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Under the shadow of power: a short history of BBC war reporting - and its failings

From WMDs and the Hutton Report back through the first Iraq war, the Falklands, the Cold War, Suez, WW2, all the way to Lord Reith's affinity for the British Empire, the BBC has always operated, as John Birt admitted, 'under the shadow of the state and the other main repositories of power'.

Tom Mills
2 August 2012

Since the publication of the Hutton Report even liberal journalists like John Kampfner have argued that the BBC has been guilty of ‘muzzling journalism and deliberately avoiding giving offence to the Government and the Establishment’. This is certainly true and it has been powerfully illustrated by a number of incidents, not least the callous refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza Appeal in January 2009. Nevertheless, the fact that the post-Hutton BBC has recently become particularly subordinated to power should not obscure the fact that it has always been a creature of the Establishment and has always operated, in the words of its former Director-General John Birt, ‘under the shadow of the state and the other main repositories of power’.

In the case of the Iraq war, the fact that the BBC was so ferociously attacked by the New Labour government should not obscure the fact that it was largely pro-war. A study by Cardiff University, commissioned by the BBC, found that the proportion of government sources used by the BBC was twice that of ITN and Channel 4 News and that it was also less likely to use independent sources such as the Red Cross. This is not very surprising when we consider that the BBC leadership actively sought to amplify Government propaganda and to marginalise dissent. In his memoirs Greg Dyke recalls that he ‘made strenuous efforts to ensure that the Government position was fairly reported.’ He writes that he ‘set up and chaired an ad hoc group that met every morning to discuss our coverage of the Iraq issue.’ This group banned BBC employees from attending anti-war marches and sought to ‘balance’ the popular anti-war feeling which was dominating phone-ins and live television audiences. In one leaked email the BBC’s Director of News Richard Sambrook warned programme makers that they were ‘attracting some of the more extreme anti-war views’ and reminded them that it was ‘important we have someone to articulate the Bush/Blair line’. 

Once the war was underway only 2% of BBC reports dealt with the purpose or outcome of the invasion (according to one study). The fact that the BBC did belatedly challenge the Government’s case for war at least partly reflects the fact that it was being briefed against the Government by powerful members of the Establishment. These voices were, in the words of the then editor of the Today programme Kevin Marsh, ‘difficult to ignore’. Marsh recalls that, ‘the noise from the intelligence community over their dissatisfaction about the way in which the case for war had been framed was deafening.’ Along with Today presenter John Humphrys, he had lunch with the then head of MI6 Richard Dearlove on the day Baghdad fell and was told that they did not expect to find any weapons of mass destruction. It was this context which emboldened the BBC to tentatively challenge Blair’s lies – only to later apologise for its impertinence.

Conflicts between the BBC and the government are common, but such tensions notwithstanding the Corporation’s history is overwhelming one of conformity to elite agendas. From its beginnings the BBC was a thoroughly imperialist organisation. The great ambition of its founder John Reith was to become Viceroy of India and according to the historian Siân Nicholas, under Reith’s leadership the BBC was a ‘willing, even evangelical, propagandist of empire’. What became the World Service was established as the Empire Service, with the goal of ‘imperial consolidation’ and the countering of independence movements. Imperial propaganda groups like the Empire Day Movement were given privileged access to BBC programmes whilst its opponents were kept off air. One of the BBC’s first PR men, Stephen Tallents, who went on to become the founding President of the Institute of Public Relations, was recruited from the Empire Marketing Board – Britain’s first peacetime state propaganda group which sought to re-brand the British Empire as a community of trading partners.

During the Second World War, Tallents worked at the Ministry of Information, which was for a time headed by the BBC’s founder John Reith. Meanwhile Frederick Ogilvie, Reith’s successor as Director-General, wrote of his desire to turn the BBC into a ‘fully effective instrument of war’. Conscientious objectors working in the BBC had their contracts terminated and Ogilvie decreed that:

No one who is shown to belong to an organisation, the policy of which is inconsistent with the national effort, or who is shown to have expressed views which are inconsistent with the national effort, may be invited to broadcast in any programme, or to contribute material for broadcasting.

During the Second Wold War the BBC was fully integrated into the British war machine and it emerged in 1945 with its prestige and status greatly enhanced. Having spent the war lionising the Soviet Union, the BBC now went on to play a key role in anti-communist propaganda. Its Overseas Service collaborated closely with the Foreign Office’s anti-communist propaganda group, the Information Research Department (IRD) which was originally headed by Ralph Murray, a former BBC journalist who was later appointed a BBC Governor. The Labour politician Christopher Mayhew, who was instrumental in setting up the IRD, described the BBC as its ‘best customer’. One recipient of its propaganda was the head of the BBC’s Eastern Europe service Hugh Greene. He would later become one of the BBC’s most respected Director-Generals, but not before a period working as head of propaganda for Harold Briggs, the British General overseeing a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya.

On the home front during the same period the BBC marginalised Britain’s embryonic peace movement. Anthony Adamthwaite, who has examined the BBC’s internal files from the ‘40s and ‘50s, writes that: ‘The BBC despite its vaunted independence and impartiality acted as the Establishment’s voice, promoting the official line on defence [and] muzzling or restricting the expression of conflicting views.’ He also notes that the BBC ‘participated in an official counter-campaign against critics of nuclear war’. All this time BBC staff were subjected to political vetting by MI5, a practice which began in the 1930s and continued until 1985. This was not forced upon the BBC but was agreed in a series of secret meetings between MI5 and senior BBC figures. In the 1960s the Director-General Hugh Greene asked MI5 to expand its vetting programme, a request the spies rejected.

