The Arrogance of BBC News

When we started Media Lens in 2001, we had a rather naïve expectation that journalists might: a) want to respond rationally to reasoned criticism; and b) have privileged access to unparalleled journalistic resources, experts and arguments that would enable journalists to respond with serious points to our challenges. In particular, we imagined that BBC journalists and editors – being funded from the public licence fee – might actually feel obliged to respond.

We were quickly disabused of such notions. Reasoned debate with journalists employed by the misleadingly-termed ‘mainstream’ media is as rare as a newspaper editorial in support of Jeremy Corbyn in the run-up to last week’s General Election. The dearth of such media debate – in fact, the arrogant and condescending dismissal of vital truths – has been highlighted as never before by recent pronouncements from senior figures in BBC News.

BBC director general Lord Tony Hall told BBC staff in a post-election message:

Social media offers a megaphone to those who want to attack us and makes this pressure greater than ever. The conspiracy theories that abound are frustrating.

The dismissive term ‘conspiracy theories’ is intended to simply shut down debate: it need not be specified just what these ‘theories’ are; they are instantly rejected as irrational.

Hall added:

And let’s be clear – some of the abuse which is directed at our journalists who are doing their best for audiences day in, day out is sickening.

It shouldn’t happen. And I think it’s something social media platforms really need to do more about.

This is another repeated theme from on-high: a deliberate focus on abuse that journalists do, unfortunately, receive; which then diverts attention from the many reasoned complaints from the public. How casually senior figures call for social media platforms to censor content just four short years after the whole world defended the right to offend in the name of free speech, declaring,  ‘Je Suis Charlie Hebdo.’

A week before the election, Fran Unsworth, BBC’s director of news and current affairs, trotted out the standard BBC ideological stance that:

Our impartiality is precious to us and we will protect it.

For Unsworth, it is a fact that BBC News is impartial, and that the well-documented examples of ‘mistakes’ in recent coverage – all leaning in favour of the Tories – were indeed simple errors. Whether deliberate editing decisions were made, or whether they were subconscious tendencies in support of Boris Johnson, the media coverage was heavily biased in favour of the Conservative party.

Famously, or infamously, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, once said that:

I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC.

Readers may recall that, curiously, Boris Johnson used similar phrasing when he declared that:

I’d rather be dead in a ditch than agree Brexit extension.

He then lost that particular parliamentary vote, but magically managed to avoid any ditches.

As many media observers noted, Kuenssberg’s proudly-declared ‘impartiality’ came unstuck in the election campaign; as it had done previously when she was found to have breached impartiality over her biased and inaccurate reporting of Corbyn. During this election, the BBC’s political editor:

Other examples of breached impartiality, highlighted in a letter by environmentalist and campaigner Joel Benjamin to the BBC director general, include:

  • A BBC political correspondent referred during a live broadcast to the majority that Boris Johnson ‘so deserves’.
  • Editing out BBC Question Time audience laughter at Johnson’s expense and inserting audience applause.
  • Running a news ticker on the so-called ‘Labour anti-semitism crisis’ during a BBC News item on the Holocaust.

More generally, at least two former senior BBC figures would dispute the self-serving depiction of the BBC’s wonderful ‘impartiality’. Greg Dyke, a former BBC director general, once warned that:

The BBC is part of a “conspiracy” preventing the “radical changes” needed to UK democracy.

Sometimes, then, conspiracies can, and do, exist. To current BBC senior staff, this would, of course, be swatted away as a ‘conspiracy theory’ that need not be examined.

Dyke called for a parliamentary commission to 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 that there had been ‘some quite extraordinary attacks’ on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the BBC.

Perhaps Lyons’ comment is also to be disregarded as merely a ‘conspiracy theory’.

The Most Stupid Boast In Journalism

After the election, Huw Edwards, the main news presenter on the BBC News at Ten, published a screed that was long on hyperbole, but short on evidence-based reasoning. He proclaimed that he was ‘supported by the best news team in the world’, and that:

BBC News is a rather unsettling mix of awkward, contrary and assertive people who (in my very long experience) delight in either ignoring the suggestions of managers or simply telling them where to get off. That’s how it works.

The famous newsreader added:

For the record, I have never been asked to change a script (unless there’s a factual error to be sorted) or adopt a slanted line of questioning.

Back in the 1930s, George Seldes, the US press critic, called this:

The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism

This, he put bluntly, is often the inane response of:

the writer who says, “I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like”. We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted.

In an interview with one of us in 2000, Alan Rusbridger, who was then Guardian editor, made a similar point:

If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, “Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write”, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write. It’s understood.

