Why is the BBC presenting RUSI as objective analysts of the Middle East?

The ‘Royal United Services Institute’ has close links with the British state and its military establishment. The BBC should not present its analysis as apolitical ‘fact’. 

David Wearing
11 June 2015
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Political debate in liberal democracies does not take place within a free marketplace of ideas, but on a playing field tilted in favour of power. In these societies, where a degree of public consent is required to govern, power means not only control over economic resources or the means of violence and coercion, but also the ability to dominate, and so shape, political discourse. 

The parameters within which discourse is conducted are in many ways more important than the debate itself. Whether deliberately or otherwise, the service often provided by the corporate media, well-funded think tanks and prestigious academics is to set the terms of discussion, defining its boundaries, priorities and assumptions in a way that renders the ensuing debate safe, unchallenging, even useful. 

On questions of war and peace, for example, discursive power means the ability to decide what qualifies as a security threat, how the various actors involved in a conflict situation are characterised, and from whose perspective we view the situation. These ground rules may be set implicitly, even unconsciously, but once established they can curtail and shape discussion in decisive ways. 

Consider the run-up to the invasion of Iraq twelve years ago, where mainstream debate was framed in terms of whether Saddam Hussein’s regime (a crippled, impoverished state) presented a threat to the West (the greatest military alliance in the world, and indeed of all time). The more serious question, of how an invasion by Saddam’s former Anglo-American allies would endanger the security of the Iraqi people, was barely considered. “Security” was defined in terms of threats to the West, however tenuous, not of threats to those who would later end up under the rubble of Fallujah, or sexually tortured in Abu Ghraib prison. 

In considering war, Western states were presented as merely trying to respond as best they could to a situation not of their making, rather than working proactively to enforce control of the world’s key energy producing region, as they had done consistently for over 50 years. 

Beyond the merits of the policy decisions they took, the US and UK governments were presented as essentially benign and well-meaning, despite the sanctions regime they had imposed on Iraq during the 1990s which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, disproportionately infant children, a subject apparently hidden by some sort of taboo in late 2002 and early 2003. Perhaps a public debate framed in a different way would have allowed space for sufficient opposition to emerge to prevent the invasion, and the misery that followed. 

What is the Royal United Services Institute? 

But while the effects of debate-framing can be dramatic, the process itself takes place in myriad small and subtle ways. Assumptions are established and boundaries set over a long period of time, across a wide range of individual speeches and texts, by those who have the platform and the inclination to do so. The BBC’s use of commentators from the Royal United Services Institute (“RUSI”) in its coverage of events in the Middle East provides an interesting case study of how this happens in practice.

RUSI is a British think-tank, focusing on military affairs, which serves not only as a source of quotes for journalists but also frequently provides content for the BBC News website. Eleven of these contributions have been reviewed for this article, relating specifically to the Middle East and drawn from the past twelve months (full list below). One formed part of a ‘roundtable’ alongside contributions by a selection of experts from other organisations, but the rest were single articles written by a RUSI member of staff (one co-written with a freelance journalist). Three of the eleven, including the ‘roundtable’ were given the heading ‘Viewpoint’, while the other eight were not. The underlying rationale for this distinction was not obvious from the content, but the effect was to elevate the majority of RUSI’s contributions to the status of objective, apolitical analysis or explanation. 

This is deeply problematic. RUSI is not a neutral organisation, it is politically located, and its perspectives and priorities are highly contestable. A question can be raised about the BBC granting it such a regular platform, where some of that space might instead be given to others. But an additional problem arises where its voice is raised above the fray of mere ‘viewpoints’ into the realm of expert explanation. In conferring this authority on the RUSI worldview, the BBC is further empowering the think-tank to shape the deeper frames within which political discussion takes place.

So what is the RUSI worldview? The institute traces its history back to 1829, and the Duke of Wellington’s efforts to establish a source of expert analysis and advice for British military policy. Today, its patron is the Queen, its President is the Duke of Kent, its Senior Vice President is former US General and CIA chief David Petraeus, its Chairman is the former British defence secretary Lord Hutton, and its council includes an array of current and former politicians and military personnel. Notwithstanding its description of itself as ‘independent’, therefore, RUSI is very much a creature of the British state and military establishment, without which it would neither have been created nor would it exist in recognisable form today.   

RUSI and the Gulf elite 

In terms of how the RUSI worldview relates to the Middle East, it is interesting to note that the institute has recently opened a branch in Qatar, from where it “undertake[s] a wide variety of commissioned research on various aspects of security in the Gulf and broader Middle East on behalf of companies, governments, institutions and individual clients”. This is natural enough, given the British state’s long-standing relationship with the Gulf elites, but we should dwell upon its meaning nonetheless. 

