The BBC is failing the public in its coverage of government surveillance

Historically close to Britain’s national security state, the BBC is still its friend today.

Harry Blain
3 June 2016

Image: Yui Mok / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved

In 1952, Conservative MP Waldron Smithers sent Prime Minister Winston Churchill a list of potentially “subversive” BBC employees. Among them was Anatol Goldberg, head of the BBC Russian service: a “Jew… who controls the selection of programmes and is a communist.”  Encouraging Churchill to create a “committee presided over by an English judge or QC… who could make an extensive enquiry into communist activities”, the MP added: "we have traitors in our midst… and although I should deplore suppression of free speech they should be treated as traitors." Churchill passed Smithers’ concerns on to MI5, whose staff concluded: “In the considered view of the Security Service, communist influence in the BBC is very slight and does not constitute a serious security danger.”

If he were alive today, Waldron Smithers would have been relieved to see the footage of the BBC’s Nick Robinson grabbing an anti-war sign from a protestor and stamping on it after it “gatecrashed” his broadcast. Such images – along with the narrow ethnic, class and political make-up of the BBC – make it hard to believe that the Corporation could ever have been a breeding ground for revolutionaries. Yet such fears, over several decades, cemented a close relationship between the BBC and state security agencies. This history – little-known and rarely repeated – is central to understanding the Corporation’s role in public life today.  

“He digs with the wrong foot”

In August 1985, David Leigh and Paul Lashmar of the Observer published “concrete evidence for the first time of the way the security service, MI5, secretly controls the hiring and firing of BBC staff.” Based on interviews with former BBC staff and senior executives, Leigh and Lashmar described how for “internal BBC staff applying for promotion” MI5 “keeps continuous political surveillance on those it considers 'media subversives' – a category which can include directors, film editors, even actors”, while “the names of outside applicants are submitted to F Branch 'domestic' subversion desks at MI5” and “fed into a computer containing the details of 500,000 'subversives'.”

Those whose appointments were scuppered included the Guardian’s Richard Gott (“an ultra-leftist” who “digs with the wrong foot”) and a Welsh film editor blacklisted for his membership of the Welsh Communist Party as a young man. In some cases, it appeared that individuals were blacklisted due to erroneous or out-of-date intelligence.

The BBC described the Observer’s report as “greatly overdramatised”, while the former Tory Home Secretary William Whitelaw argued (see p.119): “There is nothing wrong in the BBC as an employer taking proper precautions to ensure that sensitive posts or information are not open to subversion. Indeed, it would be failing in its duty to the public if it did not do so.”

The evidence, however, suggests that vetting went further than “sensitive” positions. In 2006, the Telegraph obtained previously confidential documents under a Freedom of Information Act request, which showed that at one stage MI5 “was responsible for vetting 6,300 different BBC posts – almost a third of the total workforce.” The documents also revealed that the security services were actually “concerned about the number of people being referred to them by the BBC. During the first four months of 1983”, alone, “they were asked to investigate 619 different individuals.”

Stuart Hood, a “maverick” former BBC TV Executive, took a harsh view of these practices in Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor’s 1988 book Blacklist: The Inside Story of Political Vetting (p.119):

“If the BBC was honest about its role, it would admit that it must support the central political authority by virtue of the State licence-fee system. But the Corporation has always had this fantasy about itself as a totally independent social organisation.”

Covering surveillance today

Does this history matter, when such Cold War practices, as far as we know, ended in the 1980s?

In one sense it does, as Seamus Milne wrote in February 2015, because it demonstrates how the BBC “was always an establishment institution, deeply embedded in the security state.” In another, it raises the question of the extent to which such an “establishment institution”, even today, is capable of aggressively reporting on the abuses of the British security state and government surveillance more broadly.

Here, the Corporation has not been immune to criticism, particularly in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive GCHQ and National Security Agency (NSA) spying in June 2013. In 2014, openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett suggested that if the BBC’s duty “is to inform, educate and entertain, it has fallen down on all three counts with respect to surveillance.” The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, meanwhile, put it more strongly in March 2015, arguing that “[o]f all the countless media outlets around the world covering NSA reporting over the last 18 months, the BBC has easily been the worst: the most overtly biased in favour of mass surveillance and official claims.”

