[Media-watch] The BBC and the propaganda model

AJ Doherty ajd118 at york.ac.uk
Sat Mar 20 20:11:13 GMT 2004

Below is a long article on the BBC that I wrote a couple of months ago.
It attempts to apply Chomsky and Hermnan's propaganda model to the BBC.
I hope it is of interest.

Alex Doherty

The BBC and the Propaganda model    By Alex Doherty*

The BBC occupies a privileged position amongst British and international
broadcasters. In times of national and international crisis BBC News is
the place the majority of the British public turn to. While commercial
broadcasters have successfully challenged the BBC’s dominance in the
provision of entertainment, the BBC remains unassailable in the
provision of news in times of crisis. Despite much excitement over the
plethora of new channels and services available since the advent of
multi-channel cable, satellite and digital television, the British
public still spend the vast majority of their viewing time watching the
five terrestrial channels, in particular BBC 1 and ITV. [1] Furthermore
the BBC retains its special status as the broadcaster that most
obviously forges a certain national identity and a sense of social
cohesion (whether real or imagined). When it comes to national
spectacles such as great sporting events or royal occasions, most people
when presented with a choice choose to watch on the BBC. 

In its annual report the BBC cites an ICM poll estimating that 93% of
the UK population followed the first two weeks of the Iraq war on the
BBC. According to the poll in the first week of the war around 40
million people watched BBC News 24 (the BBC’s 24 hr service launched in
1997 to compete with other 24 hour services such as CNN). The poll also
revealed that the BBC is the broadcaster most trusted by the general
population. [2]
Since its creation in 1922 the BBC has successfully fostered an image of
impartiality and objectivity, which has perhaps been a crucial factor in
its success. This image is relentlessly promoted by the corporation; its
claims succinctly put by former Director- General John Birt when he
stated that “the BBC fosters a rumbustious, vigorous and informed
democracy. We strain to ensure that all voices are heard, however
uncomfortable, that they are given a fair hearing and are tested.” [3] 

Recently this view has been contested by both the government and by
sectors of the press, (predominately the right-wing sector). They have
criticised the BBC both over the essentially marginal issue that is the
Dr Kelly affair, and for its coverage of the war more generally. The BBC
has been accused of being both virulently anti-war and institutionally
biased against the government.

The owner of the Daily Telegraph, Conrad Black, (or Lord Black of
Crossharbour as he now is), in a letter to his own newspaper, accused
the BBC of being “pathologically hostile to the government and official
opposition,” as well as “most British institutions” and “American policy
in almost every field.” He remarked that it should not be the function
of the BBC to “assassinate the truth about the Iraq war.” [4]

Eoghan Harris, writer and political columnist with the Daily Telegraph
and the Irish Sunday Independent made similar accusations:

“The BBC current affairs cabal is simply behaving like a political
party: the New Labour Left - a party which dislikes both Blairite social
democrats and conservatives and which is also consciously acting against
the centrist culture of the West to which both Blair and Duncan Smith
The BBC’s antipathy to the war in Iraq is as palpable as its
softness on Sinn Fein.” [5] 

Leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain wrote in the Independent on
Sunday that the BBC had hyped its findings “to ensure the greatest
embarrassment [to the government] in the best tradition of the tabloids,
rather than a public service broadcaster.” [6] The BBC has even been
referred to as the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation” by some of the
more hawkish members of the Blair administration. [7] 

In response the BBC has mounted a vigorous defence of its image, with
the backing of some of the press, predominately the quality left-wing
broadsheets along with some unexpected Conservative support. The BBC
chairman Gavyn Davies strongly denied accusations of bias and claims
that the BBC had a vendetta against the government: “The Board
reiterates that the BBC’s overall coverage of the war, and the political
issues surrounding it, has been entirely impartial
 the BBC did not have
an agenda in its war coverage, nor does it now have any agenda which
questions the integrity of the Prime Minister.” [8]

The acceptable public debate voiced in the mainstream media is over the
question of whether the BBC is impartial and objective in its reporting,
or whether, as the government and the right wing press conjecture, the
BBC is anti-war and institutionally biased against the government.

Curiously the only systematic studies of the BBC and television coverage
of the war support neither position.

A study of the four main British broadcasters - BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and
Sky - carried out by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and
Cultural Studies concluded that the BBC had the most pro-government
agenda. The study revealed that the BBC was twice as likely to use
government sources as ITV and Channel 4, and that the BBC also used more
military sources than the other channels. The BBC was less likely to use
either Iraqi official sources or independent sources such as aid
agencies that were often highly critical of the war. The BBC also
appeared to significantly downplay Iraqi casualties: Only 22% of BBC
stories concerning the Iraqi people were with regard to Iraqi
casualties, compared with figures of 44% and 30% for Channel Four and
Sky respectively. The study found that the BBC was more likely to
unquestioningly relay false stories from military sources such as the
non-existent scud missiles supposedly fired at Kuwait in the early
stages of the war and the mythical Basra “uprising”. The study also
makes reference to Tony Blair’s claim that British soldiers had been
executed by the Iraqi authorities (a claim Downing Street retracted the
next day). The BBC relayed that claim but (unlike other broadcasters)
not the retraction. [9]
A second study was carried out by the Media Tenor group for the German
newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which looked at
broadcasters in five countries. Their findings revealed that the BBC
gave less airtime to dissenting views than any other broadcaster with 2%
of airtime given over to dissenting views, lower even than the US
broadcaster ABC which featured 7%. (US media is typically assumed to be
more slavish in its support for US foreign policy than its UK
counterpart). [10] 