Qatar’s reputation as the liberal Gulf state is a highly relative one. It remains one of the most repressive regimes in the world where, to give one example, a poet whose verse was deemed offensive to the state and the Emir is currently serving a fifteen year jail sentence in solitary confinement. Those, like RUSI, who are at liberty to speak in Qatar do so within state-approved parameters. It says something about the politics and character of the organisation that it is able to establish itself and operate under such conditions, specifically to discuss war and conflict in the region in a way which, evidently, does not cause concern to its authoritarian hosts.

Indeed, in written and oral evidence given to the House of Commons select committee’s recent review of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, RUSI figures were amongst the most warmly supportive of Whitehall’s alliance with the Gulf regimes, their perspective contrasting sharply with that of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Bahraini human rights activists (evidence from Maryam Alkhawaja, of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, can be found halfway down this page).

On the subject of Bahrain’s violent crushing of an overwhelmingly peaceful pro-democracy movement in the spring of 2011, RUSI opined in its written evidence that “[s]uppressing dissent is not something most countries have problems with; it is doing so in an acceptable manner that poses the challenge, and that is where the UK's efforts in Bahrain [in terms of advice and training] can help”. The question, for RUSI, is not whether a Gulf monarchy allied to the British state “suppresses dissent”, but whether it does so “in an acceptable manner”, a revealing insight into the priorities, interests and values of the organisation. 

In light of all this, the director of RUSI Qatar, Michael Stephens, was perhaps a slightly dubious candidate to write a BBC News article on the question of Gulf, particularly Qatari funding for Islamic State (“IS”) (Islamic State: Where does jihadist group get its support?, 1 September 2014). Stephens was probably correct to argue that Qatar had not funded IS directly, but rather that “Qatar-funded weapons and money [had indirectly made] their way into the hands of IS” as a result of support for other, weaker armed groups. What is more questionable is that Stephens’ article describes Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s goals in Syria in broadly uncritical terms, with questions only raised over the competence of how policy was executed. “Naivety” had led to “serious mistakes” which may cause some “soul searching”. This is a decidedly gentle way to describe the pouring of arms into another countries’ civil war, for reasons that are, to put it mildly, unlikely to be related to the aspirations of Syria’s democratic opposition. A later article by Stephens, on Riyadh’s current oil policy (Why is Saudi Arabia using oil as a weapon?, 3 December 2014), followed a similar pattern, explaining the Saudi point of view, accepting its priorities essentially uncritically, and merely commenting (in this case approvingly) on the policy’s effectiveness. 

If this sounds innocent enough, it should be mentioned that research for this article did not identify any RUSI pieces for the BBC News website that took a similar approach to the Iranian regime, Hamas, Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, or any other opponent of the West and its regional allies, explaining their point of view, accepting their priorities essentially uncritically, and merely commenting on questions of competence and policy effectiveness.

The approach becomes especially problematic in the case of two recent pieces by Stephens on the current Saudi military intervention in Yemen (Yemen campaign key test for Saudi Arabia, 27 March 2015, and Mixed success for Saudi military operation in Yemen, 12 May 2015). Here “the question is what does Saudi Arabia seek to achieve through the use of military force”, “the hope is” that the Houthi rebels will back down, but “the young prince [just promoted to defence minister] must ensure that he gets this right”, because “failure is not an option”, while the second article addresses the question “So has the Saudi operation been a success?”. Other questions, other peoples’ hopes, are secondary to the analysis. Iran’s policy aims are covered in two short sentences in the first article, and the views and goals of Yemenis themselves, from whatever side of the conflict or none, are given similarly short shrift. The question of whether Iran’s role in Yemen is being self-servingly exaggerated by the Saudis does not arise at all. Nor does the question of whether the Saudis have the right to violently impose themselves on the affairs of a neighbouring state. This is taken for granted. 

The obvious humanitarian risks of waging an extensive bombing campaign and enforcing a naval blockade on one of the poorest countries in the region was not weighed up in RUSI’s analysis for the BBC. Yet by early June nearly 2,000 deaths from the conflict had been registered, 1 million Yemenis had been internally displaced, and 20 million, nearly 80% of the population, were in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. NGOs placed a large portion of the blame on the Saudi intervention, with both sides condemned for their disregard for civilians.

