Good Rockets, Bad Rockets: BBC Bias on India and North Korea

In the space of one week last month, the BBC offered an opportunity to compare its reporting on two nuclear powers: India, an ally of the British government; and North Korea, an official enemy.

The Federation of American Scientists estimates that India has a stockpile of 80-100 nuclear weapons while North Korea has less than ten. North Korea originally signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty on nuclear weapons (NPT) but withdrew in 2003.

Like Israel and Pakistan, also nuclear powers, India has never signed the NPT. Despite this, the US has supported the development of nuclear weapons in all three countries – India receiving particular support from George W. Bush and Obama. The 2008 India Civilian Nuclear Agreement — an agreement of cooperation between India, the US, and other providers of nuclear technology — is linked with plans to build dozens of nuclear plants in India, a country that exploded five nuclear devices at its Pokhran test site in 1998. Environmental journalist Gar Smith writes:

While this scheme will generate a lot of global cash-flow for the nuclear marketers and their government boosters, it could deal a death blow to nonproliferation hopes by allowing India to become the first country to buy nuclear materials without being a party to the NPT. In April 2010, Washington signed off on a deal that permits India to reprocess its own nuclear fuel. The arrangement, however, has raised fears in neighboring Pakistan, which is now expected to embark on a ‘significant nuclear military buildup’.

Meanwhile, the US government regularly lambasts North Korea for its nuclear weapons programme and, of course, Iran for an alleged nuclear weapons programme that, according to the 16 US intelligence agencies, does not exist.

As Noam Chomsky comments:

Small wonder that outside the West few can take the US charges against Iran very seriously… ((Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, Hamish Hamilton, 2010, p.220))

The headline for the BBC article on India was neutral enough:

India test launches Agni-V long-range missile.

The headline for the article on North Korea struck a different tone:

UN “deplores” North Korea botched rocket launch.

The introduction to the Korean piece continued with the same emphasis:

The UN Security Council has deplored the launch by North Korea of a rocket which broke up shortly after take-off.

A statement issued after closed-door talks said the launch was in breach of two Security Council resolutions…’

The introduction to the India piece was positive, even celebratory:

India has successfully launched a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile able to carry a nuclear warhead, officials say…

India said the launch was “flawless” and the missile had reached its target…

With this, India joins an elite nuclear club of China, Russia, France, the US and UK which already have long-range missiles, although with a much greater range. Israel is also thought to possess them.

‘It was a perfect launch. It met all the test parameters and hit its pre-determined target’, SP Das, director of the test range, told the BBC. He confirmed the missile had flown more than 5,000km before reaching the target.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated the scientists for the “successful launch” of the missile.

If anyone on Planet Earth had anything negative to say about the launch, the BBC was unable to find them.

The primary source for views on the Indian launch were Indian. By contrast, North Korean opinion was buried in the last of five sections in the article. Perhaps no humanising comments from named North Korean officials or experts were available – the BBC provided only two bland, anonymous sentences from ‘North Korea’s state news agency KCN.’

Ask A World Policeman

The article on North Korea presented the missile launch as a threat eliciting punishment:

Earlier, Washington accused the communist state of threatening regional security. It said North Korea had isolated itself still further from the outside world.

The US has also cancelled a proposed food aid deal with Pyongyang.

A US National Security Council spokesman said they would look at additional sanctions if Pyongyang continued its ‘provocations’.

As for the Indian launch:

The BBC’s Andrew North in Delhi says Indian officials deny it, but everyone believes the missile is mainly aimed at deterring China…

The North Korean missile, then, was portrayed as a threat; the Indian missile as a deterrent. Additionally, the BBC commented: “Many outside the country saw the launch as an illegal test of long-range missile technology.” The sentence could apply to either launch – we will leave readers to guess in which article it appeared.

The article on North Korea repeatedly referenced US sources: “US ambassador Susan Rice”, “Washington”, “A US National Security Council spokesman”, “Washington” (again), and finally “White House spokesman Jay Carney”. When media discussion centres on global “Bad Guys” it is   US opinion that matters. This not so subtly portrays the US as the actual and rightful World Policeman. One might reasonably wonder what on earth events on the Korean peninsula ever had to do with the United States.

The North Korea piece lined up the denunciations, here White House spokesman Jay Carney:

North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry.

Nothing along these lines appeared in the article on India, a country with 57 billionaires and one-third of the world’s poor. In January, India’s Premier Manmohan Singh called malnutrition in the country “a national shame” as he released a major survey that found 42 per cent of children under five were underweight. One of the NGOs that produced the report commented that, measured by the prevalence of malnutrition, India is “doing worse than sub-Saharan Africa”.

To round off the criticism, the BBC article on North Korea cited South Korea, the North’s main enemy:

South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan accused the North of a ‘clear breach of the UN resolution that prohibits any launch using ballistic missile technology’.

No mention was made of the Pakistani view of India’s launch. There was also no word at all on the view from “Washington” or the US more generally.

The silence is understandable. As discussed, while preaching against nuclear proliferation to countries like North Korea and Iran, the US and Britain have been working hard to arm both India and Pakistan.

In September 2003, Britain’s BAE Systems announced the sale of 66 Hawk jets to India in a £1 billion package. This constituted 10 times the value of annual UK development aid to India. In July 2010, a further 57 aircraft were sold in a deal worth £700,000,000 described by The Times of India as ‘a quantum jump for Indo-British military ties’.

The Hawks, which can also be used as ground-attack aircraft, are used to train Indian pilots to fly more powerful jets, including 139 BAE Systems Jaguar bombers built under licence. The Ministry of Defence accepts that Jaguars could deliver India’s nuclear weapons. The Indian government receiving these jets has fought three wars with Pakistan in the last 70 years.

In 2003, the Guardian provided the sensible emphasis in a piece entitled:  “5,000 jobs safe as India buys Hawks”.

Similarly, in March 2005, the press reported that the United States had agreed to sell two dozen F-16 nuclear-capable jet fighters to Pakistan. US Senator Larry Pressler commented in The New York Times:

Pakistan… is a corrupt, absolute dictatorship. It has a horrendous record on human rights and religious tolerance. ((Pressler, “Dissing Democracy in Asia”, The New York Times, March 21, 2005))

It could be coincidence that, with important arms contracts and strategic alliances at stake, the BBC should fail to muster a single criticism of Indian nuclear missile technology. It could also be coincidence that the BBC demonises and lambasts an enemy of the same state-corporate interests. But, in truth, the pattern is so obvious, so consistent, over years and decades. We can debate the precise mechanisms corrupting BBC performance – the fact that senior managers and trustees are Establishment grandees selected by the government of the day. Or we can focus on the role of the entire corporate media system in furthering state-corporate power – system-wide corruption that generates industrial strength pressure to conform on the less overtly corporate BBC. Whatever the reasons, there is no question that the BBC heavily promotes the interests of power at the expense of honesty, critical thought and compassion.

  • See also “Why North Koreans Aren’t Allowed to Launch Rockets.”
  • 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.