It seems then that neither of the positions within the public debate
appear to even remotely correspond to reality. As Professor Justin
Lewis, deputy head of the school of Journalism, Media and Cultural
Studies at Cardiff University, put it when presenting the Cardiff
studies findings:

“far from revealing an anti-war BBC, our findings tend to give credence
to those who criticised the BBC for being too sympathetic to the
government in its war coverage. Either way, it is clear that the
accusation of BBC anti-war bias fails to stand up to any serious or
sustained analysis.” [11]

The BBC’s virtual exclusion of dissent is particularly disturbing given
the unprecedented level of opposition to the invasion of Iraq,
significantly higher than opposition to other conflicts such as the
bombing of Yugoslavia or the 1990 Gulf war with at the very least around
40% of the public opposed during the conflict, (figures were somewhat
higher both before and after the war). Had someone foolishly tried to
gauge popular feeling in the UK from only watching the BBC, they might
have been forgiven for assuming that opposition to the invasion was
closer to 4% rather than 40. While the lead up to the war witnessed the
largest anti-war demonstration in British history, the BBC responded by
refusing to interview members of the Stop the War Coalition who had
organised the demonstration. Andrew Bergin, the Stop the War Coalition
press officer commented that:

“Representatives of the coalition have been invited to appear on every
TV channel except the BBC. The BBC have taken a conscious decision to
actively exclude Stop the War Coalition people from their programmes.”

As well as excluding the opposition the BBC appears to have colluded
with the government in shaping public opinion in the lead up to the war.
The media monitoring group Medialens reported on the 18th of December
that the BBC was relaying unsubstantiated government claims of terrorist
threats. In a letter to the BBC’s news reporter Margaret Gilmore and
Richard Sambrook, the Director of BBC news, the editors of Medialens

“We have noticed a consistent pattern of recent BBC reports...The BBC
has passed on almost daily reports of terrorist threats based on
government sources. To select a few examples from this month at random:
there has been a report that sky marshals may soon be guarding against
terror attacks on British planes, a report of possible smallpox
vaccinations against the threat of a terrorist attack, of the arrest of
a Taliban sympathiser by anti-terrorist police, of North Africans
arrested on terrorism charges in Edinburgh and London. Tonight (December
18) you delivered the useful information that intelligence services
believe that if al-Qaeda were to carry out an attack in the UK, they
would probably go for a ‘soft target’ - large public gatherings - using
traditional weapons such as cars packed with explosives, etc.”  [13]

According to a former intelligence officer cited by Medialens such
relaying of government propaganda was part of a “softening up process”
to prepare public opinion for the invasion of Iraq. 

In another seeming effort to shape public opinion the BBC broadcast a
Panorama special entitled ‘Saddam - A Warning From History’ on November
3, 2002, a title curiously similar to an earlier BBC documentary
entitled ‘The Nazis - A Warning From History.’  The programme excluded
all dissenting voices from its discussion of Hussein and his regime.
There was no mention of the fact that according to UNSCOM inspectors
Iraq had been 90-95% disarmed of weapons of mass destruction by 1998.
There was no recounting of former weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s view
of UNSCOM’s success and Iraq’s “evasion of inspections”:

“Most of UNSCOM’s finding of Iraqi non - compliance concerned either the
inability to verify an Iraqi declaration or peripheral matters such as
components and documentation, which by themselves do not constitute a
weapon or a program. By December 1998 Iraq had in fact, been disarmed to
a level unprecedented in modern history.” [14]

While the programme dwelt extensively on Hussein’s catalogue of
horrendous crimes throughout the 1980’s there was precious little
discussion of enthusiastic western support (both diplomatic, economic
and military) for Hussein right through his worst crimes (including the
gassing of more than 5000 Kurds at Halabja in 1988) and beyond. Western
support for the Ba’athist regime was described by the programme’s
narrator John Simpson as follows:

“Even by Iraq’s bloody standards, Saddam’s Ba’athists were ferocious,
yet when they seized power in 1968 they had the backing of the CIA which
thought their nationalism was better than the old government’s
communism.” [15]

Better for the CIA and the United States government? Or better for the
people of Iraq? Simpson neglected to say.

Simpson also downplayed the devastation caused by allied forces during
the first Gulf war:

“The big attack [Operation Desert Storm] didn’t bring the terrible loss
of life that Saddam had expected.” 

Iraqi deaths during the Gulf war are estimated at around a quarter of a
million people. By this measure there was no “terrible loss of life” on
September 11th 2001, nor during the recent earthquake in Bam.

In 1998, following a US manufactured crisis, UNSCOM inspectors were
withdrawn from Iraq at the request of the British and American
governments to pave the way for the “Desert Fox” bombing of alleged
Iraqi weapons sites. In the build up to the invasion of Iraq the BBC
seemed to have some difficulty in recounting this simple fact. Medialens
reported that the BBC’s Jane Corbin had reiterated the government’s line
that weapons inspectors “were thrown out.”[16] In a slight variation the
BBC’s James Robbins reported that inspectors were “asked to leave.” More
evasively (though somewhat more accurately) John Simpson simply stated
in the Panorama special that: “In 1998 the inspectors had to leave.” 

