Venezuela and the BBC
Dr. Lee Salter is the leader of the journalism programme at the University of the West of England. He spoke to NLP about his current research into BBC coverage of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
You are currently researching the BBC’s coverage of Venezuela. Why is this an important topic to research? Why does the way in which the BBC covers Venezuela matter?
In the first instance it is not just the BBC’s coverage of Venezuela that is important. Scholars looking at news and journalism have shown concerns about the reporting of foreign affairs for decades now, and have observed patterns of media performance that give cause for serious concern - especially in terms of the way in which the world views of economic and political elites are reflected in news coverage. These concerns were most notoriously reflected in the (usually misunderstood) work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. The BBC has - at least in the rhetoric, which is codified into Producer Guidelines and so on, a crucial duty to report accurately to British audiences. If the BBC fails to do this, not only are there legal questions to be asked, but there are also moral issues to be reflected on: BBC News has a duty to provide accurate information that citizens can use as the basis for participation in democracy.
To my mind the coverage of Venezuela has particular importance mainly because it is a case in which a democratically mandated government faces a plethora of reactionary forces seeking to destabilise and overthrow it. Even the slightest dip into history shows what the rich are capable of, as seen in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil between the 1960s and 1990s. We have already seen in 2002 what the so-called “opposition” will do in Venezuela, and the BBC’s potential complicity in an orchestrated “strategy of tension” (if only through bad reporting) is something that must be considered.
Indeed, right from the start it seems that the BBC had made up its mind about the Venezuelan government - barely a year after its first election victory (and remember that Chavez has been elected several times by far greater margins than any post-war UK government, and all of which were observed by regional and international observers), the BBC published an opinion piece which referred to “Venezuela’s Dictatorship”, in which the author was allowed to make an unopposed analogy between Chavez and Adolf Hitler! So from the outset it was clear there was an agenda to oppose the democratic decision of the Venezuelan people.
How did the BBC cover the failed military coup of 2002?
The news coverage of the 2002 coup still shocks me today when I look over my sample, and it is not just the BBC. All of the UK’s commercial national newspapers carried the same take on the coup - it was very much welcomed. All UK journalists showed a striking disregard for even the most elementary historical knowledge - that coups tend to be preceded by a “strategy of tension” and precipitated by random killings, usually by the middle and upper classes - instead painting the coup as something that was caused by Chavez! The Guardian, for instance, shamefully wrote that Chavez’s “popularity plummeted as he antagonised almost every sector of society and failed to improve the lot of the poor”. Bear in mind that Chavez was first elected with 56% of the vote (beating every post-war UK Prime Minister), his constitution was passed with 72% of the vote, and that he was re-elected in 2000 with 60% of the vote, and the utter lies (for no journalist can be that stupid) published by the Guardian become transparent.
As far as the BBC was concerned, its reporting was equally shameful. Perhaps most shockingly of all the BBC reported the military coup against an elected government with massive popular support as a “return to democracy” and even sub-headed a section of one article as “Restoring Democracy”! One of the themes of the BBC’s reporting, which our research uncovered, was the way in which Chavez seems to come from nowhere, destabilising Venezuela (poverty, inequality and corruption barely get a mention as divisive phenomena), and attacking the “nation”. The coup was reported as a resolution of that division, and it was framed as a kind of national achievement, as if it was a people’s revolution. In complete ignorance of the fact that it was initiated by a corrupt oligarchy the coup was a “Venezuelan coup”, and in the aftermath the BBC would report on what “Venezuela needs”, as if 1. there is a unified interest and 2. people hadn’t already expressed their needs through elections. There was not a mention of the fact that an elected leader had been overthrown, and although in the aftermath it was noted that “the people” were involved in bringing him back to power, the suspicion of Chavez remained. Amazingly most of the reporting on the build-up to elections thereafter presumed Chavez would lose and insinuated that he lacked support.
How has the BBC covered some of the social achievements of the government and popular movements such as decreases in poverty, improvements in literacy and the various social programmes?
Well it hasn’t much, at least in the sample we looked at. There are sporadic mentions of the odd program, but they tend to negate achievements. For example in one of the few articles where there is a mention of social programs, in an article titled “Poll divides Venezuela’s rich and poor” (notice the agent here - it is “the Poll”, rather than decades of corruption, class division and grinding poverty that “divides”), food, health, housing and literacy programs are indeed mentioned. However, the journalist cannot resist ridiculing them: “A few miles away in central Caracas, 15 adults enrolled in a government literacy course watch a video on a large new television” - of course the proposition that the 15 adults are gaining literacy skills is moderated by the fact that they are watching television.