If not “overtly biased”, the BBC has often shown its willingness to uncritically follow “official claims.” In June 2015, the Sunday Times ran a story claiming that “British spies” were “betrayed to Russians and Chinese” as a result of Snowden’s leaks. The story was not only based almost entirely on anonymous government sources, but also provided no concrete evidence to support its claims: indeed the only piece of evidence it provided – that Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, “was seized at Heathrow in 2013 in possession of 58,000 ‘highly classified’ intelligence documents after visiting Snowden in Moscow” – was completely false and quietly removed from the article (Miranda did not meet Snowden at all).

The BBC, nonetheless, led with the story (conveniently published soon after a highly critical 373 page report by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation), prompting a confused guest to state live on BBC News (see 4:30): “It’s extraordinary that the BBC would lead with this story when there’s simply no evidence that it’s actually true at all.” This fits with a much wider trend of the BBC following the agenda set by the press, often magnifying the influence of newspapers even while their readership declines.

“Does @BBC not fact check?” 

Other examples are less obvious. The debate over the government’s Investigatory Powers Bill (labelled the “Snooper’s Charter” by its critics) brought William Binney, a former highly-placed NSA official for over thirty years, to testify before Parliament in January 2016. Binney, who quit the NSA in 2001, told MPs that “bulk [data] acquisition is a major impediment to success by analysts and law enforcement”; and that not only were elements of the IP Bill “totalitarian”, but also part of a wider “collect it all” approach that “costs lives, and has cost lives in Britain because it inundates analysts with too much data.”

While Binney’s testimony was covered prominently by the Guardian, RT and the Independent, the BBC’s website gave it five lines at the end of an article in its “Tech” section, titled: “Dutch government says no to 'encryption backdoors'.”

As the IP Bill was being prepared for the House of Commons in March, Edward Snowden himself observed a problem with the BBC’s headline: “Surveillance law: Revised bill adds privacy safeguards.” As he pointed out on Twitter, the government had in fact changed just one header in the bill, from “General Protections” to “General Privacy Protections.” “The revised bill actually *removes* some privacy protections from the last version, and is more intrusive”, he added. “Does @BBC not fact check?” 

Of course, the BBC does fact check, but as has been demonstrated in detailed content analyses of BBC News coverage, political sources are “much more likely than other sources to be featured in the opening sections of news reports”, meaning that stories are “framed from party political perspectives.” Thus, you will always hear the Home Secretary’s defence of the Bill and her opposite number’s (usually small) concerns – and maybe a more critical perspective from the Tory MP, David Davis – but not the perspective of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, nor that of 200 lawyers saying the IP Bill “compromises the essence of the fundamental right to privacy and may be illegal.”

What the public deserves

Nonetheless, with its broader national security coverage, the BBC has frequently angered politicians by producing critical programming and reporting. From Margaret Thatcher’s suggestion during the Falklands War that the BBC’s reporting was “assisting the enemy”, to the Blair government’s accusations of BBC bias following the Today Programme’s report on “sexed-up” Iraq War intelligence,  the Corporation has always had to cope with significant political pressure. Although the evidence suggests that on, for instance, Iraq, the BBC if anything displayed a pro-war “bias”, these “sensitive” national security issues are among the most difficult for a public broadcaster to cover critically.

When covering surveillance, the BBC can also point to examples in its defence – on Newsnight, Panorama and elsewhere. But ultimately, it has shown a tendency to take its cue from the dominant press or government narrative; to shift surveillance stories into a “tech” rather than privacy debate (its website literally does this); and to rely on party political sources – frequently bipartisan defenders of the security state – in framing its reporting.

No matter what positions we take on government surveillance, from Snowden’s leaks alone we have seen the most powerful and well-funded intelligence agencies repeatedly misleading not just their citizens, but even UK cabinet ministers and the entire US Senate. In these circumstances, critical, adversarial journalism is the least that the public deserves, and as our public service broadcaster the BBC has a responsibility to provide it.

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