Following the coalition victory the BBC were ecstatic in their praise
for Tony Blair. In a gushing report Andrew Marr the BBC’s political
editor declared that: “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his
critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a
stronger Prime Minister as a result.” [17] 

In an article in the Guardian on April 22 David Miller rather accurately
described the BBC’s reaction to victory:

“As Baghdad fell on April 9, BBC reporters could hardly contain
themselves in their haste to endorse the victors. This was a
“vindication” of the strategy and it showed Blair had been “right” and
his critics “wrong”. Here the BBC enunciated a version of events very
similar to that of the government. According to the BBC, “dozens”
witnessed the statue pulled down by US marines in Baghdad on April 9th,
while “thousands” demonstrated against “foreign hegemony” in the same
city on the 18th. Yet the footage of the former was described as
“extraordinary”, “momentous” and “historic”, while the larger
demonstration was greeted with scepticism. “Are they confined to a small
vocal minority?” the newscaster asked.”  [18]
Curious behaviour for a broadcaster whose hostility to the war was


In their classic study of corporate media Manufacturing consent: The
Political Economy of the Mass Media Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
outline what they call a propaganda model as an alternative framework
for understanding the mass media. The model describes a series of
filters through which the raw data of news passes leaving the public
with “only the cleansed residue”. As the study only deals with corporate
media, several of the filters are inoperative with regard to the BBC -
such as advertising, private ownership, and profit orientation (although
a somewhat different economic constraint does apply in the BBC’s case.)

In their place I would like to tentatively suggest another set of
filters, some peculiar to the BBC, which arguably restrict and filter
news as well as the filters described in Herman and Chomsky’s model.
While few people will have read Manufacturing Consent, many of its
conclusions with regard to corporate media are now commonly recognised,
(if not fully understood), particularly the distorting effects of
advertising and private ownership. However, when it comes to public
broadcasters, such as the BBC, there is very little understanding of how
they distort and manipulate the facts on a whole range of issues. As
mentioned earlier the BBC has successfully fostered an image of
objectivity and impartiality which has led to the BBC being considered
the most trustworthy of British broadcasters. Without a serious
understanding of how the BBC functions the public will remain unusually
vulnerable to BBC propaganda.

Government appointments: The director general and the board of
governors. The first filter:

The BBC is regulated by a board of governors, the twelve members of
which are appointed by the Queen on “advice” from government ministers,
as the BBC puts it,  (“instruction” might be a more accurate term). The
board’s brief is to “safeguard [the BBC’s] independence, set its
objectives and monitor its performance.” [19] 

The governors appoint the BBC’s director general and with him the
executive committee, made up of the directors of the BBC’s sixteen
departmental divisions. The performance of each division is overseen by
the government appointed governors. A variety of advisory bodies are
consulted by the governors but the board is not obliged to act on any
advice it receives. According to the BBC’s website, “BBC governors
differ from directors of public companies, whose primary
responsibilities are to shareholders and not consumers. BBC governors
represent the public interest, notably the interests of viewers and
listeners.” [20] 

It is worthwhile to examine the general character of the board of
governors. The twelve current members of the board all are graduates,
half of them Oxbridge educated. Four have worked for and have close
links to government; for instance the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies was an
economic advisor to the 10 Downing Street policy unit and has given
sizeable donations to the Labour Party. [21]

The Vice-Chairman Lord Ryder of Wensum is a former MP and Government
minister, who among other posts served as Political Secretary to
Margaret Thatcher. Another governor, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones DCMG, is
a career diplomat who served in various diplomatic missions and as the
deputy secretary to the Cabinet office before becoming Head of the
Defence Secretariat of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Baroness Sarah
Hogg served as head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit between 1990 and
1995 and was, as the BBC’s own website puts it: “closely involved in the
programmes of privatisation and private finance, performance measurement
in public services and international economic issues.” [22] 

Of the twelve governors six have links to big business. Prior to his
appointment as chairman, Gavyn Davies was chief international economist
and managing director of Goldman Sachs International, and has a personal
fortune estimated at over £150 Million. Sir Robert Smith is Vice
Chairman of Deutsche Asset Management and a director and chairman
designate of The Weir Group plc. Professor Fabian Monds CBE is a
founding partner of Medical and Scientific Computer Services Ltd, and of
Western Connect Ltd. 

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones is the former managing director and head of
global business strategy for NatWest Markets and chairman of NatWest
Markets France. She then became vice chairman of Hawkpoint Partners
Ltd., the corporate advisory arm of NatWest Bank. She is currently the
chairman of the Qinetiq group plc and of the Information Assurance
Advisory Council.

The Cambridge educated Dermot Gleeson is executive chairman of the MJ
Gleeson Group plc. He is a former director of the Housing Corporation
and a former head of the home affairs section of the Conservative
Research Department. 

Baroness Sarah Hogg is chairman of 3I, Europe’s leading venture capital
company, and of Frontier Economics, a consultancy firm specialising in
strategy, competition and the economics of regulation. She is also a
director of P&O Princess and GKN.

For the most part, the members of the board are drawn from a narrow
elite sector of society with intimate links to government and big
business, unsurprisingly given that the appointments are at the
governments discretion. The remaining members of the board appear to be
largely apolitical token figures drawn from the arts world and
charitable organisations. Given the backgrounds and interests of the
board members it is unrealistic to believe that they will encourage the
BBC to in any way seriously challenge the interests that they represent.

