James Murdoch, the BBC, and the Myth of Impartiality

At the Edinburgh International Television Festival last month, James Murdoch, News Corporation’s chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia, attacked the BBC, calling for comprehensive deregulation and warning of the dangers of state interference in the “natural diversity” of the media industry. It was a threat to the provision of “independent news”, Murdoch claimed, that the state-sponsored BBC was able to provide so much online news free of charge.

Murdoch’s speech was the headline event at the Guardian-sponsored festival and the paper duly devoted precious newsprint to an extract:

“There is a land grab going on – and it should be sternly resisted. The land grab is spearheaded by the BBC. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling.” ((James Murdoch, ‘Put an end to this dumping of free news’, Guardian, August 29, 2009.))

Murdoch made a noble plea for press freedom:

“Above all, we must have genuine independence in news media. Independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency. Independence of faction, industrial or political. Independence of subsidy, gift or patronage. […] people value honest, fearless, and independent news coverage that challenges the consensus.”

Murdoch wrapped up his speech with “an inescapable conclusion”:

“The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

The lack of self-awareness was stunning. The Murdochs of this world are naturally unable to conceive that corporate sponsorship compromises news reporting, showering pound and dollar-shaped sticks and carrots that inevitably cause journalism to slither in corporate-friendly directions. The speech was widely reported but debate was mostly facile, deflecting attention from the corporate media’s systemic failings; not least those of the BBC itself.

Nuanced Nonsense

The liberal press reacted in a suitably ‘nuanced’ way to Murdoch’s salvo. An Independent editorial had “much sympathy with Mr Murdoch’s […] cri de coeur about the lack of restraints on the BBC’s growth, in particular on the internet.” The struggling newspaper bemoaned that:

“As long as the BBC provides what amounts to an all-encompassing news service on the internet within the price of the licence fee, it will be nigh-impossible for anyone else – on the internet or in print – to charge. […] In highlighting how the BBC’s dominance distorts the news market, James Murdoch has done all the British media a favour.” ((Leader, ‘The BBC’s unhealthy dominance’, Independent, August 29, 2009.))

A Guardian editorial argued that Murdoch had “made some good points”:

“There are aspects of the BBC’s size and purpose that should be scrutinised. Regulation should change with the times.”

Fanciful waffle about “media ecosystems” followed:

“What works rather well in the UK is a mixed economy of private and public. Newspapers are lightly regulated, fiercely opinionated and proudly independent. Public-service broadcasters are more heavily regulated in return for their subsidy. It’s not a perfect mix, but its (sic) part of the texture of life in the country.” ((Leader, ‘An American in Edinburgh’, Guardian, August 31, 2009.))

“Not a perfect mix” is an interesting way to describe a media system that is innately, and massively, biased towards power and profit.

Peter Preston, veteran Guardian columnist and former editor, was ‘pragmatic’:

“Forget ‘chilling’ hyperbole about ‘state-sponsored news’ and standard Orwellian allusions: James Murdoch is right – or at least not far wrong. […] How does a newspaper that wants (nay, needs) to move on to the web and pay for the words it puts there, cope when the BBC dishes them out for free?”

Participating in the controversy his newspaper had concocted, Jonathan Freedland responded to Murdoch in the Guardian:

“The BBC is one of the few British exports to be universally recognised as world class. That’s why BBC programmes from The Blue Planet to the Dickens adaptations are snapped up around the globe. They may not be watching Bleak House in Burma or Iran, but they are relying on BBC News for an independent, truthful view of the world.” ((Jonathan Freedland, ‘Don’t let Murdoch smash this jewel’, Guardian, September 2, 2009.))

In his dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell described the art of thought control called “Newspeak”:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

We are offered a “debate” confined between two false poles: the claim that the BBC is a threat to the “independent news” provided by commercial interests, and the claim that the BBC is a rare source of “independent, truthful” reporting. Modern journalism acts to “narrow the range of thought”, thus serving the powerful interests that control the mass media. It is not Big Brother; but it is certainly a form of “Newspeak”.

We’re Independent And Impartial Because We Say So

The fact that BBC journalists perform as they do without overt external interference is offered as proof of their independence. In 2007, Justin Webb, then the BBC’s North America editor, rejected the charge that he is a propagandist for US power, saying: “Nobody ever tells me what to say about America or the attitude to take towards the United States. And that is the case right across the board in television as well.”

