Second part of a sideways glance at the BBC prompted by Tom Mills’ book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.
In a Wonderland they lie
In part one I mentioned how proactive the BBC was in attacking striking workers during the 1926 General Strike so it is not surprising it provided the government with a vehicle for propaganda during the Second World War. Now there is nothing unexpected about that for no country would allow any publicly financed medium become something of a fifth column – issuing news and briefings critical of the constitutional authority. Mind you before that war the BBC could be found in the camp of appeasers along with major British newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Sunday Dispatch and London Evening News owned by Lord Rothermere and The Times and The Observer owned by Lord Astor all of which were relaxed over developments in Germany during the 1930s when many from Britain’s upper middle class and aristocracy were sympathetic to Hitler’s Nazis – the very classes at the helm at the BBC. According to Mills, ‘speakers hostile to fascism were barred from broadcasting’ on the BBC which drew a rebuke from Churchill that he, an anti-appeaser, was one.
Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing
The BBC’s own interpretation of its conduct in the war on its website is a polished piece of guarded-speak which emphasises the integrity of BBC management and reaffirms the BBC as ‘a trusted news source’ and how the BBC resisted becoming simply a tool of government. It would, it insisted at the time, broadcast ‘the truth’ but omit anything that might ‘endanger the civilian population or jeopardise operations.’ To this end it admits heavily censoring news to omit mentions of high casualties among the Allies. There was not a single reference in the BBC website I consulted to its propaganda operations later made famous by George Orwell.
Orwell was one of many recruited by the government to work within its vast Ministry of Information, as Talks Producer at the BBC. You can see how smudged that line is between both institutions. For the Ministry of Information you could read Ministry of Misinformation. Other famous writers similarly employed included J. B Priestly and Graham Greene (whose brother Hugh Greene worked for the BBC’s German service and later he became Director General of the BBC)
The brilliant cartoonist David Low refused to be used as a propagandist for the government/BBC and the writer C. S. Lewis also refused to participate in disseminating lies.
Even the once enthusiastic Orwell later changed his mind on the integrity of outright propaganda, ‘all propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.’ His prescient novel, 1984, was written while his experience of working for the government/BBC was fresh in his mind and the novel’s Ministry of Information became the terrifying Ministry of Truth.
The acknowledged importance of the BBC’s output during WW2 both for home and overseas audiences demonstrates the potency of its influence over the public’s perceptions of truth.
The Party’s go-to tactic for maintaining power is to shift blame to a designated scapegoat, toward which all of its constituents’ hatred and violence may be directed
Broadcasters enjoy a privileged role in life able to construct narratives in tune with their own opinions aimed at persuading their audience of the legitimacy of their interpretation of events. The BBC is not a place to hear radically divergent views instead it promotes that small c conservatism that is in tune with all of the major institutions in the UK. Like some well-oiled machine of state government, the City of London, the courts, military, royalty and the BBC reinforce one another and operate to maintain the status quo where the top brass in all of these institutions remain in charge.
We have seen how the BBC sought to sway opinion against workers during the General Strike how it was in tune with the reactionary press during the 1930s in relation to Germany and its willingness to broadcast a catalogue of myths and lies during the war and that aspect of its character was no less slanted post-war.
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
During the Suez crisis of 1956 Britain found itself divided between those who defended the Empire and Britain’s military presence at the Suez canal and its control over this vital trade route and supporters of Egypt, a nation desperate to shake off its shackles as a colony and assert its independence. Britain’s rightwing were seething with racist venom against uppity and ungrateful Egyptians their xenophobia evident in many references to ‘our boys’ versus ‘wogs’ and ‘gyppos’ .
The Director General of the BBC dined at Number 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister on the evening of 26 July 1956 when news broke of Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. As Tony Shaw in his book, Eden, Suez and the Mass Media: Propaganda and Persuasion during the Suez Crisis, explains the chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors, and a former under-security at the Foreign Office (and share holder in the Suez Canal Company) nipped down to Downing street to discuss how the BBC should handle the crisis. A nervous government was said to have threatened to take over the BBC entirely but that appears was an exaggerated claim however it was made clear to the broadcaster that its handling of Suez should be on a war footing with all that involved including censorship. And, as Shaw points out, the DG of the BBC and his chief assistant were trusted with highly secret information in the run-up to military action.
The chairman of the Independent Television Authority, Sir Kenneth Clark, was also approached and asked to ‘slant the news about Suez’ but he refused to co-operate with the government on grounds of the need to retain impartiality.
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Despite much hand wringing at the BBC the corporation complied with the government and broadcast carefully constructed reports and interviews or simply relayed official statements. It repulsed any attempt for outright government control over its output but did undertake close liaison with the Ministry of Defence and departments of the military.
Meanwhile in Cyprus an ostensibly independent radio station known as Sharqal-Adna but run by British Intelligence and ‘known’ to BBC management transmitted pro-British propaganda as did the BBC’s Arabic Service. Reminiscent of the Iraq wars enemy casualties were not counted or reported realistically and there were no first hand reports of bombings or the impact of British actions on civilians. Shaw noted that BBC
‘bulletins on the whole bore such a close resemblance to so much of the officially released information on the invasion [it] suggests that the government’s machinery of liaison paid dividends.’