As Noam Chomsky has frequently explained, there is a strong in-built tendency for power-friendly journalists to rise to senior positions in big organisations because they undergo a selective filtering process, set by the structure of the state-corporate media that employs them. If you can be trusted to say and do the ‘right’ things’, and even think the ‘right’ thoughts, you are more likely to rise higher up the career ladder.

In an interview with Chomsky, Andrew Marr (then political editor of the Independent) expressed the default corporate opinion that ‘journalism [is] a crusading craft’ with ‘a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism’, holding power to account.

Chomsky’s riposte to Marr left him momentarily speechless:

If you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.

Alas, Marr learned little, if anything, from his bruising encounter with Chomsky, later rising to BBC News political editor. In perhaps his supreme moment of obsequious deference to political power, standing outside 10 Downing Street on April 9, 2003, Marr said live on BBC News at Ten that Tony Blair had ‘take[n] Baghdad without a bloodbath’ and declared with a beaming smile that:

tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister.

That night, it was the same Huw Edwards who sat in the studio back in London, happy to channel Marr’s fawning praise for Blair as ‘impartial’ BBC reporting.

After Edwards’ post-election exculpatory piece was published, extolling the supposed virtues of BBC News, he was challenged by historian and foreign policy expert Mark Curtis via Twitter:

I know you need to tell yourself and the public this, but people saw for themselves how BBC performed during the election (along with now considerable academic and other analysis). The idea that BBC reporting is generally impartial or accurate is unsustainable, in fact laughable.

Edwards’ response was mocking:

Explain again, Mark. Slowly. With your “academic and other analysis”. How does an organisation direct thousands of its staff to work in unison to back one political cause? I know you need to tell yourself this stuff, but it’s risible.

Whether feigned or not, the newsreader’s ignorance of how organisations work to a certain agenda without being explicitly directed to do so, is ludicrous. As blogger Tom London remarked:

.@huwbbc do you really not know anything about sociology and psychology and organisational cultures? The BBC must urgently find some humility and start engaging with its critics rather than treating them with arrogance and what might be best described as aggressive defensiveness

BBC’s Long History Of Contempt For Public Challenge

No doubt, lengthy tomes could be written on the subject line above, going back to the BBC’s founding in the 1920s. In our own experience over almost two decades of close media monitoring, we have seen a serious deterioration, from an already low base, in the BBC’s engagement with the public. In the early days of Media Lens, Richard Sambrook, then head of BBC News, did, on occasion, respond on email to us: not really addressing our points in any depth. But it was, at least, direct, respectful engagement of a sort.

Helen Boaden, his successor, also responded to direct emails; at least, initially. Most famously, and tragicomically, Boaden sent us the equivalent of six pages of A4 full of quotes from Tony Blair and George Bush supposedly as evidence demonstrating their sincerity in wanting to bring democracy to Iraq. Around this time, Media Lens was highlighting numerous war crimes by western armed forces in Iraq; notably in Fallujah. We were copied in to many articulate and cogent emails sent to Boaden by members of the public in response to our media alerts. Not long after, she boasted at a media event that she had changed her email address to duck such public challenges.

When our second book, Newspeak, was published in 2009, one of our readers wanted BBC News staff to be informed of our detailed arguments and copious examples of BBC bias, omission and blatant deception. This kind person paid for 100 copies to be sent to BBC editors and journalists. Our publisher, Pluto Press, included a letter inviting responses via a dedicated email address to receive BBC replies. The response was both pitiful and paltry, as we highlighted at the time.

With the rise of Twitter, our challenges to the BBC shifted away from email. Despite always adopting a reasoned tone, free of abuse, one BBC News journalist after another has blocked us over the years: Huw Edwards and Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor, for instance. Others have simply blanked us: Andrew Marr, Frank Gardner, Paul Royall (editor of BBC News at Six and Ten), Andrew Roy (BBC Foreign Editor), Kamal Ahmed (BBC News editorial director). We are not blocked because we are abusive – we never have been – just because we are a nuisance, a cause of embarrassment they can do without.

One recent exception – seemingly – was Lyse Doucet, BBC chief international correspondent. Earlier this year, we flagged up whistleblower testimony that a report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons about an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma in 2018 had been manipulated to provide a rationale for a US/UK/France missile attack on Syria (an excellent brief overview can be watched here).  She agreed on Twitter that it was an ‘important story’, said that she had informed BBC news colleagues about it, but has since fallen strangely silent about this growing scandal, including further revelations by WikiLeaks.