There was a fairly good report on social programmes in 2005, “Venezuela looks to boost social spending”, in which a variety of programmes are discussed in a pretty balanced manner. The achievements are noted, and the problems of implementation discussed fairly. However, the first two paragraphs of the article set a frame in which the achievements are tainted - the first line reads “Venezuela’s populist president”, and then, although he won yet another free and fair election, the BBC plays into the hands of the oligarchy which had boycotted the election in order to discredit the result - “The opportunity comes following his party’s landslide victory ... after opposition parties boycotted the elections and withdrew their candidates”. Now of course it is true that the opposition boycotted the election and there is no question of lying as such. However, in the context of the whole sample, we find that this qualification of Chavez’s legitimacy follows a pattern - each election victory is qualified by his populist appeal, is a bolt from the blue, is a surprise, a shock etc. It is almost never the case that Chavez’s party simply has lots of support and that he fairly wins free elections, which are observed by independent international observers.
Now, part of this bias can be explained by the fact that news generally focuses on the negative. Part of it is the journalists’ natural suspicion of governments. Part of it reflects the fact that many of the social programmes have faced significant problems in implementation. However, in the first instance, the problems are rarely investigated (stemming as they do from a mix of well meaning but inept politicians, corrupt politicians, and an old guard of capable civil servants who don’t want to help the government), and instead, because it is a norm of journalism to simplify complex situations, the problems are reduced to “Chavez”.
How does the BBC’s coverage of Venezuela compare with its coverage of Colombia - the worst human rights abuser in the western hemisphere and a close ally of Washington and London?
This is one of the issues we would like to consider in future, but at the moment, I cannot offer anything other than an impression on this. It is clear that the human rights situation in Colombia is awful - far, far worse than in Venezuela - and there are serious questions to be asked about the legitimacy of elections that take place in any war zone, such as in Colombia, yet such questions are never asked of Colombia with the same veracity as with Venezuela. We have looked briefly at the reporting of “tensions” between Colombia and Venezuela, in which case the presumption of guilt always lies with Venezuela, or rather with Chavez - whether it is the report of a laptop which details his relations with FARC being mysteriously found in a jungle camp, or Chavez making the point that building a US military base on its border is provocative.
Perhaps more interestingly, remember that Chavez has won election after election, most of which have been observed. Regardless of whether one agrees or not with his government’s policies or his conduct as president, it is a simple fact that he does have masses of support and has won elections fairly. There is no other leader on the planet who has such democratic legitimacy yet whose legitimacy is so questioned. Thus, rather than comparing with reporting of Colombia, we might do better to compare with reporting of the British government, the leader of which of course is unelected as PM! Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister simply because his friend (Tony Blair) won the election and then passed the leadership on to him. The most powerful minister in the UK, Peter Mandelson, has not been elected - indeed, he was thrown out of the government twice, once for corruption. However, the legitimacy of the UK government is of course never questioned.
What are the pressures constraining the BBC? Why does an ostensibly public service broadcaster fail to give an accurate picture of Venzuela?
Now this is the $64,000 question! In our research we consider the history, orientation and constitution of the BBC and hypothesise that one of the key constraints on its reporting can be accounted for by its organisational culture - it is essentially a liberal-nationalist organisation. The BBC’s job is to hold a “nation” together, so the underlying presumption in its activity is that there is “a Britain” and Britain is good. Right from the outset, the objective of the BBC was to inculcate a national culture, to “improve” the minds and culture of “a people”, a natural duty of a national broadcaster. However, the concept of the nation in this instance has always been bound to a class perspective - consider, for example, that “regional” (read: class) accents were forbidden until relatively recently. Foolish people consider the BBC to be the instrument of the government. It is not. It is the instrument of the state (regardless of which particular government is in power), which itself is developed around class interest. The BBC was set up to promote this particular class-bound vision.
This nationalist objective is not simple and does change over time. Recently, for example, the drive has been to reflect the diversity of multi-cultural Britain in BBC programming, which is a serious objective. However, this does not loosen liberal nationalism, it merely reconfigures it - now the overarching ideology of Britain is of a tolerant Britain in which there are no class or racial fractures, but just differences that bind “our” national family. Yet still this reconfiguration does nothing to revisit the Whiggish historical outlook of the BBC that we see in its programming. The BBC histories are class-bound, and this classist underpinning is obscured to senior journalists because it is their class. For example, the Sutton Trust’s research shows that the proportion of top journalists who attended private schools has risen over the past twenty years from 49% in 1986 to 54% in 2006, and that the proportion of those who had attended either Oxford or Cambridge university had declined from 56% to 45% in the same period. Of the BBC journalists included in the report, more than half attended Oxford or Cambridge. Their liberal-nationalist tendencies can be observed in outputs such as Paxman’s (Cambridge) The English, Andrew Marr’s (Cambridge) History of Modern Britain and Britain From Above, Peter Snow’s (Oxford) Battlefield Britain, and David Dimbleby’s (Oxford) A Picture of Britain and How We Built Britain. ‘The nation’ and its unity is a common-sensical reference point and the embodiment of a rational order, comprehended through Whig history. As Steve Pope puts it, ‘White middle-class men dominate the national media, and it has to be said that the interests and culture of this group manifest themselves not only in the news agenda but also in how these stories are written’.