Webb began a radio programme from the Middle East thus:

“June 2005. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flies to Cairo and at the American University makes a speech that will go down in history: ‘For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East; and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” ((Justin Webb, ‘Death to America’, BBC Radio 4 series, part three, first broadcast on April 30, 2007.))

Webb told his listeners in all seriousness: “I believe the Bush administration genuinely wanted that speech to be a turning point; a new start.” Nobody had to tell Webb to say these words; he really believed them.

Consider, too, the pronouncements of one BBC correspondent, reporting from Iraq:

“This is not promising soil in which to plant a western-style open society.”

And: “The coalition came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights.” ((Paul Wood, BBC1, News at Ten, December 22, 2005.))

When we challenged BBC news director Helen Boaden on whether she thought this version of US–UK intent perhaps compromised the BBC’s commitment to impartial reporting, she replied that such “analysis of the underlying motivation of the coalition is borne out by many speeches and remarks made by both Mr Bush and Mr Blair.”

If we are to take Boaden’s comments at face value, she was arguing that Bush and Blair must have been motivated to bring democracy to Iraq, because they said so! In other words, “impartial” reporting means that we should take our leaders’ claims on trust – to challenge the idea that they mean what they are saying is to stray into unprofessional bias.

In 2004, Boaden told one viewer: “People trust the BBC because they know it is an organisation independent of external influences. We do not take that trust lightly.” ((Helen Boaden, email forwarded to Media Lens, December 2, 2004.))

And yet the BBC’s senior management is appointed by the government of the day. In 2001, Steve Barnett noted in the Observer that “back in 1980, George Howard, the hunting, shooting and fishing aristocratic pal of Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, was appointed [BBC chairman] because Margaret Thatcher couldn’t abide the thought of distinguished Liberal Mark Bonham-Carter being promoted from vice-chairman.

“Then there was Stuart Young, accountant and brother of one of Thatcher’s staunchest cabinet allies, who succeeded Howard in 1983. He was followed in 1986 by Marmaduke Hussey, brother-in-law of another Cabinet Minister who was plucked from the obscurity of a directorship at Rupert Murdoch’s Times Newspapers. According to Norman Tebbit, then Tory party chairman, Hussey was appointed ‘to get in there and sort the place out, and in days not months.’ ” ((Steve Barnett, ‘Right man, right time, for all the right reasons’, Observer, September 23, 2001.))

The same machinations continue to this day. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, both the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies and his director-general, Greg Dyke, were supporters of, and donors to, the Labour party. Davies’s wife ran Gordon Brown’s office; his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding. Tony Blair had stayed at Davies’s holiday home. “In other words”, noted columnist Richard Ingrams, “it would be hard to find a better example of a Tony crony.” ((Richard Ingrams, ‘We don’t need Tony’s cronies at the BBC,’ Observer, September 23, 2001.))

Readers will recall that BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan lost his job, along with Davies and Dyke, after intense government flak in response to Gilligan’s report that the Blair regime had manipulated intelligence over Iraq’s supposed WMD.

Displaying a wilful blindness to all of the above facts, the Observer described the BBC this week as “genuinely independent of government.” ((Leader, ‘A bold BBC does not need to be a bigger BBC’, Observer, September 13, 2009.))

Consider, too, the establishment links of the members of the BBC Trust whose duty it is to ensure that the BBC upholds its public obligations, including impartiality. One of these worthies is Anthony Fry, formerly of Rothschilds and later the ill-fated Lehman Brothers where he was head of UK operations. Fry boasts on the BBC website:

“Having spent my career in the City as an investment banker, for over a decade specialising in the media industry, it’s a great privilege to bring my commercial understanding of the sector to help the BBC deliver value for licence fee payers in today’s rapidly changing broadcasting environment.”

The Trust consists of twelve safe pairs of hands with extensive backgrounds in large corporate media organisations, advertising, banking, finance and industry. We are to believe that these individuals are independent of the government that appointed them, and of the elite corporate and other vested interests in which they are deeply embedded. We are to believe that they will uphold fair and balanced reporting which displays not a hint of bias towards state ideology or economic orthodoxy in a world of rampant corporate power.

Corporate reporters are required to be oblivious to such simple realities. Thus the Guardian could once again find space to allow Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC Trust, to insist that the broadcaster provides “free, impartial, accurate news”. ((John Plunkett, ‘Sir Michael Lyons: BBC will not retreat from news’, guardian.co.uk, September 9, 2009, 15.49 BST.))