Many readers will be aware that we have written several books and hundreds of media alerts carefully marshalling evidence showing that BBC News has systematically presented ‘news’ and commentary from a skewed perspective that strongly favours state and corporate power. A partial list alone would include:

  • The issue of Iraq’s supposed ‘WMD’
  • Promoting the disaster of the war on Libya
  • Pushing for ‘regime change’ in Syria
  • Lack of scrutiny of the government’s role in the Yemen catastrophe
  • Attacks on the NHS, opening it up to corporate profiteers
  • Endless smears and attacks on Jeremy Corbyn; not least the fake news of a Labour party supposedly infested with antisemitism
  • The appalling lack of action in the face of climate breakdown
  • Virtually no challenge to Boris Johnson and other senior Tories for their dreadful voting and policy record on all of the above, and more besides

In March 2018, numerous corporate media reported that, in 2012, Corbyn had responded to plans to remove an East London mural, which he believed to be anti-capitalist rather than anti-semitic, with the question, ‘Why?’ Commentators declared themselves aghast that Corbyn had not been able to perceive the racist content in the mural. Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook commented:

Not that anyone is listening now, but the artist himself, Kalen Ockerman, has said that the group in his mural comprised historical figures closely associated with banking. His mural, he says, was about “class and privilege”, and the figures depicted included both “Jewish and white Anglos”. The fact that he included famous bankers like the Rothschilds (Jewish) and the Rockefellers (not Jewish) does not, on the face of it, seem to confirm anti-semitism. They are simply the most prominent of the banking dynasties most people, myself included, could name. These families are about as closely identified with capitalism as it is possible to be.

Our search of the ProQuest media database for the terms ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘mural’ since 1 May 2015 – the month Corbyn stood for the Labour leadership –  produced 1,179 results. Over the same period, a search for ‘Boris Johnson and ‘picaninnies’ – an ethnic slur used by Johnson – found 59 results.

Although the bias is already clear from this quick search, to restrict a moral comparison to the words said by Corbyn and Johnson is absurd and risks straying into virulently racist territory.

Why? Because an honest accounting of the General Election – as described here, here and here – reveals that the moral choice was stark indeed and had nothing to do with what had been merely said by the contestants.

On the one hand, we had Corbyn, an all but unique UK political leader in modern times steadfastly refusing to support US-UK illegal wars of aggression that have killed, injured and displaced literally millions of human beings (brown-skinned, but still human) in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. And on the other side, we had Boris Johnson, with his proven track record of proudly participating in these great crimes against humanity exactly as almost every other Tory and Labour leader has.

In other words, Corbyn was an almost unique opportunity to vote for an opponent of our country’s worst moral crimes in modern times. Thus, the idea that the electoral choice involved a comparison between ‘controversial’ words that Corbyn said, versus ‘controversial’ words that Johnson said, was not just an example of media bias; it was an example of truly pathological media bias.

It is difficult, but we can try to imagine a media that placed an honest discussion of Corbyn’s question about the mural alongside analysis and pictures of hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, flattened cities, mutilated torture victims, millions of refugees in tent cities, starving children dying in trashed hospitals, refugees drowning at sea, terrorist ‘blowback’ targeting the UK and other European countries, on and on – all consequences of murderous policies that Corbyn, almost alone in the political system, opposes and Johnson does not.

If journalists had suggested a moral equivalence between these crimes and Corbyn’s comment on the mural, it would obviously be outrageous. To even suggest that a comment deemed ‘offensive’ by some is comparable to the mass death of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Arabs would be racism raised to a level of insanity rivalling the Nazis.

But the fact is that journalists did not even rise that high. Instead, they completely ignored the gargantuan crimes of the Blairs, Camerons and Johnsons, while focusing solely and obsessively on Corbyn’s ‘offensive’ comments. Our ProQuest database search found that, between November 1 and the day of the election on December 12, the terms ‘Boris Johnson’ and ‘Yemen’ were mentioned in 30 newspaper articles. But only one of these, in the Independent, mentioned Johnson’s complicity in war crimes that have caused the deaths of 50,000 Yemeni children a year. Over the same period, the terms ‘Corbyn’ and ‘anti-semitism’ were mentioned in 2,386 newspaper articles.

And here we arrive at a truly awesome, structural bias that is barely guessed at by journalists themselves. The fact is that it is simply understood by ‘mainstream’ media at election time that foreign policy – especially our leaders’ high crimes – is somehow unaccountably, inexplicably, irrationally, not an issue the electorate need trouble its pretty little head about. Even after the devastating, illegal 2003 invasion-occupation of Iraq, with the crime still fully underway, foreign policy barely featured as an election issue in 2005.

Corbyn was presented, relentlessly, as a moral monster, as a threat to humanity on the basis of miniscule, in fact, non-existent, evidence. But Johnson and the Tories, and Corbyn’s Blairite enemies, escaped all scrutiny – for the simple reason that their very real crimes have been declared a non-issue by an awesomely corrupt system of media corporations serving the power of which they are an integral part.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The second Media Lens book, Newspeak: In the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.