Just as it is unrealistic to suppose that the government would appoint
board members who would challenge the government, it is similarly
unrealistic to suppose that the governors will appoint adversarial
employees. The BBC’s current director-general, appointed by the board of
governors, is Greg Dyke. Former director of London Weekend Television
Dyke was an open supporter of Margaret Thatcher during the 1980’s, he
then made the rather small jump to becoming a New Labour supporter. He
is believed to have donated around £50,000 to New labour. [23] The
tendency in the BBC, as in all relatively authoritarian hierarchical
institutions is for the outlook of the controlling sector (in this case
the board of governors) to be replicated throughout the lower tiers of
the institution, leading to the employment of individuals who have
'internalised' a certain view of the world and who understand the
necessity of staying silent on certain issues. This aspect of propaganda
in democratic societies has long been understood; writing with regard to
the virtual impossibility of publishing anything negative about the
Soviet Union during World War Two, George Orwell (who in sanitised form
is the great hero of the liberal press) wrote that:

“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is
largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient
facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has
lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational
items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big
headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the
Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it
wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.”[24]

The politicisation of Board appointments has long been recognised and
became glaringly evident in the 1980’s:

“If the BBC was to be encouraged to be friendly towards the Government’s
project, you needed to be sure of the loyalty of those who ran it.
Hence, during the 1980’s, appointments to the BBC’s Board of Governors
became increasingly politicised. Qualified but unsympathetic candidates
were not appointed, while ill qualified ones were
 Hugo Young in his
biography of Mrs Thatcher quotes a colleague: ‘Margaret usually asked
“Is he one of us?” before approving an appointment.” [25]

With the merging political consensus and the effective end of a
meaningful two party system that followed the establishment of the New
Labour project it can be safely assumed that both parties whether in
government or opposition can rest assured that newly appointed board
members will always be “one of us”.

Economic constraints and the licence fee as control mechanism: The
Second Filter:

The esteem with which the BBC is held is to some extent derived from the
fact that it does not carry advertising and is therefore felt to be
above commercial pressures, this in turn serves to endow the BBC with a
certain “quality” that commercial broadcasters are unable to replicate.
The BBC is instead funded by a licence fee paid by viewers themselves,
subject to renewal after review every ten years. The licence fee renewal
is at the government’s own discretion, giving the government another
means of bringing the corporation to heel. An interesting early example
of the power granted the government by this mechanism of control is
given by James Curran and Jean Seaton in their classic work on the
British media ‘Power without responsibility.’ In 1935 the BBC planned a
series on the British constitution with a variety of speakers including
the communist Harry Pollitt and the fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. The
Foreign Office objected on the grounds that “Pollitt could not be
allowed to broadcast as he had recently made a speech supporting armed

While being opposed only to the communist Pollitt (and not the fascist
Mosley) the Foreign Office recognised that it might be more efficacious
to ban the series on the grounds of preventing Mosley from speaking. In
the face of the BBC’s obstinate refusal to cancel the program the
government turned to the licence fee:

“The matter was finally brought to an end when the Postmaster General
wrote to Reith [then Managing Director of the BBC] pointing out that as
the Corporation licence was due for renewal, it would be wiser to comply
with government demands.” [26] The series was dropped.

Governments are not always so explicit but the licence fee threat is
always there in the background and indeed most governments have at some
point threatened to revoke the licence.  Furthermore the government is
at liberty to reduce or freeze the licence fee thereby inflicting
dramatic reductions in the BBC’s budget. The BBC responds to these
threats and constraints by periodically engaging in radical reform of
itself in an effort to protect itself from government intervention. The
desire to keep the government on side also leads to a pervasive culture
of self-censorship. If the BBC did not behave in this manner it is
doubtful whether it would now exist in its present form, as James Curran
and Jean Seaton put it:

“The Corporation only survived by voluntarily and lavishly doing to
itself everything a hostile government wanted.” [27] 

While relations between the government and the BBC have always been
uneasy they declined to perhaps their lowest ebb under the Thatcher
administration. The administrations hostility stemmed from its
ideological opposition to publicly owned industries, its antipathy to
the public service ethos that at times the BBC has fulfilled (though
rarely in its news reporting) and from the more totalitarian tendencies
of Mrs Thatcher’s government which found the BBC’s level of subservience
to be insufficient (tendencies emulated by the Blair government).  The
BBC was subjected to a series of drastic reforms leading to the creation
of an internal market whereby producers had to buy from competing
service providers within the corporation as well as from the commercial
sector. The 1990 Broadcasting Act stipulated that the BBC must
commission 25% of its programmes from outside the corporation,
regardless of whether this was efficient or good for viewers. The BBC
often boasts that because it is funded by the licence fee it is
insulated from the financial imperatives that the commercial sector is
subject to, but in fact the tight control of the corporation and the
financial limitations forced upon it by the government has meant that in
reality the BBC is driven by the need to keep costs low as much as
commercial broadcasters. The desire to protect itself has meant that the
BBC has little incentive to challenge the government and the interests
it represents.

