The Fairy Tale Of The “Self-Questioning” BBC

Last week, climate scientists warned that:

Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will shatter the symbolic barrier of 400 parts per million (ppm) this year and will not fall below it in our lifetimes.

Adding to the sense of urgency, NASA reported that last month was the hottest May on record since 1880. Since October 2015, every month has been globally the hottest ever measured. Meanwhile, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US say that ‘future summers could regularly be hotter than the hottest on record’.

Dangerous climate change is not something for the future; it is happening now. Recent climate records have not just been broken but ‘obliterated’, provoking ‘a stunned reaction from climate scientists’. One scientist said:

The numbers are completely unprecedented. They really stick out like a sore thumb.

As Noam Chomsky wrote in a sobering new article on humanity’s prospects for survival:

Hardly a day passes without new evidence of how severe the crisis is.

But the required radical and urgent solutions to the crisis will never be found in the ‘mainstream’ media, owned and operated by the same corporate and state forces that have driven us to the brink of disaster.

In the US, the next presidential election will be contested by two rich establishment candidates, each of whom would be a disaster for climate stability, global peace and social justice. Here in the UK, establishment elites and their media accomplices are doing all they can to crush any public challenge to the destructive political and economic status quo. Even Sir Michael Lyons, former chair of the BBC, has criticised the BBC for its anti-Corbyn bias:

There have been some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party, quite extraordinary. I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.

In a recent article, critical theory academic Gavin Lewis notes that BBC News is:

a twin of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News. Its editorial values are so identical that viewers get exactly the same hierarchy of news stories, at the same time of day, and predominantly from the same ideological viewpoint.

Coverage of Western policy is, says Lewis, ‘driven by a crude, skewed “good guy versus bad guy” narrative formula.’ This BBC agenda is shaped by the compelling need of the state broadcaster to serve power. As a result, ‘it has aligned itself with deeply undemocratic, unrepresentative forces and values.’

As the writer and activist Steve Rushton observes, the BBC habitually protects power, the monarchy, and an unjust and inequitable class system:

The BBC should be seen as no less of an old boys’ network than any other of the UK’s institutions. From the top flights of big business, to the judiciary, to the civil service, to Westminster, the same pattern persists. This problem takes a particularly insidious form in the BBC because of its enormous influence, allowing it both to gloss and to normalise these dynamics not only for its audience in Britain, but around the world.

Sarah O’Connell, who has worked for BBC News for many years, gives an insider view of the organisation:

Not many national BBC news journalists see enough of life at the “bottom” of society to report on it properly or accurately. If most of my colleagues at the BBC didn’t start life with a silver spoon in their mouths, by the time they’ve served ten years at the BBC (and the longevity and security of a BBC news staff job is recognised industry wide), they’ve pretty much gained honorary status of the establishment class.

She continues:

When you walk into a BBC newsroom you can see and hear the privilege. There are only a few genuinely working class voices. There are hardly any black faces at all.

As an example, O’Connell describes in disbelief how widespread abuse of the parliamentary expenses system by MPs was essentially ignored by the BBC. When she tried to report the scandal, she was told by BBC News editors that ‘this isn’t a story, MPs have to eat.’ She adds:

But it was a story. It was one of the biggest political stories of the decade. And the BBC missed it, because, to most of their journalists at that time, the idea of having lunch for £150 on expenses, well, it just wasn’t a story, was it? Not when it was exactly the kind of thing BBC news executives might be doing as well.

And yet, high-profile BBC News professionals are sufficiently schooled in doublethink that they can routinely proclaim their adherence to the highest standards of journalism without batting an eye. For instance, Jon Sopel, BBC North America editor, asserted with metaphorical hand on heart:

It is our job to test our elected officials, to subject them to scrutiny, to ask the questions the public want answering and hopefully to be fearless in our pursuit of those questions.

It takes great chutzpah, or overweening pride in institutional BBC myths, to try and get away with such remarks. But it’s no surprise to hear boiler-plate guff like this from BBC journalists. After all, the man who leads them from atop BBC News is James Harding, a former Times editor under Rupert Murdoch, who churns out corporate PR-speak piously declaring that BBC journalism has an:

uncompromising commitment to accuracy, to impartiality, to diversity of opinion, and to the fair treatment of people in the news.

Harding adds:

If you make a mistake, you should correct it as soon as you become aware of it – particularly in live and continuous news or on a website.

But what happens when the BBC’s ‘mistake’ is to relentlessly channel and amplify pro-government and pro-business ideology, day after day? When has this ever been ‘corrected’ by the BBC?

When Harding migrated from the confines of Murdoch’s empire to the confines of UK state broadcasting, he famously urged BBC journalists:

not to shy away from investigative reporting and difficult issues in the wake of the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine affairs.

He declared the corporation ‘the best news organisation in the world’, and he promised a renewed commitment to ‘curious, inquisitive journalism in the public interest’. He claimed that he wanted BBC News to devote more resources to ‘original journalism’ and to focus on ‘story-getting’.

But the claim was farcical. When asked whether the BBC would have run with whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations, if the news organisation had been approached first, he said no. Why not? Because that would have been ‘campaigning’ journalism. Just contemplate that for a moment. Presenting the truth of US government deceptions is ‘campaigning’!

As Glenn Greenwald wrote:

His reasoning shows how neutered state-funded media inevitably becomes. Here’s one of the biggest stories in journalism of the last decade, one that sparked a worldwide debate about a huge range of issues, spawned movements for legislative reform, ruptured diplomatic relationships, changed global Internet behavior, and won almost every major journalism award in the West. And the director of news and current affairs of BBC says they likely would not have reported the story, one that — in addition to all those other achievements — happened to have enraged the British government to which the BBC must maintain fealty.

But there is no end to the ideological shibboleths that establishment figures churn out. Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, once told an interviewer:

One of the things that has always amazed me about the BBC is that it is the most self-questioning organisation I’ve ever worked in. It asks itself questions all the time about whether it’s doing the right thing, could we have done that better.

Jenni Russell, a former BBC editor, returns us to the real world:

Nothing makes the BBC as nervous as the prospect of its own journalists inquiring into its behaviour. […] No one in the organisation is ever unaware of the possible damage to the BBC’s brand when news starts asking critical questions of the BBC itself. The corporate centre’s instinctive response is to block and discourage criticism, and any ambitious editors and executives in news are constantly aware of that. […] Trying to get a reaction out of senior executives either in news or the corporate centre always sent it into hedgehog mode, making it bristling, fearful and unresponsive.

To put things in perspective, we need to return to the central topic that opened this media alert: global climate chaos. Consider the powerful message given by journalist Rebecca Solnit to journalism students graduating this year from the University of California, Berkeley:

For journalists and for human beings generally, the elephant in the room has been there for a long time. It’s not even the elephant: the elephant in the room is the room itself, the biosphere in which all life currently known to exist in the universe is enclosed, and on which it all depends, the biosphere now devastated by climate change, with far more change to come. […] Climate change is here, and it is changing everything. It is bigger than anything else, because it is everything, for the imaginable future.

Solnit added:

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis.

But relying on journalists in the corporate media, not least the BBC, to exercise such responsibility is a forlorn hope. We should reject the elite media which exists to serve elite interests. Instead, we need to develop and support alternative means of informing and empowering the public in the vital struggle for climate protection, peace and equality.

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.