The BBC’s role in the so called ‘Suez Crisis’ is fondly remembered as an example of BBC intransigence in the face of government intimidation. It was nothing of the sort. Whilst it is true that the BBC maintained a degree of autonomy and gave airtime to the official opposition, its output marginalised anti-war opinion and remained overwhelmingly favourable to the Government’s case. Tony Shaw, who has conducted the most detailed study of the BBC during the ‘crisis’, concludes that its current affairs programmes ‘evinced a discreet, yet distinct, pro-government bias’ and that ‘from the very start of the dispute BBC commentaries were in no doubt about the illegality of Nasser’s action and the government’s subsequent right to take military “precautions”’. Shaw also notes that, ‘The BBC consistently strayed from the “factual” and consistently in the government’s favour,’ and that late on in the crisis, ‘the BBC continued to do the government’s budding, even though according to polls, the majority of the British people was now against any resort to force.’

Decades later during the 1982 Falklands War and the 1991 Gulf War the BBC would follow the same pattern of notional independence and ideological subordination. In his memoirs the great scourge of the BBC Norman Tebbit refers to the ‘unctuous “impartiality” of the BBC’s editorialising’ and complained of its ‘elaborate even-handedness’ during the Falklands conflict. However, whilst the BBC was attacked for its insufficiently patriotic coverage, its news output again largely conformed to official agendas. Senior BBC figures privately agreed that, ‘the weight of BBC coverage had been concerned with government statements and policy,’ noting that, ‘In their vilification of the BBC, the government seemed to have entirely overlooked this.’ Perhaps the most critical interrogation of the Government’s actions on BBC television came not from BBC journalists but from a member of the public who in the run up to the 1983 general election rigorously questioned Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the General Belgrano.

After the First Gulf War, the Prime Minister John Major praised the BBC for ‘trying to keep proper balance in reporting’. This commendable balancing act had involved twice cancelling a Panorama programme which exposed the fact that British companies had been involved in the development of a so called ‘supergun’ for Saddam Hussein – apparently because the programme was ‘out of line with the mood of the country’. When the documentary was eventually aired, the Chairman of the BBC Duke Hussey reassured the Thatcherite columnist Woodrow Wyatt that ‘the producer of the programme had been told that if he did it again or anything like it, he would be fired and that was it.’ (Hussey had been appointed by Thatcher with the expectation that he would ‘sort out’ the BBC and in 1987 had forced the resignation of the Director-General Alasdair Milne.)

During the conflict itself the BBC had, along with the rest of the mainstream media, focused on the high-tech ‘precision’ weaponry deployed by the Americans, weapons which it later emerged made up only 8.8% of the bombs dropped during the conflict. Even the ‘smart’ bombs missed their targets in 40% of cases. This focus famously sanitised what was in reality a bloody war, at least for the Iraqis. The single most deadly attack suffered by Iraqi civilians occurred without warning on the early morning of 13 February 1991 when the US conducted a night time bombing of a civilian air raid shelter in Baghdad. This resulted in the deaths of between 200 and 300 civilians. The following exchange on the attack is reproduced in the Glasgow University Media Group’s report on the conflict:

Newscaster: A few moments ago, I spoke with Jeremy Bowen in Baghdad and asked him whether he could be absolutely sure that there was no military communications equipment in the shelter, which the allies believe was there.

Jeremy Bowen: Well, Peter, we looked very far for it ... I’m pretty confident, as confident as I can be that I’ve seen all the main rooms. ...

Newscaster: Is it conceivable it could have been in military use and was converted recently to civilian use?

Jeremy Bowen: Well, it would seem a strange sort of thing to do. ...

Newscaster: Let me put it another way Jeremy, is it possible to say with certainty that it was never a military facility?

The exchange was concluded with the newscaster Peter Sissons noting that Bowen was operating under Iraqi reporting restrictions (Sissons subsequently left the BBC complaining of its left wing mindset but also of its repeated failure to stand up to government intimidation).

As that transcript suggests, whilst some BBC reporters (like Jeremy Bowen) attempted to maintain an admirable degree of independence and professionalism, in general the BBC was reluctant to attribute any blame to ‘the allies’ for civilian casualties. Mark Laity, the BBC’s Defence Correspondent during the First Gulf War, was himself of the view that the supposed preoccupation with civilian deaths was a distraction and that journalists should not get bogged down in the ‘morality of war’. He was later appointed a spokesperson for NATO where he still works.

According to Richard Sambrook, part of the rationale for recruiting Andrew Gilligan to the Today programme in 1999 was that ‘for many years the BBC defence correspondent had simply reflected the Ministry of Defence’s point of view.’ Taking this as a slight on his professional integrity, Mark Laity complained to the BBC, protesting that throughout his eleven years as Defence Correspondent no one from BBC News or management had ever complained. He had, he said, simply followed the ‘traditional BBC approach’.

As Laity’s complaint suggests, and as I have tried to briefly to illustrate here, the ‘traditional BBC approach’ is to represent events and issues from the perspective of power; and in some cases to actively collude with governments. If Laity had departed from that tradition he would have been seen as unprofessional. This approach is much older than the Hutton Report and whilst that episode highlighted just how illusionary its independence really is, the roots of the BBC’s failings go much deeper.

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of the New Left project. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the New Left Project; the original article with full references is here.

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