Sourcing: The third filter:

As described in Manufacturing Consent, the media are predisposed to go
to official sources such as governmental and corporate centres. This
occurs largely due to the financial constraints that both the BBC and
the corporate sector are subject to. The government and other centres of
domestic power (corporations, political think tanks etc) are reliable
sources of information, they provide briefings, press conferences and
leaks; as Herman and Chomsky emphasize it makes sense from a financial
point of view to concentrate journalists at the centres where “news”
reliably occurs. In this way, the government and other official sources
effectively cover some of the costs of news production that might
otherwise be born by the broadcasters; a capacity which is not shared by
alternative sources of information:

“In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass
media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the
media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news.
The large entities that provide this subsidy become “routine” news
sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources
must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decisions
of the gatekeepers.” [28]

Secondly the official status of such centres confers upon them a certain
prestige that unofficial sources cannot compete with, it is felt by
mainstream news organisations that official sources are somehow to be
trusted and that information can be passed on safely without the need to
check in any great detail (if at all), as we saw earlier in the case of
false information passed to the BBC both prior to and during the attack
on Iraq.

The pressure on the BBC to make savings and to demonstrate its economic
viability can only serve to discourage BBC journalists from
investigating alternative sources of news and instead to focus
intensively on official sources.

Flak: The fourth filter:

As with the sourcing filter, 'flak' is common to both corporate
broadcasters and publicly owned media such as the BBC. The term flak
refers to critical reactions to the coverage of a particular media
institution or media subset, for example the centre left press
(Guardian, Independent etc). Flak is produced by sectors of the press,
powerful individuals, the government, quasi-governmental institutions,
and non-governmental pressure groups. In Manufacturing Consent Herman
and Chomsky describe the workings of flak within the US press. The
so-called 'liberal' sectors of the US media, most prominently the New
York Times, come under a near constant attack from flak producing
institutions for their supposed left-wing extremism. In reality the
criticism is largely farcical with the liberal media sticking
extraordinarily closely to the cross-party consensus. The effect of flak
is to sharply delineate the limits of reasonable debate and to
de-legitimise views which are considered more extreme than those
presented by the liberal media, the logic being that if the liberal
media is indeed extremely leftist and hostile to the government then
anything more extreme might reasonably be viewed as being literally

As a side benefit the production of flak allows the “left” media to
present themselves as adversarial trailblazers committed to challenging
the powerful when in fact they rather slavishly follow the cross-party

In the case of the BBC the corporation has been subject to a barrage of
criticism from the government and the press for its alleged anti-war
bias, [29] criticism that seems difficult to reconcile with the
corporation's coverage of Iraq. In an article for the Daily Telegraph
entitled “Disinfect the BBC before it poisons a new generation,” Barbara
Amiel recommends the effective dissolution of the corporation, arguing
that the alleged leftist takeover of the BBC has been so extreme that it
needs to be purged of political unreliables:

“the hijacking of the BBC by any ideology must end, It is time to clean
house. This means a radical purge in order to re-establish the
objectivity that is the BBC’s mandate and is practised only in the
breach.”  [30]

Sadly Amiel doubts the feasibility of such a purge and so suggests some
other possibilities; her preferred solutions are to either scrap the
licence fee (and presumably privatise the corporation) or (a more novel
suggestion) maintain the BBC but scrap its news and current affairs,
leaving it to stick to the “intelligent comedy, drama and music that it
has always handled well.” 

Extreme though these suggestions might sound, Amiel reassures us of the
gravity of the situation:

“those [BBC] departments suffer from a world view that is now infecting
a new generation of viewers. Like other nasty viruses, this one requires
swift containment.” 

So grave is the threat from the virus that the Telegraph set up a
“Beebwatch” section to monitor the BBC’s performance since it “seems
unable to control the political impulses of its journalists, which point
with depressing uniformity in a Left-liberal direction.” [31]

The Murdoch group were similarly hostile, unsurprising perhaps given
Murdoch’s desire to break into terrestrial TV, although thundering
editorials from the Times and the Sun neglected to mention this fact.
The Telegraph’s Tom Leonard reported that News of the World journalists
were ordered to write an editorial attacking the BBC:

“Journalists had spent the day working on a piece critical of the
Government only to be told late in the afternoon they were now to write
one that was sympathetic. Sources on the paper claim the turnaround was
ordered “straight from the top”. [32] 

The evidence offered to support the claims of BBC antiwar bias is
extremely selective and presented out of the context of the corporations
output as a whole. In an article entitled “It is the BBC’s political
agenda that should be investigated” Barbara Amiel had to cite an obscure
BBC world service program that was hosting several anti-war speakers as
the best evidence to support her argument. [33] Tellingly none of the
BBC’s critics (from the right) have cited the findings of Media Tenor or
the Cardiff study.

It is perhaps an interesting psychological question as to whether
commentators such as Amiel believe the analysis that they produce. Maybe
they are very consciously distorting the truth, or perhaps they are so
rigid in their slavish support for Anglo-American aggression, that in
their eyes anything short of total obedience is tantamount to treason;
perhaps it is the 2% of dissent aired by the BBC that provokes the fury
of Amiel and her kind. 