“Collateral damage” (i.e. deaths and injuries to non-combatants) was briefly mentioned in Stephens’ second article. Here the Saudis were said to have been initially successful in only hitting military targets with their “precision munitions”, but that as the war went on, fewer targets presented themselves and “the Houthis…got better at concealing their activities”, leading to “incorrect target identification”. Unmentioned was the fact that, nine days prior to the article’s publication, Human Rights Watch had pointed to “[c]redible evidence indicat[ing] that the Saudi-led coalition used banned cluster munitions” in their airstrikes, weapons which are inherently indiscriminate. Two days before the article’s publication, the top UN relief official for Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, raised the alarm following the Saudis designation of the entire Yemeni governorate of Sa'ada as a military target, warning that this “put countless civilians at risk” and that the “indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, is in contravention of international humanitarian law”.    

Equally striking perhaps was Stephens’ failure to mention the British role in the conflict. From the start of the bombing campaign, Whitehall pledged to back the Saudis “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”. As well as diplomacy, this has involved ongoing logistical and technical support to the UK-built jets that compromise a major proportion of the Saudi air force. So we find ourselves in a situation where a British think-tank providing two analysis articles on a war for the British Broadcasting Cooperation does not mention to the latter’s British audience the British state’s active complicity in the worsening of a major humanitarian crisis. 

The men in charge

These omissions may not have been deliberate, but they are certainly serious, and indicative of the problems with analysing such issues at a military operational level, and from the point of view of the British state and its allies (rather than, say, that of the people at the more painful end of Saudi airstrikes). None of the above articles were placed in the “Viewpoint” category by the BBC, although what was said, how it was framed, and what was left unsaid, all pointed to a particular, contestable perspective. 

The issue of how RUSI identifies itself with certain parties over others in the situations it analyses for the BBC arises most strikingly in one article by senior research fellow Shashank Joshi on RAF operations against IS in Iraq (Why UK warplanes have a 'difficult' Iraq mission, 30 September 2014). Predictably, the piece is written from the British state’s point of view (as opposed to, say, that of potentially affected Iraqi civilians), and again focuses on how effectively policy is being executed. But so close is the author’s identification with the UK armed forces that three times - twice as “we” and once as “our” - Joshi refers to them in the first person. If the BBC intends for these non-‘viewpoint’ articles to be taken as detached analysis or explanation, then it at least has to ask whether such analysis, especially in a conflict situation where serious crimes may be committed, can be provided by someone identifying entirely with one party.

To conclude, two points need to be made by way of qualification. Firstly, for all the serious problems identified above, RUSI analysts are highly informed and often insightful. Much value can be taken from the content they have provided to the BBC, if read with a critical eye. Secondly, there are real difficulties, perhaps insuperable ones, in drawing a meaningful line between objective and subjective news coverage – between ‘viewpoints’ on the one hand, and straight reporting or explanation on the other. One account of events may certainly be more reliable, even balanced, than another. But all, including this article, inescapably come from a particular standpoint. 

As far as the RUSI worldview is concerned, it is of course important to know what the men in charge are thinking. But it is also important not to allow them free rein to shape the way we look at the world, or to allow their perspective to gain authority and precedence over others.

List of RUSI contributions to the BBC News website reviewed for this article: 

Iraq crisis: How extreme are the fighters in Isis?, 21 June 2014

By Michael Stephens, Deputy director, Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) Qatar 

While Iraq burns, Isis takes advantage in Syria, 18 July 2014

By Michael Stephens & Sofia Barbarani, Director, RUSI Qatar & Freelance journalist, Irbil 

Viewpoints: How to defeat the Islamic State group, 15 August 2014

Roundtable, including contribution from Shashank Joshi - Royal United Services Institute

Islamic State: Biggest threat to United States?, 22 August 2014

By Shashank Joshi, Senior research fellow, Royal United Services Institute 

Islamic State: Where does jihadist group get its support?, 1 September 2014

Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar 

Viewpoint: Why Islamic State will not endure, 16 September 2014

By Afzal Ashraf, Consultant Fellow, Rusi 

Why UK warplanes have a 'difficult' Iraq mission, 30 September 2014

By Shashank Joshi, Senior research fellow, Royal United Services Institute

Why is Saudi Arabia using oil as a weapon?, 3 December 2014

By Michael Stephens, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Doha

Viewpoint: Confrontation key to tackling violent extremism, 25 December 2014

By Afzal Ashraf, Consultant Fellow, Rusi

Yemen campaign key test for Saudi Arabia, 27 March 2015

By Michael Stephens, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Doha

Mixed success for Saudi military operation in Yemen, 12 May 2015

By Michael Stephens, Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Doha

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