Even the most powerful systems of propaganda inadvertently allow uncomfortable truths to slip out into the public domain. Consider a recent BBC News interview following the death of Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro. Dr Denise Baden, Associate Professor in Business Ethics at the University of Southampton, who has studied Castro’s leadership and Cuban business models, was asked by BBC News presenter Justine Mawhinney for her views on Cuba and Castro. It’s fair to say that Baden’s responses didn’t follow the standard establishment line echoed and amplified in much of the ‘mainstream’ media.
Mawhinney kicked off the interview with the standard Western propaganda line about Castro:
He ruled with an iron fist, didn’t he?
Baden immediately challenged the cliché:
Well, that’s something that everyone’s fond of saying. But when I talk to the people who live in Cuba, and the Cubans who’ve come to live in the UK, that’s not the story that I get. The feeling that comes through is of Fidel Castro almost as a father figure. So, the older generation tend to see him as a hero of the revolution. They’re aware that many of them wouldn’t even be here if it wouldn’t have been for the health advances and the equalisation of resources that he provided.
The academic, who visited the island in 2013 and 2014, ‘drawn by its record on sustainability’, then pointed out that it was the crippling US embargo on Cuba that was responsible for much of the hardships suffered by the Cubans for over five decades: a crucial point that the BBC interviewer significantly did not pursue.
Mawhinney then raised Castro’s human rights record. Baden addressed the issue of free speech first:
When I went to talk to people in Cuba, I found it remarkable how freely they all spoke about Fidel Castro, and Raul Castro, and the policies. I was expecting from the discourse we hear that people would be afraid to speak out. And that wasn’t what I found – people spoke out very freely.
The BBC interviewer pressed her on whether Cuban people really did speak out:
Did they criticise the regime?
Oh yes. I had the head of a topical newspaper who was quite critical of the government in some ways. Not all ways, but some ways. And I think what it is, is the [Western] media’s been dominated by America. So, for example, when Obama visited Havana [in March 2016] you had the Cuban Ladies in White come out to protest against the human rights abuses. And so, of course, that dominates the headlines. But they’re paid for by Americans – people don’t realise that; an American agency pays for them. The Cubans don’t take them seriously.
Once again, the BBC interviewer did not pick up the uncomfortable point about US support, including financial sponsorship, of anti-Castro activism. Imagine the reverse case if Cuba, or another foreign power, were responsible for funding or otherwise fomenting activism inside the United States. Indeed, look at the media outrage at alleged interference by ‘Putin’s Russia’ in the recent US election, with a new explosion of coverage devoted to evidence-free assertions made by anonymous CIA officials.
The BBC interviewer returned to Castro:
But he did carry out human rights abuses. Look, let’s just take one section. Gay people and those with Aids – completely persecuted.
Again, Baden’s response deviated from the ‘mainstream’ script:
I think when you look back at the time at which the revolution was considered to be a little bit homophobic, which was in the 60s, I’m not sure many countries could hold their heads up high and say that they were as open as they should be. So, I think you have to look at it in context of the period as well.
Trying a different tack, Mawhinney continued:
You seem quite fond of Fidel Castro.
Rather than rise to this personalised bait, Baden pointed out that, like many Western consumers of news broadcasts, she had long ‘been exposed to the Miami voice [often privileged Cuban exiles], which is the very dominant voice, and I think I was just surprised when I went there not to find this browbeaten people who felt oppressed.’
And I think that made me a little bit cross actually because I think we have been exposed to a lot of misinformation, and this quite small minority in Florida has dominated the headlines today and over the past fifty years.’
This implicit criticism of BBC News was left hanging in the air.
By now sounding quite incredulous, the BBC interviewer asked:
So, are you saying that what he did, the things that we would see as a human rights abuse was okay?
Baden’s calm challenge was professorial:
Well, do you want to be more specific?
Mawhinney followed up in hand-waving fashion:
Well, the prisoners, the political prisoners, the problems with gay people, et cetera, et cetera.