Discussing hostile government and press reaction to the BBC’s largely
pro-British  coverage of the Falklands war, former assistant Director
General of the BBC Alan Protheroe remarked that:

“Their ideal for the 9 o’clock news would have been a man in uniform
backed by the Union Jack. The signature tune would have been replaced by
the National Anthem and it would have been a kind of RaRaRa news
bulletin.” [34]

Perhaps this is what Barbara Amiel and Lord Black of Crossharbour would

The BBC has been defended by the more 'left wing' sectors of the media,
in particular the Guardian, (sometimes described by the right as being
the agenda setter for the BBC.) The findings of the Cardiff study were
even cited in isolated articles by Justin Lewis and David Miller.
However it is interesting to see how the issue was framed by one of the
Guardian’s chief commentators, Polly Toynbee. In an article entitled
“BBC needs a Bullywatch,” Toynbee made an impassioned defence of the
corporation. The BBC was as she put it (probably accurately):

“In graver danger than many of its friends may realise... It has never
come under such an ominous onslaught of attacks from so many
directions.” [35]

She argues that the government’s attack on the BBC is unjustified since
there is “Independent academic evidence showing it was the most
balanced”. As Toynbee does not say which “academic evidence” she is
referring to we must assume she is referring either to the Media Tenor
study or the Cardiff findings (maybe both). However, contradicting
Toynbee's assertion, the two studies did not find that the BBC was the
“most balanced,” rather they found that the BBC was at the more extreme
end of pro-war bias amongst broadcasters. Here Toynbee is setting the
limits of acceptable debate: The BBC was either biased against the
government or (as is Toynbee’s view) was balanced and objective
(regardless of what the facts reveal). This is not to say that the
alternative view of a firmly pro-war BBC offered here was entirely
excluded from the media (it maintained a toe hold at the Guardian and
the Independent), but for the most part this alternative story was
articulated by the dissident community through alternative media rather
than within the mainstream. Worryingly there is evidence to suggest that
the barrage of flak was so effective that it caused a decline in the
BBC’s trust ratings during the conflict due not to its pro-war
subservience but rather because of its perceived anti-establishment and
anti-war bias, a perception that was entirely the creation of the flak
producers. [36]

The assault on the corporation is likely to constrain BBC reporting even
further; the Telegraph’s Tom Leonard reported on the 3rd June 2003 that
the BBC board of governors had requested quarterly reports on the BBC’s
impartiality. The governor’s stated that they wanted to “track
performance over the year and examine specific aspects of new coverage”.

The War on Terror: the dominant discourse:
The Fifth Filter:

The last filter in Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model is the ideology
of anti-communism. This filter operates as the prevailing ideology which
is accepted and shared by the major media institutions and operates as
the orthodox underlying framework for mediating events for a variety of
useful purposes:

“This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because
the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies
that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist
states and radicalism. It therefore helps fragment the left and labor
movements and serves as a political-control mechanism. If the triumph of
communism is the worst imaginable result, the support of fascism abroad
is justified as a lesser evil. Opposition to social democrats who are
too soft on Communists and “play into their hands” is rationalized in
similar terms.” [38]

In the wake of the September 11th attacks it was widely perceived that
anti-communism had been superseded by the “anti-terror” discourse
articulated by the Bush and Blair administrations (with enthusiastic
support from others), however this is misleading. It is closer to the
truth to say that the two ideologies are complementary; indeed they
buttressed each other long before the atrocities of September 11th. As
Chomsky pointed out, the war on terror was first declared by the Reagan
administration in the 1980’s [39] (which comprised many members of the
second Bush administration). Initially the state sponsor of terrorism
was alleged to be the Soviet Union and its allies (real and imagined).
Their counterparts following September 11th were Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cuba
and any other state that was insufficiently subordinate to the United
States (with the usual gloss of human rights concerns and terrible
threats; in this case “weapons of mass destruction,” that highly dubious
conflation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons).

The elevation of the anti-terror discourse following September 11th
stemmed from two factors: First and most obviously the collapse of the
“evil empire” of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and secondly the
catastrophic and spectacular character of the September 11th attacks.
Prior to the attack it had proven difficult (though by no means
impossible) to present terrorism as much more than a worrying security
problem, given the relatively small body count that could be attributed
to non-state or “retail” terrorism (as opposed to the vastly greater
numbers killed in acts of state terror.) The spectacular nature of the
attack made it far easier to present terrorism as a genuine threat to
Western civilization and made it highly serviceable as the kind of
control mechanism that anti-communism had operated as in the recent
past. This aspect of the atrocity also served to mask some of the
fundamental characteristics of that act and subsequent acts of retail
terrorism: while the attack was devastating it was a low-tech operation
exploiting a weakness in US security systems. The attack revealed that
while terrorists may be able to carry out isolated atrocities against
civilians they have no substantial arsenal of advanced weaponry (as the
Soviet Union most certainly did), and are unable to offer a meaningful
challenge to the US military. 

In the annals of retail terrorism September 11th was unusual in the
scale of the atrocity, not in its method. It did not represent a new and
unusually dangerous form of terrorism except in the narrow sense, (it
was obviously the first terrorist act to utilize passenger jets in this
way.) It revealed the ability of fanatical terrorists to kill huge
numbers of civilians - it did not reveal their ability to inflict
meaningful military or economic damage on the United States, (despite
appearances the targets chosen were probably selected for their symbolic
rather than their perceived military or economic value), nor an ability
to challenge the United States’ global dominance.

