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“Whose side are you on?” Public broadcasters and counter-terrorism

When it comes to state surveillance and “terrorism”, there is a long history of political pressure, control and manipulation over the arm of the media entrusted with the explicit mission of serving the public. 

Harry Blain
13 July 2015

Image: Flickr / Thierry Ehrmann

On June 22, Zaky Mallah appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC’s) program “Q&A” – a show following the same (often wooden and tired) format as the BBC’s “Question Time.” Sitting among the audience, Mallah posed a question to Steven Ciobo, MP, of the ruling conservative Coalition: 

As the first man in Australia to be charged with terrorism under the harsh Liberal Howard government in 2003, I was subject to solitary confinement, a 22 hour lockdown, dressed most times in an orange overall and treated like a convicted terrorist while under the presumption of innocence. I had done and said some stupid things including threatening to kidnap and kill but in 2005 I was acquitted of the terrorism charges. What would have happened if my case had been decided by the Minister [as harsh new counter-terrorism laws suggest] and not the courts? 

The heated exchange that followed – and later revelations of Mallah’s “very offensive, misogynistic” history on social media – provoked an extraordinary attack on the ABC. Two guests withdrew from the next live show in protest; the Department of Communications launched a detailed inquiry into the ABC’s conduct; the (Murdoch-owned) Daily Telegraph asked “How dare the taxpayer-funded ABC allow this man to spout his bile on national TV?”; and the (Murdoch-owned) Australian suggested that Mallah’s appearance on the show was “deliberately manufactured by the ABC to ambush guests.”

The ABC itself admitted to an “error of judgement” in inadequately researching Mallah’s past, and failing to anticipate his inflammatory suggestion on air that, for many young Muslims, the government’s draconian stance on counter-terrorism “justifies” joining ISIS.

After Q&A host Tony Jones apologised to the audience during the next show, Tim Wilson – a regular guest and former director of the conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs – replied “I think the producers and yourself ought to be ashamed of yourselves for giving him [Mallah] a platform.”

What is concerning is not that conservative commentators and right-wing newspapers chose to attack the public broadcaster, but that the government cheered them on. Prime Minister Tony Abbott labelled the program a “lefty lynch mob”, before ominously stating “I think the ABC does have to have a long, hard look at itself and to answer a question which I have posed before – whose side are you on?”

A long history

While affirming that the ABC is indeed “on Australia’s side”, its Managing Director, Mark Scott, had to remind Mr Abbott that “the ABC is a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster.”

It would be comforting if this episode were isolated – that a stable parliamentary democracy may occasionally face a delicate balance between security and liberty; that freedom of the press may occasionally face political backlash; that the public broadcaster occasionally incurs the ire of the elected government. But there is in fact a long history of precisely this: political pressure, control and manipulation over the arm of the media entrusted with the explicit mission of serving the public.

In Britain, media management was a paramount concern in the “counter-insurgency operations” associated with the break-up of Empire, as “theorists” of irregular warfare such as Brigadier-General Frank Kitson emphasised the importance of “psychological operations” advanced through a pliant press. This was less crucial in the context of far-away conflicts in Malaya, Kenya, Aden or Oman – where the relative absence of media coverage gave the army free-hand to engage in “scorched earth” tactics, to deprive entire villages of food, and set up brutal networks of concentration camps.

As the “Troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland, however, shocking levels of violence were suddenly brought closer to home, particularly in the early 1970s. We are all now aware not only of republican and loyalist atrocities, but also the shameful role of the British Army in mistreatment of internees, collusion with sectarian militias, and outright murder. Yet at the time, of course, the question repeatedly posed to the press – and the BBC especially – was as plain and simple as Abbott’s: “Whose side are you on?”

“Between the British Army and the gunmen the BBC is not, and cannot be impartial”

These were the words of Lord Hill, Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, in 1971. They were spoken in response to criticisms of the BBC for its airing of a three-hour television special, The Question of Ulster, which addressed eight different potential solutions to the Northern Ireland “question”. In particular, Hill was seeking to reassure Home Secretary Reginald Maudling that the BBC was not seeking to give a platform to views that might support or even incite those seeking to dismantle the United Kingdom.

Pressures continued as the conflict became a “long war”. Airey Neave accused the BBC of aiding terrorists and undermining military effectiveness through its coverage of interrogation methods, while Roy Mason – who oversaw the introduction of the exceptionally harsh 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act – reportedly described the Corporation as “disloyal” during a dinner with its chairman in 1977. 

Rarely will an elected government resort to outright censorship – as Thatcher’s did in 1988 by banning the broadcasting of interviews or direct statements “from representatives of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin or the UDA and from those who ‘support or invite support for these organisations.’” But the general strategy is quite simple: the public broadcaster is pressured and publicly questioned – and repeatedly forced to reaffirm its loyalty to the nation.

This, of course, makes the job of critical reporting increasingly difficult, particularly on sensitive “national security” issues. And it is precisely on such issues, where the government seeks the most expansive powers, that critical journalism is so vital.

The Sunday Times fiasco

Despite the BBC taking pride in defending programs like The Question of Ulster, it often fails to properly challenge the dominant government narrative. A recent example – BBC News’ coverage of the June 14 Sunday Times story claiming that “British spies” were “betrayed to Russians and Chinese” as a result of Edward Snowden’s leaks – is illustrative.

The story was based on anonymous government sources, without any concrete evidence to sustain its very serious accusations. Nonetheless, it was not only published but predictably discussed at length on every 24-hour news outlet. On the BBC’s website, “a senior [anonymous] government source” reiterated that “UK intelligence agents have been moved because Russia and China have access to classified information which reveals how they operate.”

As a dumbfounded guest stated 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 might seem fairly harmless – or just another case of the press driving the BBC’s agenda – but it is serious, not least because of the historical parallels it brings to mind. Glenn Greenwald put it simply:

Western journalists claim that the big lesson they learned from their key role in selling the Iraq War to the public is that it’s hideous, corrupt and often dangerous journalism to give anonymity to government officials to let them propagandize the public, then uncritically accept those anonymously voiced claims as Truth. But they’ve learned no such lesson.

The BBC has been as complicit as anyone in this “dangerous journalism.” Indeed, despite accusations of BBC “anti-war bias” in Iraq, a study conducted by the University of Cardiff found that in the key early stages of the war when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, “11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters.”

Whether it’s the necessity of continued access to “high-level sources”, cynical exploitation of public fear and anxiety, or just lazy journalism, this kind of reporting has come to define much of the debate on the surveillance state, just as it has on questions of “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism.” It is not easy for public broadcasters to challenge this. When they present views that radically challenge the authority of the state or the mainstream media, they come under attack – as the ABC has learned.

Yet their fundamental allegiance is to the public. The BBC should not have to tell us that it’s a cheerleader for “Team Britain” when pressed by ministers or journalists hysterically embracing “tough responses”, “stricter measures” and “expanded powers.” Indeed, it is on these issues more than any others that we so desperately need a critical and fearless voice that serves the interests of the public – not the state. 

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