The BBC flagship news programmes, news channel, online news service and radio news outlets have spent several days in constant hysteria about the probability of a second vote on Syria, after parliament rejected military intervention last week. Why is the BBC obsessively attempting to answer a question only they are asking? A look at the interests and characters running the organisation help explain their seemingly rabid hunger for war.
Who Runs the BBC?
The BBC Trust is responsible for granting licenses to all BBC outlets and stations, managing value for money on license fee payments and ‘the direction of BBC editorial and creative output’. The Trust consists of 12 Trustees and is headed by Lord Patten.
Lord Chris Patten is a conservative peer and former governor of Hong Kong; he also happens to have 13 others jobs besides chief of the BBC. These include an £80,000 year role as an advisor for oil company BP, and £40,000 a year from EDF Energy. Some might well be surprised that the Chairman of the BBC Trust is receiving more pay from just these two advisory roles than the £110,000 a year he receives for his chairmanship of the BBC Trust.
A war with Syria would increase the price of oil, which would in turn increase profits for the likes of BP – not to mention the possibilities of access to Syrian oil reserves if an alternative, compliant regime were in place. Energy giant (and employer of former US Vice President Dick Cheney) Halliburton made $39.5bn from Iraq related contracts over the last decade. Oil prices have already risen on the back of the mere threat of military action, the BBC gleefully reported just days ago.
Syria aside – can we expect Lord Patten to have no conflict of interest in managing the ‘direction of BBC editorial output’ on matters such as Fracking, New Nuclear Energy and climate change when he is receiving more money from the energy industry than the media?[i]
The recently appointed Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC, James Harding, is a former employee of the Murdoch Press. While Editor of The Times newspaper, he was responsible for exposing the identity of police blogger NightJack by hacking the bloggers email accounts – which his legal team then covered up during a court case against the action. Harding has also gone on the record as ‘pro Israel’. This is the figure responsible for hiring the news teams, presenters and journalists who will report on matters of hacking, privacy, Middle East issues and of course the planned assault on Syria.
Raffi Berg, Editor of the BBC News Website, was outed for clenched teeth inducing behaviour in a report by Electronic Intifada. During the 2012 eight day assault by Israeli forces on the Gaza strip, in which hundreds of Palestinians were losing their lives, Berg was emailing journalists with ‘guidance’ to maintain a pro-Israel tone in their reports. This from the report:
In one, he asked BBC colleagues to word their stories in a way which does not blame or “put undue emphasis” on Israel for starting the prolonged attacks. Instead, he encouraged journalists to promote the Israeli government line that the “offensive” was “aimed at ending rocket fire from Gaza.”
This was despite the fact that Israel broke a ceasefire when it attacked Gaza on 14 November, a ceasefire which the Palestinians had been observing — firing no rockets into Israel.
In a second email, sent during the same period, Berg told BBC journalists: “Please remember, Israel doesn’t maintain a blockade around Gaza. Egypt controls the southern border.” He omitted to mention that the United Nations viewed Israel as the occupying power in Gaza and has called on Israel to end its siege of the Strip. Israel’s refusal to do so is a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1860.”
Now, it behoves us never to make simplistic links. However, if one were seeking an independent opinion on a military intervention in the Middle East, surely one would not rely on the opinion of paid employees of energy companies that would directly profit from such action, or those with a declared personal bias to one of the nations in the region most likely to benefit. Yet, this is what we are doing when we rely on the BBC as a news source.
The Impact on Reporting
There have been some notable issues with BBC reporting across a number of issues, but today’s post will focus explicitly on Syria.
Rebel vs. Militant
Firstly, the language used to describe Assad and opposition forces. Armed, Islamist fighters in Syria are referred to as ‘rebels’, while those in Mali or Iraq are called ‘Islamic militants’; literally a case of one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. In this case however, the only difference is who they are fighting. If it is a regime which is non-compliant with Western interests – Freedom Fighters. If the regime, however blood-stained and despotic, is compliant with Western interests – opponents are terrorists. This is not just some issue of semantics – it frames the case for support and sympathy in the minds of those consuming the news.