Well no, I don’t think political prisoners are ever okay. And I don’t think persecuting gay people is ever okay.
Crucially, the academic then made the point that matters:
What I’m disputing is that Fidel Castro of Cuba was any worse than any other country. I think if you expose America to the same lens, then you’d have a stack of crimes that would overshadow what Fidel Castro has done.
It’s a rare moment when even a mention of American crimes is carried on BBC airwaves, never mind stating that they would dwarf the alleged crimes of an Official Enemy.
I think the important thing to realise is the moment Fidel came into power in the revolution, at the time at which there was very strong anti-Communist feeling, the Americans did everything they could to subvert that. They invaded in the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis was a response to an expected additional invasion, and there was, I think, an estimated 638 CIA-sponsored attempts on Fidel Castro’s life. So, I think you have to understand the responses and the fear of open speech in context of a constant aggression coming from ninety miles over the water.
Again, the notion of ‘constant aggression’ from the US is virtually verboten on the BBC.
This remarkable segment of BBC News would most likely have been lost down the Memory Hole were it not for Media Lens reader Steve Ennever who captured it, uploaded it to YouTube, and then informed people about it (including us). The clip quickly went viral. At the time of writing, it has had around 140,000 views on YouTube, with around half a million views on the Media Lens Facebook page and 2.7 million views via EvolvePolitics. This truly shows the power of social media.
Most public commenters were highly appreciative of the way Baden handled the BBC interview. A few preferred to say instead: ‘Well done BBC for showing this’, as though the corporation had upheld its commitment to impartiality. But those people are rather missing the point. The BBC line of interviewing – in reality, assertions with a token question mark added at the end – consisted of propaganda bullet points. Thanks to Baden, here was a rare and welcome example of that propaganda line being dismantled live on BBC News.
Yes, it is possible to praise the interviewer, or BBC News, for ‘allowing’ that to happen here; Justine Mawhinny did at least refrain from constantly interrupting the interviewee in the way of Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr or John Humphrys. By ‘balancing’ praise with criticism, some argue, the BBC will be ‘encouraged’ to ‘improve’ its performance. Perhaps marginally. But, as seen over many years, the very structure of the BBC means there is a systemic bias in favour of the state, big business, elites and power. Praising a prison guard for being a little less harsh is futile when the prison system remains essentially unchanged. Are we really meant to be pathetically grateful for tiny bits of comfort?
Such are the perils of live television, then, for BBC News. An interviewee may end up querying, perhaps rejecting, the ideological script presented by a BBC News journalist. The script may even be turned on its head, by pointing out that the West is guilty of far worse crimes than the Bogeyman in question – Fidel Castro, as we saw above.
“A Grand Bargain”
Another potentially vulnerable moment for the BBC in maintaining the correct ideological stance is the live artificial ‘chat’ that takes place between a BBC News presenter and a journalist who is on location, or sitting across a glossy table from the presenter in the studio. Normally these are such tightly managed affairs between two highly trained and carefully selected media professionals that nothing ‘untoward’ happens. But very occasionally, the impromptu language allows over-reaching or unguarded thoughts to spill out, making alert viewers do a double-take.
For example, BBC Business Editor Simon Jack inadvertently delivered a tasty morsel of newspeak on BBC News at Ten last month.1 Jack was describing Prime Minister Theresa May’s keynote speech to business leaders at the CBI conference. Supposedly, her tone was more ‘conciliatory’ compared to a previous ‘withering attack’ a week earlier when she had pointed out ‘some abuses she saw in capitalism and their [business leaders’] behaviour in some corners of British business’. May’s vague words then about curbing ‘the worst excesses of capitalism’ did not exactly herald a revolution. Instead, they smacked of appeasing ‘populism’ in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s US electoral win.
Jack paraphrased May’s key message to the CBI:
I know you’ve got some problems. And there’s going to be a grand bargain. I’ll do some things, I’ll lower taxes, I’ll invest in productivity. You clean up your act and make sure the wealth is shared.
