Noam Chomsky And The BBC: A Brief Comparison

A recent interview with 88-year-old Noam Chomsky once again demonstrates just how insightful he is in providing rational analysis of Western power and the suffering it generates. By contrast, anyone relying on BBC News receives a power-friendly view of the world, systematically distorted in a way that allows the state and private interests to pursue business as usual.

In what follows, we present examples of Chomsky’s clarity on several important topics and contrast them with the distortions and silences from BBC News. These examples are not intended to be fully comprehensive, with lots of detailed background. But they are highly illustrative of the propaganda nature of what the BBC broadcasts every day.

First, consider North Korea which has carried out missile tests that have ‘demonstrated its growing power and expertise, stoking tensions with the US’, as the BBC puts it. A helpful graphic shows much of the northern hemisphere within range of these missiles. In particular, the west coast of the United States is portrayed as under real threat from the ‘hermit’ state’s nuclear missiles: a scaremongering scenario that BBC News has promoted in line with the propaganda requirements of the White House, the Pentagon and the arms industry. Video clips on the BBC News website have titles such as ‘N Korea announces nuclear test‘, ‘S Korea drill response to N Korea missile‘, ‘We’re used to hearing about being bombed‘ and ‘I don’t know when I might be killed‘.

In a forthcoming book of interviews with journalist David Barsamian, Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, Chomsky acknowledges that North Korea has a ‘growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles’ which does indeed ‘pose a threat to the region and, in the longer term, to countries beyond.’ But then he provides vital context for this arsenal of weapons:

Its function is to be a deterrent, one that the North Korean regime is unlikely to abandon as long as it remains under threat of destruction.

Yes, threat of destruction; something that is very real in the historical memory of the people:

North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by U.S. bombing, and many may recall how U.S. forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left. There were gleeful reports in American military publications about the exciting spectacle of a huge flood of water wiping out the rice crops on which “the Asian” depends for survival.

Today, as Chomsky notes, we are instructed that ‘the great challenge faced by the world’ is how to compel North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programmes. ‘Perhaps we should resort to more sanctions, cyberwar, intimidation […] perhaps even to direct attack on North Korea’.

He then continues:

But there is another option, one that seems to be ignored: we could simply accept North Korea’s offer to do what we are demanding. China and North Korea have already proposed that North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs. The proposal, though, was rejected at once by Washington, just as it had been two years earlier, because it includes a quid pro quo: it calls on the United States to halt its threatening military exercises on North Korea’s borders, including simulated nuclear-bombing attacks by B-52s.

Wait. What was that? There is another option? An article in The Diplomat, which describes itself as ‘the premier international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region’, outlines the proposal; namely that:

Pyongyang declare a moratorium on both nuclear and missile tests, in exchange for the United States and South Korea halting their large-scale joint military exercises.

China has given this proposal the succinct name of ‘dual suspensions’.

Chomsky explains further:

The offer to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in return for an end to highly provocative actions on North Korea’s border could be the basis for more far-reaching negotiations, which could radically reduce the nuclear threat and perhaps even bring the North Korea crisis to an end. Contrary to much inflamed commentary, there are good reasons to think such negotiations might succeed.

He continues:

Yet even though the North Korean programs are constantly described as perhaps the greatest threat we face, the Chinese-North Korean proposal is unacceptable to Washington, and is rejected by U.S. commentators with impressive unanimity. This is another entry in the shameful and depressing record of near-reflexive preference for force when peaceful options may well be available.

So, there is a reasonable proposal from China and North Korea that could form the basis for negotiations leading to a peaceful resolution of the crisis – but it has been dismissed by Washington and US commentators. To what extent has it been covered by BBC News? Consider a report by Seoul-based BBC correspondent Stephen Evans when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatened North Korea with military action. Like Obama, Trump has ruled out negotiation with North Korea. The ‘situation remains the same’, said Evans in the section of the BBC News report grandly titled ‘Analysis’:

North Korea shows no hint of being willing to renounce nuclear weapons, whatever economic blows it receives and whatever China might think.

If a BBC News reporter presents an ‘analysis’ that does not mention an important proposal that could bring about peace, and which the US has outright dismissed, what does that say about BBC bias?

This is not a one-off. Washington-based BBC correspondent Barbara Plett-Usher noted dutifully that Tillerson had urged an ‘international response’ to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, without once mentioning the China-North Korea proposal.

Last month, BBC’s China editor Carrie Gracie also offered her ‘Analysis’:

China has insisted time and again that it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, and it can’t avoid the obvious and urgent question: how does China intend to stop it?

There was nothing about the proposal that China has made, with North Korea, to address the stalemate. Likewise, earlier in the year, Gracie had said in another BBC News report:

So in Beijing today, Mr Tillerson kept it diplomatic. There was no public repetition of President Trump’s complaint that China is not doing enough to prevent North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The BBC News reporter was thus uncritically presenting Washington’s ‘complaint’ about China without pointing out that its rational proposal had been summarily dismissed by the US. This is not journalism; it is power-friendly propaganda.