So, when white, middle-class journalists arrive in Caracas, their presumptions and expectations are that the natural state, the good state of the nation is to be unified in difference, for the poor and working classes to accept that they are just poor members of a national family who one day, if the nation works together, will be better off. This explains one of our key findings: a preoccupation with “division” of the national family, which cannot be explained by class or poverty, for these are “normal” experiences. They can only be explained by an alien presence who seeks to divide the nation. The alien is of course Chavez. This tendency can be observed throughout the reporting of Venezuela: “Correspondents say Venezuela has been bitterly polarised by more than five years of Mr Chavez”, “Mr Chavez has polarised public opinion in Venezuela”, “Venezuela was polarised by the surprise victory of Mr Chavez”. Indeed, one only needs to glance briefly at even a photograph of Caracas to see that it is “polarised” by poverty, architecture, violence, sanitation, motorways, education, participation and so on.
Similarly even just ten minutes of reading some of the key historians of Venezuela, such as Sylvia and Danopoulis, Ellner and Salas, and Garcia-Guadilla indicates that the history of Venezuela is a history of class division.
Beyond that there are more basic, banal explanations, which I hypothesise here. Caracas is a dangerous city. It is no doubt scary for a well-to-do journalist from a good home, as it were, to be placed in Caracas. This is not to say that the journalists purposely seek out safety, but rather that there are decisions to be made - it would take a significant effort for a white Englishman to seek out accommodation in a barrio. Thus for purposes of safety, mobility, communications, comfort, not to mention to be near good restaurants, bars and cafes, journalists will be expected to live in middle class areas.
Now, when visiting Caracas (or any other Venezuelan city) the first and most striking thing one experiences is the unrelenting vociferousness of the right wing middle classes. Their complaints against Chavez range from the banal to the ridiculous, but they do not go away. When I was there every middle class person I spoke to had the same line - Chavez was the cause of all ills. With no prompting I was the ungrateful recipient of complaints that Chavez is evil because (and I kid you not): he forces people to use energy saving light bulbs, he gives healthcare to the poor, he has lost all the oil, he refuses to repair electrical power stations, he is like Hitler, he is like Le Pen, he wants to turn Venezuela communist, he doesn’t compensate television stations for advertising revenue lost from his broadcast, he forces the whole country to listen to his speeches, he has six distinct psychological disturbances, he is a fucking arsehole and so on… On one occasion a guide in the Andes who had us in his car unleashed an unrelenting diatribe for 4 hours. We were unable to get a word in! To experience this day in, day out cannot but lead one to consider that there must be foundations for such animosity, especially when they seem to be so like “us”, unlike those in the barrios.
The wealthy elite owns the private media, which they use to further vent this animosity, and they have good communication networks, PR companies, social networks and so on. These can be used very effectively for what Herman and Chomsky refer to as “flak”. I have been subject to this myself from a rather unreasonable person for pointing out in an article elsewhere that the BBC’s reporting is inaccurate. It is uncomfortable to receive such flak. The same person proudly boasted that he does he same to the BBC. These people, with money, resources, and lots of time on their hands, scrutinise the BBC’s report and respond rapidly and vociferously to anything they don’t like.
Finally, and we must remember this as a significant aspect of the issue, the Venezuelan government is not very good at all at communicating. The Glasgow Media Group’s work on the BBC’s misreporting Israel and Palestine illustrates how crucial is the communicative capacities of respective parties - the Israeli government simply communicates more effectively than do the Palestinians, which makes it easier for journalists under time and resource constraints to report.
What was your impression of how the Chavez government is viewed in the barrios?
Well the barrios are not homogeneous. In some he has lots of support, but in others there is a fair amount of frustration. Some of the corruption stories are indeed true, and there are many instances of money going missing from the Bolivarian Missions and other social projects. Generally, where the government’s plans are being implemented effectively, he has support, but in places where money has been syphoned by corrupt politicians and functionaries, there is no visible improvement for the people, and therefore declining support.
In fact, the nature of political machinations is another area where most reporting falls down - it tends not to allow sufficient complexity to fully illustrate the situation.
What are some concrete first step reforms that would help to improve BBC reporting?