Just days later the Guardian gave free rein to Mark Thompson, BBC director general:

“The absolute first building block keystone of the BBC is delivering impartial, unbiased news.” ((Jane Martinson, ‘Mark Thompson: “People want the BBC to step backwards,” ’ Guardian, September 14, 2009.))

But Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, put it rather differently when he wrote of the establishment in his diary: “They know they can trust us not to be really impartial.” ((Quoted, David Miller, ‘Media wrongs against humanity’, TruthOut.org, June 24, 2005.))

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on September 15th, 2009 at 10:27am #

    thus serving the powerful interests that control the mass media. It is not Big Brother; but it is certainly a form of “Newspeak”.

    Who is in many way’s in control of policy the laws in the United States right now this day this moment. BANKERS. We see the bullshit on just the health care bill and the second grade thinking in Washington DC and I guess you could call that Newspeak. Well next is the big one climate change and so far it’s the best they can do, cap and trade and why, BANKERS. It kind of looks like money talk’s and shit walks with the policy makers high on the hill. Money talk’s and shit walk’s is that newspeak? No it’s the damn truth and let’s watch the policy makers as the climate change bill comes up lie like dog’s and the BANKERS behind the scenes think up new signs for the tea party’s, newspeak.

  2. Don Hawkins said on September 15th, 2009 at 10:53am #

    The only problem I see with the thinking of the bankers and money talk’s and shit walk’s is the end of the human race as we know it as a start in about twenty years. Yes the new signs coming War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength. Come to think of it already here today this moment. Freedom isn’t free, what.

  3. Don Hawkins said on September 15th, 2009 at 5:16pm #

    Murdoch News in the States and to be brainwashed in such a way as they do on a dally basis if that is not ignorance is strength I would like to know what is. CNN of course kind of likes the middle of the fence and MSNBC although a little better is still thinking in an old way for the problem, problems we face in the 21st Century. The financial Channels well they know things most people don’t know or they think they do.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 16th, 2009 at 1:58am #

    James Murdoch’s risible travesty of the truth at least shows, in my opinion, that the psychopathy evidenced by his father over decades has been safely passed on to the next generation. Whether by nature or nurture, or both, who really cares.?Remember, this is the media group where all but one newspaper out of over 150, backed the illegal aggression against Iraq, despite massive public opposition. A situation Goebbels would have envied, and all done voluntarily, by hand-picked and closely vetted poltroons who know that a single incident of not accurately anticipating Rupert’s position is career ending.
    In this country Murdoch controls about 2/3 of the newspaper titles. His empire is virulently Rightwing on every controversy, and the bias is pathological. All disputes, over Iraq, Israel (a ferocious bigotry reigns here, of course, with the Palestinian side absolutely proscribed) ‘terrorism’, anthropogenic climate change, class war (waged with relentless savagery)etc, are simply one-sided. His opinion writers are like the FoxNews pathocrats-hysterical, abusive and deranged, although they habitually project these lovely characteristics onto their ideological enemies.
    For the owners of such an empire of hatemongering and reckless de-humanisation of their racial, sectarian, class and ideological enemies, to claim that they represent truth and decency, and morality in journalism, is evidence either of some very nasty dissociative illness bordering on the schizoid, or of such moral imbecility, such delight in telling the Big Lie, and, owing to your power, getting away with it, that one is left breathless with admiration for the audacity, and rigid with terror at the implications for the future. For as surely as night follows day, if, when faced with economic, ecological, resource and geo-political disasters unprecedented in history, unfolding before our eyes as they are today, the media potentates who shape and distort reality and our responses to it, are evil and deranged, as I certainly believe that they are, then the chances of rational, co-operative and collective action amongst humanity grow dimmer by the day.

  5. Don Hawkins said on September 16th, 2009 at 4:51am #

    Mulga I have to admit how the system controls people is strange. Oh they control the system I think not. Granted Fox News is the place to go to see the abusive and deranged in between happy talk. Not just Fox News but the many who have become addicted to a system that requires that you sell your soul or you are rejected. Oh that’s that true oh really. Let’s see what would be an extreme case. Michael Jackson who from birth didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making it you know just a quiet cup of coffee as he and many more embraced the system and to get away from it play’s out in different way’s. This is a tuff one as for the human race to survive a new way of thinking will have to happen and soon. Just what is the human race?

    Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

    Very sure just a nice quiet cup of coffee will be wished for and Michael Jackson didn’t he have a song about how we are all special star dust a miracle of the Universe? He was right about that and hay Glenn Beck do you read DV you tell people many things how about that, we are all special star dust a miracle of the Universe. Obama is a Communist is better ok whatever you think best. What do you think Rupert some new programming?

  6. Don Hawkins said on September 16th, 2009 at 5:38am #

    The health care bill is small potatoes and very soon in the greatest nation on Earth the climate change bill and so far a joke on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Without the United States using great wisdom Copenhagen will be meaningless. Yes we have to change the way industrial civilization work’s and not east to say the least but not boring and oh so much better than the insanity we see now. So far in a few months we get to see so called leaders fight like dogs and lie like dogs and pit one side against another so as to keep the status quo. I guess they are not all special star dust a miracle of the Universe but something different. Wait you need money and power to be special star dust a miracle of the Universe. Sorry wrong number that is not how it work’s in the real World oh it’s still here it hasn’t gone anywhere. It does look like just more bullshit then what? Just change the truth and the knowledge to fit the system well the Earth might have other ideas on that one. The next six months oh man the you know what is going to hit the fan and we all get to see just how strong the darkside really is. Ignorance is strength or the truth the knowledge shall set you free a little battle. Think of this as kind of a war calm at peace. Work together using reason, imagination, the knowledge and watch the signs. I guess first we have to watch our so called leaders lie like dogs in the 21st Century oh such great wisdom.

  7. Don Hawkins said on September 17th, 2009 at 5:22am #

    Climate change activists reacted sharply yesterday to indications from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that cap-and-trade legislation may have to wait until 2010, warning that the delay could derail international negotiations in Copenhagen.

    Annie Petsonk, international counsel for Environmental Defense Fund, said she fears the U.N. talks slated for December will flounder without a clear plan from President Obama to move climate legislation through Congress.
    “The appearance to the international community would be that the U.S. Congress is just adrift,” she said. NYT

    And so it goes, adrift in a sea of foolishness. It looks like China it’s full speed ahead to bring there people out of poverty. Wonderful then they can buy there own little plastic things. In the States it’s still call call now to buy little plastic things made in China. What’s wrong with this picture? Stay poor my friends stay poor and just look at the so called rich in pity. Oh that’s a crazy way to think not in today’s world or for that matter yesterday’s World. Watch the history Channel you tell me. Nice quiet cup of coffee on a miracle of the Universe.

  8. Don Hawkins said on September 17th, 2009 at 3:33pm #

    Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) — The average world ocean temperature from June through August was the warmest since 1880 for any Northern Hemisphere summer, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
    The summer ocean surface temperature was 62.5 degrees Fahrenheit (16.95 Celsius), which is 1.04 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average, the agency said today in a statement. The combined land and ocean surface temperature for the period was 61.2 degrees Fahrenheit, the third-warmest on record.
    Climate change blamed on greenhouse-gas emissions is warming ocean and land temperatures, producing more severe storms, the United Nations said last year in a report. In June, the U.S. Global Change Research Program said global warming is causing drought, rising sea levels and flooding from heavy rainfall in the U.S., threatening agriculture, coastal regions, water resources and public health.

    By Dan Vergano USA

    The world is “doomed to experience some global warming, and countries must prepare for those changes,” warns an international expert, looking at upcoming global climate treaty meetings. In the current Nature, David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, calls for abandoning hopes for a global treaty on climate change in Copenhagen in December, arguing that the 192 nations involved cannot get their act together by then.

    Instead, he suggests the major nations releasing greenhouse gasses, particularly China and the United States, cut their own separate deals to save time. “Copenhagen, at best, is a starting point for the most influential nations to make ambitious commitments,” he says. “Luckily, just a dozen countries account for nearly all warming emissions.”

    In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected a roughly 3-to-7-degree Fahrenheit increase in average global temperatures by 2100, largely due to greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, are produced by burning fossil fuels including coal and oil. Man-made greenhouse gas emissions add to a natural background that creates a “greenhouse effect” in the air, because they are transparent to sunlight but trap heat. Sea level rise, drought and costly changes over farming regions are among the dangers seen from the warming. The Copenhagen meeting looks to craft a global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol of the 1990’s for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, never agreed to by the U.S.