Iran: The Doctrinal View Versus Reality

BBC News has been reporting in the past few days that Trump ‘is planning to abandon the Iran nuclear deal shortly’. The BBC website dutifully provides articles with titles like ‘Iran nuclear deal: Key details‘ and ‘What will happen to the Iran nuclear deal?’ But you will struggle in vain to find the necessary context and vital facts that Chomsky provides:

Iran has long been regarded by U.S. leaders, and by U.S. media commentary, as extraordinarily dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous country on the planet. This goes back to well before Trump. In the doctrinal system, Iran is a dual menace: it is the leading supporter of terrorism, and its nuclear programs pose an existential threat to Israel, if not the whole world. It is so dangerous that Obama had to install an advanced air defense system near the Russian border to protect Europe from Iranian nuclear weapons — which don’t exist, and which, in any case, Iranian leaders would use only if possessed by a desire to be instantly incinerated in return.

As Chomsky says, that’s the view according to ‘the doctrinal system’ espoused by Washington and allies, along with their cheerleaders in the ‘mainstream’ media and academia. But what about the reality?

In the real world, Iranian support for terrorism translates to support for Hezbollah, whose major crime is that it is the sole deterrent to yet another destructive Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and for Hamas, which won a free election in the Gaza Strip — a crime that instantly elicited harsh sanctions and led the U.S. government to prepare a military coup. Both organizations, it is true, can be charged with terrorist acts, though not anywhere near the amount of terrorism that stems from Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the formation and actions of jihadi networks.

Chomsky then points to:

The unmentionable fact that any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) could be alleviated by the simple means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Such a zone is strongly supported by the Arab states and most of the rest of the world and is blocked primarily by the United States, which wishes to protect Israel’s WMD capabilities.

For BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus, this call by Iran for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East has seemingly never happened. Sounds familiar? As with the China-North Korea proposal discussed above, the Iranian proposal for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East appears not to exist for the BBC. Instead, his ‘analysis‘ is littered with propaganda nuggets like:

Washington’s most pressing problem with Iran is its regional behaviour.

It is left to Chomsky once again to provide an accurate representation of reality:

Since the doctrinal system falls apart on inspection, we are left with the task of finding the true reasons for U.S. animus toward Iran. Possibilities readily come to mind. The United States and Israel cannot tolerate an independent force in a region that they take to be theirs by right. An Iran with a nuclear deterrent is unacceptable to rogue states that want to rampage however they wish throughout the Middle East.

Remember that Marcus has a supposed BBC commitment towards ‘impartiality‘. This allegedly includes the commitment to consider ‘the broad perspective…ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.’ These BBC News editorial standards are, of course, regularly breached every day of the year.

The BBC correspondent then goes on to provide a list of ‘flashpoints between Washington and Tehran’, as though the two countries were sparring partners, rather than a global power attempting to assert control over a country that is trying to maintain its independence. Tellingly, there is no room in the BBC’s list of ‘flashpoints’ for the violent US removal of the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953. As Chomsky notes of the 1979 revolution that removed the Shah of Iran:

Iran cannot be forgiven for overthrowing the dictator installed by Washington in a military coup in 1953, a coup that destroyed Iran’s parliamentary regime and its unconscionable belief that Iran might have some claim on its own natural resources.

Spotlight on the Showman While the Planet Burns

In his interview, Chomsky points out something that is difficult, if not impossible, to find on the BBC about what is happening under Trump:

Out of the spotlight, the most savage fringe of the Republican Party is carefully advancing policies designed to enrich their true constituency: the Constituency of private power and wealth, “the masters of mankind,” to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase.

These policies include legislation that attacks workers’ rights, consumer protection, rural communities, health programmes and ‘much-needed constraints on the predatory financial system that grew during the neoliberal period.’

As well as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, the Republican Party ‘wrecking ball’ is:

… intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.

As Chomsky notes, some of ‘the most dangerous developments under Trump trace back to Obama initiatives.’ He gives an example:

A very important study in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published in March 2017, reveals that the Obama nuclear weapons modernization program has increased “the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three — and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.” As the analysts point out, this new capacity undermines the strategic stability on which human survival depends.

Chomsky observes that this ‘has barely been reported’. Certainly, we have been unable to find any mention of it anywhere on the BBC News website. Chomsky adds that:

The chilling record of near disaster and reckless behavior of leaders in past years only shows how fragile our survival is. Now this program is being carried forward under Trump. These developments, along with the threat of environmental disaster, cast a dark shadow over everything else — and are barely discussed, while attention is claimed by the performances of the showman at center stage.

This is an apt description of BBC News coverage, even as the world plunges towards possible terminal disaster for humanity.

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.