Lives Weighed Less Equally
Furthermore, the BBC has an unbalanced approach to reporting civilian deaths. When reporting drone attacks across Yemen and Pakistan, the BBC often leads with ‘x number of militants killed by drone strike’. Only later in the article, and sometimes not at all, will the report mention these people are only ‘suspected’ militants, or how many others were killed during the strike. This, despite the thousands killed in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan in recent years.
In Syria however, quite the opposite occurs. All those killed by Assad’s forces are counted in the 93,000 death toll figures in BBC headlines, and only later in the piece (or not) will they mention that 80% of these deaths were men and a large bulk of those engaged in armed fighting against the Assad regime. Civilian victims of the fighting are also made real – they are named, their life stories are communicated – unlike those civilian’s unlucky enough to be slaughtered by drone attacks, or by regimes that the BBC supports.
All of this determines the viewer’s emotional proximity to the death and suffering of others. If I say 9/11 – you likely immediately see the planes crashing into the towers, the office workers fleeing inferno by jumping out of 90th storey windows, the dust coated New Yorkers gazing up in horror as the buildings fell. Now, if I mention drone strike – what comes up? Maybe a scratchy image of some ‘insurgent’ looking fellow?
The Dearth of Experts
Then there is the matter of punditry, the ‘experts’ selected to tell you who the bad guys are, who the good guys are, what the questions at hand are and what the likely outcomes of action will be.
Last night’s edition of the flagship Newsnight programme sought opinion from Paul Wolfowitz, presented as former US Defence Secretary during the Iraq war. The show’s host Jeremy Paxman did not see fit to highlight Wolfowitz’s role as an architect of the war. Neither did he mention Wolfowitz is a key member of the Project for the New American Century neoconservative think tank which actively promotes destabilisation of Middle Eastern countries in order to bolster US military and economic strength.
Worse, there was no opposing view to counter balance the extremities of the Wolfowitz position. His interview was followed by Sylvie Kauffman, Editorial Director of France’s Le Monde – a paper supportive of President Francois Hollande who has committed to military action. Both voices are pro-intervention. Furthermore, neither of these people are in any way expert on the issue of the Middle East. Where are the experts, the thinkers, the human rights organisations on the ground? Nowhere to be seen. The whole thing is little more than an advertising campaign for a war by those who plan to benefit from launching it.
The BBC is led, and its editorial direction and content shaped, by people with financial and personal interests that conflict with the public interest to receive balanced news programming. This has become particularly evident in its coverage (or lack thereof) of opposition to austerity policies, protest, the impacts of climate change, the dangers of extreme energy practices such as fracking and tar sands – and now matters of war and peace. The viewer is not left educated and informed by this unbalanced reporting but propagandised into the lexicon of vested interests.
Want a balanced view on Syria? The BBC is not the place to get it.
Here are some decent news sources so you can switch off the BBC News and not feel you’re missing anything:
Democracy Now – Hosted by one of the world’s finest investigative journalists Amy Goodman, this US independent news programme is often my first stop for decent commentary, with ideas and issues explored and top notch interviewees. They do a daily hour long news show which you can watch live or recorded on their website.
Jane Kinninmont – Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House. Might not always agree with her on the more geopolitical points but a great brain who spends an enormous amount of her time actually in the region.
Robert Fisk – excellent journalist, and while not endorsing his views on everything I find him thorough and thoughtful even when in disagreement.
John Pilger – my favourite investigative journalist. Decades of experience – I have been inspired, influenced and educated by this man.
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[i] On top of these questions of loyalty (public interest vs. personal financial interest) Patten’s reign has been blighted by the selection of George Entwistle to BBC Director General only to have his role in the Savile cover up and Lord McAlpine scandal result in his departure after just 54 days in the role. There was also £100m of taxpayer money entirely wasted on the recently cancelled Digital Media Initiative. Add the £60m in eight years blown on massive pay-outs to departing BBC senior executives and you have the reason Patten will be departing for greener pastures in 2015 – but not before he’s had a chance to help shape public opinion on key issues for another two years.