    Instead of looking to past environmental agreements such as the Montreal Protocol that limited damage to the ozone layers of the upper atmosphere, or stalled trade agreements, nations should model climate plans on “pledge and review” agreements similar to direct arms control talks between nations, Victor argues. “They should junk the toolbox of environmental diplomacy and recognize global warming for the problem of economic cooperation that it is. Success hinges on more credible and ambitious commitments by a smaller number of countries.”

    “Luckily, just a dozen countries account for nearly all warming emissions.” “Luckily, just a dozen countries account for nearly all warming emissions.” If we wish to try Capitalism is not the answer it’s the problem to say the least, simple but not simpler.

  9. Don Hawkins said on September 17th, 2009 at 4:01pm #


    Bankers that’s bankers.

  10. Don Hawkins said on September 18th, 2009 at 5:13am #

    Paul Chesser: Global warming propaganda infiltrates schools
    By: Paul Chesser
    OpEd Contributor
    September 18, 2009
    Scientists see no temperature increase (on average) in the oceans or on the surface of the Earth over the last decade. That hasn’t stopped an activist group from infiltrating high schools with the panicky message that we are on the verge of a “planetary emergency” due to global warming.
    These alarmists are the recently formed Alliance for Climate Education, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit created by wealthy wind energy entrepreneur Michael Haas. The organization has targeted five metropolitan areas and now is opening a Washington office.
    Haas, who donated $24,600 to President Obama’s campaign and victory funds last year, stands to reap millions of dollars in government subsidies that climate change-driven energy policies would bring.
    Meanwhile the teenagers targeted by ACE are treated to hip presentations with slick animation to propagate the idea that they and everyone in their spheres of influence must modify their behaviors so as to stop global warming. This is achieved by cutbacks in their energy use, which ACE believes produces too many greenhouse gases (from fossil fuel combustion like coal and oil) that warm the planet.
    The mostly undiscerning kids love it. ACE, which lobbies school boards and administrators to get invited to give presentations, delivers its propaganda to hundreds of students at a time in assemblies. Getting out of class to watch an amusing talk highlighted by flatulent animated cows (to emphasize their methane emissions, another greenhouse gas) is good for plenty of laughs and scores big with the teens.
    But ACE’s talks are infected with falsehoods, like telling the students they’ve “lived through the 10 hottest years on record” (1934 was the hottest) and that greenhouse gas emissions are cranking up the global thermostat “way too high”. Talk about one-sided hyperbole to shape impressionable minds. Meanwhile, scientific studies like those that reveal we may be entering a prolonged cooling period, due to an inactive sun, are left out of climate discussion.
    ACE has also targeted the San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Boston areas, and aims to reach 140,000 students by the end of this year. Its goal is simple: Get students active in the name of dubious (at best) global warming alarmism, demonize fossil fuels and push solutions such as alternative energy — like wind.
    Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators are all too willing to let this biased bunch extract students from classes and force-feed them its pap. Parents should be aware that their kids might be the targets of this political recruitment effort during valuable class time.
    Paul Chesser is a special correspondent for The Heartland Institute.

    So scientists see no temperature increase (on average) in the oceans or on the surface of the Earth over the last decade do they and get students active in the name of dubious (at best) global warming alarmism, demonize fossil fuels and push solutions such as alternative energy — like wind. No we don’t need alternative energy burn more coal drill for more oil and just on the off chance climate change is real and happening much to fast we here in the States have tactical nuclear weapons problem solved. Of course on time delivery might not be what it used to be and all that civil unrest. Wait very large detention centers and retraining with I am sure new signs like war is peace and after the population of the Earth goes down a tad we can start over with the greatest system ever invented Capitalism and we thought all the great minds were gone. Of course in about 9 years it could be to late to slow this problem that is if it is real but wait Mr. President the rockets are ready for the aerosol injection awaiting your order sir and Hawaii with be the location of the white house. Demonize fossil fuels and push solutions such as alternative energy — like wind you see how crazy these green people are. I can tell these people at the Heartland Institute have big hearts and smart, wow.

  11. Don Hawkins said on September 18th, 2009 at 5:32am #

    I forgot something and why is it we think this way in the United States? Because we do things the easy way and we are lazy and weak minded it’s the American way. Demonize fossil fuels and push solutions such as alternative energy — like wind. Do you have an idea how unamerican that thinking is and if you do think like that move to Canada or Venezuela because your not a true American. You could watch more Fox News and learn that’s the easy way be an American.