the one that it is touched by the beauty of truth, impartiality and fair play ... To Reith, impartiality in broadcasting was a principle to be suspended whenever the establishment was threatened. And that holds true today. John Pilger, lecture The Hidden Power of the Media
Try to laugh, please. The news is now officially parody and a game for all the family to play.
First question: Why are ‘we’ in Afghanistan? Answer: ‘To try to help in the country’s rebuilding programme.’ Who says so? Huw Edwards, the BBC’s principal newsreader. What wags the Welsh are.
Second question: Why are ‘we’ in Iraq? Answer: To ‘plant a western-style open democracy’. Who says so? Paul Wood, the former BBC defence correspondent, and his boss Helen Boaden, director of BBC News. To prove her point, Boaden supplied Medialens.org with 2,700 words of quotations from Tony Blair and George W Bush. Irony? No, she meant it.
Take Andrew Martin, divisional adviser at BBC Complaints, who has been researching Bus’'s speeches for ‘evidence’ of noble democratic reasons for laying to waste an ancient civilisation. Says he: ‘The D word is not there, but the phrase ‘united, stable and free’ [is] clearly an allusion to it. After all,’ he says, the invasion of Iraq ‘was launched as Operation Iraqi Freedom.’ Moreover, says the BBC man, ‘in Bush’s 1 May 2003 speech (the one on the aircraft carrier) he talked repeatedly about freedom and explicitly about the Iraqi transition to democracy … These examples show that these were on Bush’s mind before, during and after the invasion.’
Try to laugh, please.
Laughing may be difficult, I agree, given the slaughter of civilians in Afghanistan by ‘coalition’ aircraft, including those directed by British forces engaged in ‘the country’s rebuilding programme’. The bombing of civilian areas has doubled, along with the deaths of civilians, says Human Rights Watch. Last month, ‘our’ aircraft slaughtered nearly 100 civilians, two-thirds of them children between the ages of three months and 16 years, while they slept, according to eyewitnesses. BBC News initially devoted nine seconds to the Human Rights Watch report, and nothing to the fact that ‘less than peanuts’ (according to an aid worker) is being spent on rebuilding anything in Afghanistan. Such wags, the Welsh. John Pilger, article September 2008, ‘A Murderous Theatre of the Absurd’
Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director general, has attacked American television reporting of Iraq. ‘For any news organisation to act as a cheerleader for government is to undermine your credibility,’ he said. ‘They should be … balancing their coverage, not banging the drum for one side or the other.’ He said research showed that, of 840 experts interviewed on American news programmes during the invasion of Iraq, only four opposed the war. ‘If that were true in Britain, the BBC would have failed in its duty.’
Did Dyke say all this with a straight face? Let’s look at what research shows about the BBC’s reporting of Iraq. Media Tenor, the non-partisan, Bonn-based media research organisation, has examined the Iraq war reporting of some of the world’s leading broadcasters, including the US networks and the BBC. It concentrated on the coverage of opposition to the war.
The second-worst case of denying access to anti-war voices was ABC in the United States, which allowed them a mere 7 per cent of its overall coverage. The worst case was the BBC, which gave just 2 per cent of its coverage to opposition views – views that represented those of the majority of the British people. A separate study by Cardiff University came to the same conclusion. The BBC, it said, had ‘displayed the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster’.
Consider the first Newsnight broadcast after the greatest political demonstration in British history on 15 February. The studio discussion was confined to interviews with a Tory member of the House of Lords, a Tory MP, an Oxford don, an LSE professor, a commentator from The Times, and the views of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Not one marcher was invited to participate, not one representative of the two million who had filled London in protest. Instead, a political reporter, David Grossman, asked perversely: ‘What about the millions who didn’t march? Was going to the DIY store or watching the football on Saturday a demonstration of support for the government?’
A constant theme of the BBC’s Iraq coverage is that Anglo-American policy, although capable of ‘blunders’, is essentially benign, even noble. Thus, amazingly, Matt Frei, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, declared on 13 April: ‘There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East … is now increasingly tied up with military power.’ The same ‘good’ military power had just slaughtered at least 15,000 people in an illegal, unprovoked attack on a largely defenceless country.
No doubt touched by this goodness, Newsnight's Kirsty Wark asked General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff, if ‘coalition’ troops ‘are really powerless to help civilians targeted by Iraqi forces in Basra’. Clearly, she felt no need to check the veracity of the British claim that Iraqi forces had been targeting civilians in Basra, a claim that proved to be baseless propaganda.
During the bombing of Serbia in 1999, Wark interviewed another general, Wesley Clark, the Nato commander. The Serbian city of Nis had just been sprayed with American cluster bombs, killing women, old people and children caught in the open: the horrific handiwork of one of Nato’s ‘precision-guided’ missiles, of which only 2 per cent hit military targets. Wark asked not a single question about this, or about any civilian deaths.
These are not isolated examples, but the BBC ‘style’. What matters is that the received wisdom dominates and is protected. When a US missile killed 62 people at a market in Baghdad, BBC News affected a fake ‘who can tell who’s responsible?’ neutrality, a standard technique when the atrocity is ‘ours’. On Newsnight, a BBC commentator dismissed the carnage with these words: ‘It’s a war after all … But the coalition aim is to unseat Saddam Hussein by winning hearts and minds.’ His voice trailed over images of grieving relatives.
Regardless of the spat over Andrew Gilligan’s attempt to tell the truth about the Blair government’s lying, the BBC’s amplifying of government lies about a ‘threat’ from Iraq was routine. Typically on 7 January, BBC1’s 6pm news bulletin reported that British army reservists were being called up ‘to deal with the continuing threat posed by Iraq’. What threat?
During the 1991 Gulf war, BBC audiences were told incessantly about ‘surgical strikes’ so precise that war had become almost a bloodless science. David Dimbleby asked the US ambassador: ‘Isn’t it in fact true that America, by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, is the only potential world policeman?’