Well in the first instance, I’d say that the Chavez administration has to take the first step. Not by brow-beating, but by addressing some of its own shortcomings with a better and more pervasive media strategy, not just with news organisations, but also more directly with citizens around the world. The most important thing to consider about media coverage is that it is intimately connected to actual events (and non events of course). Thus, when a mayor Chavez does not like is elected, it is simply not good politics to take his power away. When Chavez announces socialist principles, he must ensure they they are not merely words but they must be large scale actions, to which journalists are invited. When friends of Chavez are caught stealing or throwing lavish parties they can’t afford, it must be dealt with immediately and thoroughly - the media will take the story, so the government must engage them on it.
There’s a moment in the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised where Chavez complains to his ministers that they are not communicating their achievements. They are still not doing so. Indeed, given the international interest in Venezuela, one might expect that, anti-imperialism aside, the government would include English translations of its news services. Anything that makes it easier for lazy journalists to find and process information immediately alters there coverage.
As far as the BBC goes, I would expect that better communication from the government would help. However, there is also a need for its managers to take responsibility for reporting. The research we have done has uncovered a systematic bias and has identified key problems in the reporting - the way they see Venezuelan history, which goes against most historical accounts, the “background” they give to Chavez’s rise, and a number of simply outrageous reports (such as “Venezuela’s Dictatorship” mentioned earlier). These are simply and straightforwardly violations of the BBC’s own standards on accuracy and must be challenged.
Then there are sourcing routines. There are plenty of people working for Bolivarian Missions who the BBC journalists could speak to about what they do. I expect BBC journalists are naturally suspicious of the veracity of statements of Bolivarian supporters, which is understandable. However, they appear to be far less sceptical of representatives of the opposition groups - some of which have past involvement in all sorts of crimes and abuses. So in this instance there needs to be an equality of treatment. However, before that there needs to be more attention to quantitative balance. During the coup, for example, the sourcing was outrageous - indeed, the reporters should have been disciplined for their sourcing. A coup overthrows a democratically elected government, yet the voters whose government is being abolished, whose democratic rights have been eliminated, were nowhere to be seen in the BBC’s reporting (which relied on Chavez’s daughter, government ministers and “Cuba” for information). Only a journalist who is an idiot or who is intentionally skewing information would fail to ask an ordinary voter, a beneficiary of the Missions, members of Bolivarian circles, or simply walk around the huge demonstrations in favour of Chavez.
The framework underpinning the reporting must be revised and the recognition of class schisms that divided Venezuela a long, long time before Chavez arrived must be on the agenda. “Venezuelans” have always been divided, its just that for decades it was those who owned the media and other forms of social and cultural capital who benefited from this, keeping the vast majority - the poor - quiet. BBC journalists must show more awareness of these class dynamics, and must give some consideration to an accurate historical dimension through which sense can be made. Otherwise they just amplify the propaganda of Chavez’s anti-democratic opponents.
Though it is not becoming of reporters to reflect complexity, it would be an important development for journalists to get a sense of the complexity of the Bolivarian movement. For example it is not the case that “Chavez” is simply to blame for a lack of movement of Bolivarian Missions. There are indeed a large number of factors which a decent journalist would always bear in mind: for instance the lockouts from 2002-4 that crippled the economy. This was a repeat of the forms of “strategy of tension” that have been played out before elsewhere in Latin America. Thus, when someone comes out with “look, Chavez has crippled the economy!”, the journalist should be wise enough to investigate real causes (including the mistakes of the government). A good journalist might look at the constitution of the government and functionaries. There are competent functionaries who could implement policies but choose not to because they oppose the project (analogous here to the British Civil Service, whose conservatism Thatcher was so aware of). There are incompetent functionaries and ministers, brought in as Chavez’s people, and who have a good attitude but not the experience or knowledge to do what they need. And then there are the corrupt bastards who simply steal money. All these factors, and more, affect government performance, and should be thown into the mix to reflect the complexity of the situation, as would happen, say, when the BBC reports President Obama’s struggle over healthcare in the US.
Can you suggest any particularly good sources on Venezuela for those looking for alternatives to mainstream reporting?
Well it is not easy! There is Venezuela Analysis, which has some interesting articles written by some very competent people. However, this is most certainly pro-government, so must be considered part of a balanced diet. Vheadline is probably the best source of information, for it has perhaps a little less depth that Venezuela Analysis but has perhaps more balance. The English language section of El Universal is a useful resource, for those interested in understanding what the right-wing is thinking. Given the propensity of English speaking Venezuelans to be rather hysterical (even a Venezuelan student at my own university tried to claim that there has been no water or electricity in the city of Merida for 4 months - fortunately I had just got back from there and was able to correct her), insightful blogs are few and far between. One of the few that I find useful is A Gringa Diary, which reports from Merida.