BBC viewers may well have thought: ‘Run that past me again?’ Did you really report without comment, far less journalistic scrutiny, that the Prime Minister instructed business elites to ‘make sure the wealth is shared’? Is the British public expected to believe that big business will actually ‘make sure the wealth is shared’? As ever, there was no proper scepticism towards government pronouncements or policy. In reality, Jack’s role is the BBC News editor for business – and government. Sometimes the bias is that blatant.
Another point in BBC News where viewers can be rewarded for particular vigilance is at the start of the programme; or when a specific news story is being introduced. Here the required establishment view – the perspective of ‘our’ government or big business – is sometimes especially obvious.
For example, on November 16, Fiona Bruce introduced an item on BBC News at Ten with:
In Iraq, special forces are slowly pushing back so-called Islamic State in the country’s second city, Mosul. But the fighting is hard…
This was propaganda-style reporting once again from BBC News; no doubt similar to how the Russian media report on Russian forces pushing back against terrorists in Syria. Indeed, as we have pointed out before, there are many parallels between British and Russian/Soviet propaganda reporting of foreign policy and military action (see here, here and here).
‘The World Wants America as its Policeman’
And then there are those brave people who enter the labyrinthine den of the BBC ‘complaints system’. This is a soul-crushing experience that even the former BBC chairman Lord Grade once described as ‘grisly’ due to a system that is ‘absolutely hopeless’. So what hope for us mere mortals? Anyone who makes the attempt is surely forever disabused of the notion that BBC News engages with, or indeed serves, the public in any meaningful way. Long-time readers may recall that Helen Boaden, then head of BBC News, once joked that she evaded public complaints that were sent to her on email:
Oh, I just changed my email address.
One of our favourite cases was a challenge made about an article by that avuncular epitome of BBC gravitas, World Affairs Editor John Simpson. In a 2014 article, ‘Barack Obama’s best years could still be ahead of him’, Simpson claimed that:
The world (well, most of it) wants an active, effective America to act as its policeman, sorting out the problems smaller countries can’t face alone.
One of our readers (name withheld) read the article, then submitted a complaint to the BBC, noting that:
In an international opinion poll by Gallup this year the US was found to be the greatest threat to peace in the world, voted three times more dangerous to world peace than the next country. The BBC article is therefore, at worst, incorrect and biased or at best highly inaccurate. Will you be retracting the statement?
Needless to say, the BBC did no such thing. In fact, Sean Moss, whose job title reads ‘BBC Complaints Adviser for BBC News website’, delivered a comical reply (forwarded to us, 13 November 2014):
In fact the poll referenced in your complaint was from the end of last year rather than this year. It is an annual end of year survey which in this edition “explores the outlook, expectations, hopes and fears of people from 65 countries around the world” from 2013.
Given that we’re now nearly at the end of 2014 and they will be conducting a new poll next month we’re unclear on what basis you feel these views are still applicable.
‘Unclear’ if ‘still applicable’? Far from being a rogue result, the US regularly tops polls of global public opinion as the world’s greatest threat to peace. As Noam Chomsky noted in an interview earlier this year when discussing nuclear weapons:
Iran is not a threat, period. The world doesn’t regard Iran as a threat. That’s a U.S. obsession. You look at global—polls of global opinion taken by Gallup’s international affiliate, the leading U.S. polling agencies—agency, one of the questions that they ask is, “Which country is the greatest threat to world peace?” Answer: United States, by a huge margin. Iran is barely mentioned. Second place is Pakistan, inflated by the Indian vote, that’s way behind the United States. That’s world opinion. And there are reasons for it. Americans are protected from this information.
Not only Americans. British – indeed, global – audiences too; thanks in no small measure to the BBC.
The requirement to keep awkward facts hidden or marginalised is especially pressing on those BBC journalists who are entrusted to report from the United States. Thus, in an online report titled ‘The decline of US power?’, the BBC New York correspondent Nick Bryant had to tread carefully in even mentioning America’s ‘approval rating’, as measured by Gallup:
In Asia, America’s median approval rating in 2014, as measured by Gallup, was 39%, a 6% drop since 2011.