The discourse of anti-terrorism is rather similar to that of
anti-communism: both offer a radically distorted Manichean view of the
world. The favoured states (the US and UK and, to a lesser extent, their
allies) are cast as the repositories of freedom and justice, engaged in
a desperate struggle with what George W Bush, echoing Reagan and other
illustrious predecessors, calls “the evil doers”, (Al-Qaeda, Saddam
Hussein, the Islamic Iranian regime at present, the Soviet Union and its
satellites in the past). The simplicity of the position was eloquently
put by Bush Jr. when he stated that “you are either with us or with the
terrorists.” Terrorist acts are typically presented by the BBC and the
rest of the mainstream as discrete events separated from all historical,
social and political contexts. Within the mainstream (particularly in
the United States but also in the UK) it is verging on the treasonous to
even investigate the reasons for such acts. It takes some effort to
avoid the historical context of the September 11th attacks on the World
Trade Centre and the Pentagon, since the terrorist perpetrators were
drawn from the pool of violent radical fundamentalists that the United
States had trained, supplied and funded during the 1980’s, specifically
during the Mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviet occupation of
Afghanistan. (At the time the radical fundamentalists were portrayed as
brave freedom fighters both in the mainstream news and in popular
culture more generally; for example the third Rambo film found Sylvester
Stallone fighting heroically alongside the Mujahedeen). 

For this reason the attack is sometimes cited as an example of what is
called 'blowback,' whereby US covert operations rebound disastrously
upon the United States, however this is somewhat misleading since the
events of 9/11 were, patriotic posturing aside, largely welcomed by the
US administration which immediately recognised their utility for
pursuing its radical agenda at home and abroad. The term 'blowback'
might have been more appropriate had the attack been symptomatic of a
meaningful threat to US economic and military hegemony, which it was
not. From the point of view of the Bush administration the attack on the
World Trade Centre and the Pentagon is probably better conceived as a
welcome, though unintended side benefit to the covert operations of the
1980’s. In the broader context of the long history of American
aggression the mainstream media also neglected to mention that September
11th was the date of another terrible tragedy: the overthrow of the
democratically elected reformist socialist government of Salvador
Allende by General Augusto Pinochet with the help of the CIA, which led
to the deaths, disappearance and torture of thousands of Chilean
leftists and others, (quantatively a tragedy roughly comparable to
September 11th 2003).

The anti-terror discourse underpins BBC reporting; terrorism is
primarily discussed as 
a security matter and the terrorists themselves are portrayed as vicious
sub-humans motivated by the desire to inflict pain and suffering and rob
us of our political and religious rights. Claims that terrorists “hate
our freedom” are accepted without question and the idea that the
atrocities committed by terrorists might stem in part from legitimate
grievances is not to be countenanced. Disturbingly the discourse also
underpins BBC coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Watching the
BBC’s coverage of the conflict we see the brutal ethnic cleansing and
violent oppression of an entire nation transformed into a mere 'security
problem'. Palestinian suicide attacks are prominently featured while the
vastly greater number of atrocities carried out by the Israeli army are
downplayed, and the daily misery and horror of the illegal Israeli
occupation is barely reported at all. Following the December 26th
suicide attack carried out by the PFLP, which killed three Israeli
soldiers and one Israeli civilian, the BBC reported that this had broken
a “lull” in the conflict. Mere moments before the attack Israel had
fired rockets into the Gaza strip killing five Palestinians including
two civilians. [40] Two days earlier on Christmas Eve Israel raided a
refugee camp in the southern Gaza strip killing eight Palestinians
including at least three civilians, and wounding forty-two others whilst
demolishing ten houses leaving their inhabitants homeless. [41] On the
twentieth a five-year-old boy Muhammad Naim Tesrida was shot in the
chest and killed. The same day Nur Imran, 13, was also shot and killed
by the “Israeli Defence Force.” [42] On the 19th four more Palestinians
were killed in a raid on the West Bank town of Nablus [43] and on the
18th a 17-year-old boy was killed in the Rafah refugee camp. [44] This
is what the BBC calls a “lull in the conflict.” 

Another effect of the discourse is to exclude the idea that the British
and American Government and military might be acting for malevolent
reasons: (to maintain control over the valuable resources of other
countries for instance). Instead in the media portrayal we are always
fighting with good intentions and for noble purposes. Occasionally of
course we may go awry but this is because of “mistakes” often stemming
from being too zealous in our desire to see freedom and justice triumph,
or else it is the result of corrupt individuals who are not a reflection
of the institutions they represent. This is what the British historian
Mark Curtis calls the concept of “basic benevolence”:

“The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins
everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream
reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not
challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy,
peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy.” [45]

This underpinning leads to the casual acceptance of establishment
claims, no matter how ludicrous. Those departing from the dominant
discourse find themselves in an essentially hostile environment where
the questioning is vastly more aggressive than the treatment meted out
to faithful servants of power. As such the fifth filter helps to create
an environment where certain views flourish and where others are drowned
out, if they are even featured at all.