The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started…
Big events such as the General Strike, WW2 and Suez highlight the hugely influential function of the BBC. One that is more memorable for readers will be Hillsborough. It wasn’t only The Sun that chose to become a mouthpiece for the official police version of events.
BBC Radio 2 reported: “Unconfirmed reports that a door was broken down at the end that was holding Liverpool supporters.”
Mills tells us that Graham Kelly, Chief Executive of the English Football Association, who was interviewed on Radio 2 implied that the police had not ordered the gates to be opened. This was as was later became apparent not true but repeated by another reporter
“…at ten to three there was a surge of fans at the Leppings lane end of the ground… the surge composed of about 500 Liverpool fans and the police say that a gate was forced and that led to a crush in the terracing area – well under capacity I’m told, there was still plenty of room inside that area…”
Such shameful distortions of the truth continued to be broadcast on the BBC – Radio 4 news at 6pm still insisted that fans without tickets pushed their way into the football ground causing the disaster –
“It’s clear that many hundreds of Liverpool fans travelled to Hillsborough even though they didn’t have tickets for the game. Shortly before the match started it appears that these fans were able to get into the ground through a gate at the Leppings Lane end.”
Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer, though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing
The BBC went further in its reporting of the so-called Battle of Orgreave in June 1984 when striking miners were battered by police. The corporation went out of its way to edit film in such a way it altered the sequence of events and broadcast film that was deliberately constructed to lie to viewers in something straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
Mills: the BBC was ‘blatantly biased in their output to the extent it ‘chopped up and re-sequenced’ film of the picket attack to ‘make it appear miners provoked the police.’
With no hint of impartiality BBC reporters referred to miners as ‘law-breakers’. When confronted by their biased reporting the BBC immediately issued denials – as it invariably does when caught out.
“no evidence of any deliberate attempt to mislead viewers”
not “wholly impartial”
What did happen at Orgreave, and unreported on the BBC, was that the police launched an unprovoked attack on striking men who retaliated with missiles.
It took the BBC 7 years to own up to this deliberate manipulation of events
The BBC is almost unique in this country in its ability to mould public opinion. We found out in part 1 that the ‘impartial’ BBC is not keen on CND and peace campaigners in general but allows itself to be used as a bugle boy for British military campaigns. At the time of the Iraq war it was so openly jingoistic it allocated only 2% output to the views of people opposed to this war.
The BBC is very good at lots of things including marginalising groups it disapproves of such as the peace movement. At the same time it is supremely capable of enhancing organisations and views that fit in with the ethos of the men and women who wield influence at the BBC.
Banking and big business command great respect within the organisation, including the rural business of farming. We know this because the BBC has rather a lot of business slots as stand-alone programmes –
BBC In Business; Business Daily, The Bottom Line, Global Business, The World of Business, World Business Report, Talking Business, BBC Business Live, Business Matters, Dragon’s Den, Wake Up to Money, Inside Business with more of a similar hue dished up in Scotland, hourly on the lamentable Good Morning Scotland
– and teams of employees who feed economic and business data into news and current affairs programmes. By contrast it has no designated slots to reflect on green issues, or anti-business views or workers’ issues that might be at the heart of trades unions or indeed peace campaigning. The only perspective that interests the BBC are those of employers and a peek at the make-up of who’s who in the BBC which will be covered in a separate blog shows this is only to be expected. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours is surely carved over the front door at the BBC. This preoccupation the BBC has for finance and business is explored by Mills.
Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely
The Business and Economics Unit at the BBC was set up in 1989 and I checked the BBC Website to see what this unit had to say for itself. The underlining emphasis is mine.
“The Business and Economics Unit is at the heart of BBC News. We produce output for all BBC platforms and offer editorial guidance to the full range of BBC programmes. We have a truly global presence including teams based in Singapore, New York, Johannesburg and Mumbai.
The Economics Editor holds one of the most senior roles in BBC News, leading the BBC’s coverage across all platforms, domestic and international…Reporting to the Editor, Business and Economics Unit, the Economics Editor will be a regular contributor to the main TV and radio news bulletins and programmes, as well as to BBC News Online. Much of the role will focus on providing material for the Six and Ten O’clock News, the 1800 Radio 4 news bulletin and the Today Programme… a primary contact for senior figures in Government and the Business/Economics community.”
We can take from this that the BBC regards the promotion of trade and commerce as one of its prime functions.
The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering – a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons
According to Mills the BBC fell for the charms of the economic and business sectors with the flourishing of New Labour that neo-liberal progeny of Thatcherism. As a consequence obscene amounts of money were spent on creating a more pro-business BBC but in the end much of what is reported is little more than recitation of press statements issued by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Bank of England, City analysts, CBI, Office of Economic Development, IMF and their ilk who are also given air time to express their ‘expert’ opinions live.
Just who are the Institute for Fiscal Studies and why does the BBC assign them so much air time? I’ll look at think-tanks and pressure groups and the people who influence our opinions in the next part.
Tom Mills: The BBC: Myth of a Public Service
Lewis Carroll; Alice in Wonderland
George Orwell; 1984
Tony Shaw; Eden, Suez and the Mass Media: Propaganda and Persuasion during the Suez Crisis