In Africa, the median approval went down to 59%, the lowest since polling began, despite Obama hosting the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington in August, last year.
There was no mention that, as mentioned, global public opinion regularly regards the US as the greatest threat to world peace, and by a considerable margin.
However, there was plenty of space for Bryant to churn out the usual BBC boilerplate about America’s ‘national interest’ and Obama’s ‘pragmatism’ and ‘diplomatic dexterity’; all this about a leader who boasted he had bombed seven countries, rapidly escalated a killer drone programme and broke his pledge to shut down the US Guantanamo torture camp in Cuba.
Dying in a Ditch for BBC News ‘Impartiality’
The irony in the ongoing corporate media allegations about ‘fake news’ (see our previous media alert) is that, as Glenn Greenwald noted, ‘those who most loudly denounce Fake News are typically those most aggressively disseminating it.’ That is because the corporate media fears losing control of the media agenda.
As for BBC News, its privileged, publicly-funded position as supposedly the world’s most trusted broadcaster is under threat. So, while reasonable questions can be asked of the growing behemoths of the media landscape – Google, YouTube and Facebook – ‘mainstream’ journalists know full well not to publicly scrutinise their own industry’s output of state-corporate ‘fake news’.
Thus, BBC Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones can safely hold Facebook up to the light and ask:
If Facebook or something similar had not existed, would Donald Trump still be heading for the White House?
That is hard to say but what does seem likely is that social media served to polarise views in what was already a bitter election and may have encouraged a few hesitant voters to come out for Mr Trump.
This makes Facebook’s claims that it just a technology platform, rather than a hugely powerful media company with Mark Zuckerberg as editor-in-chief, look very thin indeed. But there are few signs that the company is ready to face up to this heavy responsibility or engage in some serious soul-searching.’ (our emphasis)
It would be virtually unthinkable for a BBC journalist to write of his employer:
there are few signs that the broadcaster is ready to face up to this heavy responsibility or engage in some serious soul-searching.
But then, as John Pilger noted recently:
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.
I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC.
Two former senior BBC figures would dispute that self-serving depiction of wonderful BBC ‘impartiality’. Greg Dyke, a former BBC director general, believes that:
The BBC is part of a “conspiracy” preventing the “radical changes” needed to UK democracy.
He says that a parliamentary commission should look into the ‘whole political system’, adding that
I fear it will never happen because I fear the political class will stop it.
And Sir Michael Lyons, former chairman of the BBC Trust, said earlier this year that there had been ‘some quite extraordinary attacks’ on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the BBC.
Readers may recall that Kuenssberg was behind the on-air resignation of a Labour shadow foreign minister in an apparent attempt to manipulate the news agenda and heap pressure on Corbyn. Former British diplomat Craig Murray describes her as:
the most openly biased journalist I have ever seen on the BBC.
Up to and including dying in a ditch, Kuenssberg would do anything to defend the impartiality of the BBC. Well, perhaps not anything. Asked for her ‘impartial’ view on why 35,000 members of the public had signed a petition calling for her to be sacked for her bias, Kuenssberg replied rather less heroically: ‘I’m not going to get into that.’
Des Freedman, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, notes that the kind of bias displayed by Kuenssberg:
isn’t an accident or a one-off example of “bad journalism” but is built into a media system that is intertwined with the interests that run the country.
This doesn’t mean that there’s a smoke-filled room somewhere where anti-Corbyn people get together. I think you just call it a routine editorial meeting. The point is many senior journalists … reflect the dominant strain that runs through their newsrooms – one based on the assumed benefits of neoliberalism and foreign intervention and the undesirability (or the sheer madness of the idea) of redistribution, nationalisation and people like Jeremy Corbyn who don’t share the same social circles or ideological commitments.
As Freedman rightly concludes:
We need a wholly different media system: one that’s not afraid to challenge power because it’s not steeped in power in the first place.
- BBC One, November 21, 2016 [↩]