In a speech given at the Enviromedia conference in Johannesburg in October of last year George Monbiot, one of Britain’s best journalists offered an explanation for the general subservience of mainstream reporting in the UK. During his speech he remarked that thankfully there are a few British media institutions which we can be somewhat proud of:
“there is a very limited number of outlets that I would broadly describe as “free”. By free I don’t mean that the product is given away. I mean that it is free from the direct influence of private proprietors…
The most famous is the BBC. It is not free of all influence, by any means. It is run by the state and financed by a tax on the ownership of televisions, called the licence fee. From time to time it is spectacularly and disastrously disciplined by the government, generally acting in concert with the right-wing press. It operates in a hostile environment, and the perspectives of its enemies – the enemies of free speech – often inform its coverage of the world’s affairs. But there is no proprietor to tell it “you cannot do such and such because that offends the interests of my shareholders”.”
Whilst it is certainly true that the BBC is not subject to precisely the same constraints as a private corporation the absence of such constraints on their own should not lead us to perceive it as being “free”. Few would be impressed if a commentator were to explain that the North Korean media was “free” because they are not subject to commercial pressures unlike their North American counterparts for instance.
The relatively high esteem in which Monbiot holds the BBC seems to be shared by much of the British population. 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. This was confirmed during the invasion of Iraq. According to an ICM poll some 93% of the UK population followed the first two weeks of the invasion on the BBC. The poll also revealed that the BBC is the broadcaster most trusted by the general public.
If Monbiot is correct and the BBC is “freer” than the rest of the media we would expect that its performance during the war would be substantially, (or at the very least detectably) superior to other broadcasters. What little research there has been indicates otherwise.
A study of the four main British broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky- carried out by the Cardiff School of Journalism found that the BBC followed a more pro-government line than its commercial rivals. It 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 official Iraqi 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 population were with regard to Iraqi casualties, compared with figures of 44% and 30% for Channel Four and Sky. The BBC was more likely to unquestioningly relay false stories such as the non-existent scud missiles supposedly fired into Kuwait in the early stages of the war as well as the mythical Basra “uprising”. The study also made reference to the Prime Minister’s claim that captured 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.
A second study was carried out by the Media Tenor group which looked at the performance of different broadcasters in five countries. They found that of the broadcasters monitored the BBC gave least airtime to dissenting opinion with just 2% of airtime given over to opponents of the war. In their subservience the BBC even managed to outdo an American broadcaster- ABC who gave a positively respectable 7% of airtime over to dissenting views.
When presenting the findings of the Cardiff study Professor Justin Lewis remarked that: “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.”
Yet how can this be since the BBC unlike its commercial rivals is “free”? The answer, (as in the case of the North Korean media) is of course is that the BBC is not free at all, but is merely subject to different forms of control.
The Propaganda Model
In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Edward and Herman and Noam Chomsky introduced the concept of a “propaganda model” as an alternative framework for understanding commercial media. The model outlines a series of filters through which the raw data of news passes leaving the public with “only the cleansed residue”. As their study only dealt with corporate media several of the filters are inoperative with regard to the BBC- such as the constraints imposed by advertising, private ownership, and profit orientation. It is the absence of these constraints which, (whether he is aware of the model or not), lead Monbiot and others to conclude that the BBC is “free”. However in their place we can suggest another propaganda model with a similar set of filters, some peculiar to the BBC.
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 the “advice” of 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.”
The governors appoint the BBC’s director general and with him they pick 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.
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 government’s discretion. The remaining members of the board are tokenistic figures drawn from the arts world and charitable organisations. Given the backgrounds and interests of the board members it is deeply unrealistic to believe that they will encourage the BBC to in any way seriously challenge powerful interests.
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 itâ€¦ Qualified but unsympathetic candidates were not appointed, while ill qualified ones wereâ€¦ Hugo Young in his biography of Mrs Thatcher quotes a colleague: ‘Margaret usually asked “Is he one of us? Before approving an appointment.”
With the merging political consensus and the effective end of a meaningful two party system that followed the establishment of the New Labour project 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 in which the BBC is held by Monbiot, (and so many others) is largely 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 the viewers which is subject to review every ten years. The licence fee renewal is at the government’s own discretion, giving the government a powerful means to bring the corporation under control.
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 revolution”
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.”
The series was dropped.
Governments are not always so explicit but the licence fee threat is always there in the background and 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 thereby 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 Curran and Seaton put it:
“The Corporation only survived by voluntarily and lavishly doing to itself everything a hostile government wanted.”
The BBC often boasts that because it is funded by the viewers 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 any commercial broadcaster. 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 borne 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.”
Additionally 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 to be trusted and that information can be passed on safely without the need to check in any great detail, if at all.
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.
The effect of flak is to sharply delineate the boundaries of reasonable debate and to de-legitimise views which are considered more extreme than those presented by the liberal media. 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 slavishly follow the cross-party consensus.
For decades the BBC has been under constant attack from the largely conservative press for its supposed left-wing bias. However the BBC was defended by the minority “liberal” sector.It is instructive to observe 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.”
She argued that the government’s attack on the BBC was 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. This was 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.
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 operated as the prevailing ideology accepted and shared by the major media institutions and operated 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.”
The discourse of anti-terrorism is of course 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 as discrete events separated from all historical, social and political contexts. Within the mainstream media it is verging on the treasonous to even investigate the reasons for such acts.
The anti-terror discourse underpins BBC reporting; terrorism is primarily discussed as
a security matter and terrorists themselves are portrayed as vicious sub-humans motivated by the desire to inflict pain and suffering and to 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.
Another effect of the discourse is to exclude the idea that the British and American governments and military might be acting for anything other than essentially benevolent reasons. 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.”
George Monbiot’s view of the BBC would not be significant if it were not so widespread. A couple of months ago I was a member of an audience that was exhorted by George Galloway MP to “treasure” the BBC. Galloway is perhaps the most visible member of the British Stop the War Coalition, yet it seems he can’t have paid much attention to the BBC’s treatment of the coalition. While the lead up to the war witnessed the largest anti-war demonstration in British history, the BBC responded by refusing to interview the organisers of 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.”
One might think that an urgent task for the British left would be to educate the public about an institution that should properly be regarded as the most dangerous propaganda weapon in the country. Unfortunately it seems that we are still in dire need of some education ourselves