It should be emphasized that all institutions no matter how totalitarian
are subject to countervailing forces [46]. The BBC does respond to
popular pressure to a limited degree. In the liberal tradition the media
is portrayed as an arena where the various views of society are
presented and interact, however this portrayal ignores the fact that
certain groups within the society, namely the sectors which dominate the
economic, political and juridical systems are at an enormous advantage.
It is an exaggeration to say that the BBC always follows the two party
line or that it always operates as a propaganda weapon for elite sectors
of our society given the capacity of the general population to pressure
it into more accurate reporting (there is also the issue of professional
objectivity which offers at least a mild counter measure to the pressure
of the filters). Nevertheless the BBC mostly follows the two party line
and it mostly operates as a propaganda weapon (of an unusually subtle

The public perception of the BBC is not a trivial matter. Those within
the anti-war movement work, (or at least should do), on the assumption
that the greater the dissemination of accurate information on the
alleged reasons for the invasion of Iraq the greater public opposition
would have been. It is a tribute to the movement that it was able to
foster the level of dissent that was achieved given the powerful
government/media nexus arrayed against it. However the failure to spread
a more serious critical understanding of the media and in particular the
BBC may have been a factor in the failure of the opposition to rise yet
further. [47] Had opposition to the war reached higher levels it is
probable that Britain might well have pulled out of the invasion force,
indeed the level of opposition that was achieved was sufficient to cause
the MOD to draw up contingency measures for doing just this:

“The Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper most closely linked to the British
Armed Forces, went on to reveal that on Tuesday 11 March, “Mr Hoon’s
department [the Ministry of Defence] was frantically preparing
contingency plans to “disconnect” British troops entirely from the
military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of
the campaign and peacekeeping.” [48]

As Milan Rai has documented this might well have derailed (or at least
postponed) the entire operation and saved the lives of tens of thousands
of Iraqi civilians and Iraqi troops (who should be viewed as essentially
the same as male adult civilians, given the vast majority were
conscripts unlike their professional adversaries from the US and UK).
This is not to say that there has not been an excellent sustained
critique of the BBC’s coverage, however this has mostly focussed on what
the BBC has done rather than the reasons motivating its actions. The
view that we have a relatively free press that broadly tells the truth
is still much too prevalent, and while this background of relative trust
persists the public might well dismiss examples of BBC dishonesty as
'marginal' or 'lapses'. Rather, they should be viewed as the near
inevitable product of a largely systematic process whereby those views
that faithfully serve power and privilege dominate, whilst views which
instead serve their victims are marginalized or excluded altogether.
This failure must not be allowed to continue. Lives depend on it,
perhaps even our own.


*Additional research and material: Robert Wotherspoon and Christian Hunt


1. James Curran, Media and Power, Routledge 2002, p.188.

2. BBC Annual report 2002/03, Review of Services: News -

3. Cited in Mark Curtis,‘Web of Deceit: Britain’s real role in the
world’, Vintage 2003, p379

4. Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2003

5. Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2003

6. Independent on Sunday, 27 July 2003

7. Christian Science Monitor, 10 July 2003

8. BBC Press release

9.  The Guardian, 4 July 2003 

10. The Guardian, April 22 2003

11. The Guardian, July 4 2003

12.Medialens Media Alert: The Ruthless and the Dead, March 18 2003

13.Medialens Media Alert: BBC Channelling Government Propaganda,
December 18 2002

14. Cited in Milan Rai ‘War Plan Iraq’, Verso 2002, p67

15. Saddam – A Warning from History transcript,

16. Medialens Media Alert: Beating up the cheerleader, 24 July 2003

17. BBC1, News at ten, April 9 2003

18. The Guardian, April 22 2003 

19. BBCi Web site

20. BBCi Web site
21. The government has been amusingly brazen in its failure to give even
the pretence of impartiality in its appointments; as Medialens revealed
Gavyn Davies wife runs Gordon Brown’s office, his children served as
pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown’s wedding and Tony Blair has stayed
at his holiday home.

22. BBC website

23. The Guardian, October 6 2003

24. George Orwell, Proposed Preface to Animal Farm, Secker and Warburg

25. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ ,
Routledge 1997, P. 216 

26. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ ,
Routledge 1997., p122

27. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ ,
Routledge 1997, p220

28. Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage
1994, p22

29. It has also been criticised for being pro-Palestinian –on the 11th
of November 2003 the Daily Telegraph reported that the BBC had appointed
a “Middle East policeman” because of supposed “pro-Arab bias”, a sane
viewer of the BBC might be forgiven for thinking that the corporation
might require a “Middle East policeman” to do a rather different job. 

30. Daily Telegraph, June 7 2003 

31. Daily Telegraph, November 26 2003   

32. Daily Telegraph, June 23 2003

33. Daily Telegraph, July 8 2003

34. Cited by Greg Philo, Television, Politics and the New Right, Glasgow
University Media group, online article-

35. The Guardian, September 19 2003

36. The Guardian, August 4 2003 

37. Daily Telegraph, June 3 June 2003

38. Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage
1994, p29

39. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p109

40. The Guardian, December 26 2003

41. The Guardian December 24 2003

42. Al Jazeera website, 22

43. Al Jazeera website, 19 December 2003-

44. Al Jazeera website, 18 December 2003-

45. Mark Curtis, Web of deceit, Vintage 2003, p380

46. As anyone who has spent time organising on the left will be aware
the feeling of powerlessness remains disturbingly widespread amongst the
general population this is particularly concerning given the great
opportunities for effecting change in a relatively free society such as
ours. Just as an example of the possibilities for effecting change it is
worth remembering that even National Socialist Germany was subject to
popular influence to some extent; - the T4 program – the mass murder of
German mental patients the precursor to the holocaust- was temporarily
halted due to popular outcry. And this in a society where public
opposition carried with it punishments immeasurably worse than those
that exist in a society such as ours.

47. There are of course other things that could have been done - the
failure to mobilise the existing anti-war population into engaging in
sustained civil disobedience was a terrible mistake.

48. Milan Rai, ‘Regime Unchanged: Why the war on Iraq changed nothing’,
Pluto Press 2003, pxxi

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