The BBC And Iraq: Myth and Reality

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his latest column, John Pilger highlight's the recent criticism
of American television reporting of Iraq by BBC Director-General
Greg Dyke. The US networks' coverage of the invasion, said Dyke,
was "cheerleading for government." But what of the BBC's
own coverage of Iraq? What are the facts behind the BBC's relentless
myth-making about its objectivity and impartiality? Are these merely
"principles to be suspended whenever the established order
is threatened"?

Dyke, the BBC's director general, has attacked American television
reporting of Iraq. "For any news organisation to act as a cheerleader
for government is to undermine your credibility," he said.
"They should be… balancing their coverage, not banging the
drum for one side or the other." He said research showed that,
of 840 experts interviewed on American news programmes during the
invasion of Iraq, only four opposed the war. "If that were
true in Britain, the BBC would have failed in its duty."

Dyke say all this with a straight face? Let's look at what research
shows about the BBC's reporting of Iraq. Media Tenor, the non-partisan,
Bonn-based media research organisation, has examined the Iraq war
reporting of some of the world's leading broadcasters, including
the US networks and the BBC. It concentrated on the coverage of
opposition to the war.

second-worst case of denying access to anti-war voices was ABC in
the United States, which allowed them a mere 7 per cent of its overall
coverage. The worst case was the BBC, which gave just 2 per cent
of its coverage to opposition views – views that represented those
of the majority of the British people. A separate study by Cardiff
University came to the same conclusion. The BBC, it said, had "displayed
the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster."

the first Newsnight broadcast after the greatest political demonstration
in British history on 15 February. The studio discussion was confined
to interviews with a Tory member of the House of Lords, a Tory MP,
an Oxford don, an LSE professor, a commentator from the Times and
the views of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Not one marcher
was invited to participate, not one representative of the two million
who had filled London in protest. Instead, a political reporter,
David Grossman, asked perversely: "What about the millions
who didn't march? Was going to the DIY store or watching the football
on Saturday a demonstration of support for the government?"

constant theme of the BBC's Iraq coverage is that Anglo-American
policy, although capable of "blunders," is essentially
benign, even noble. Thus, amazingly, Matt Frei, the BBC's Washington
correspondent, declared on 13 April: "There's no doubt that
the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of
the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly
tied up with military power." The same "good" military
power had just slaughtered at least 15,000 people in an illegal,
unprovoked attack on a largely defenceless country.

doubt touched by this goodness, Newsnight's Kirsty Wark asked General
Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff, if "coalition"
troops "are really powerless to help civilians targeted by
Iraqi forces in Basra." Clearly, she felt no need to check
the veracity of the British claim that Iraqi forces had been targeting
civilians in Basra, a claim that proved to be baseless propaganda.

the bombing of Serbia in 1999, Wark interviewed another general,
Wesley Clark, the Nato commander. The Serbian city of Nis –
had just been sprayed with American cluster bombs, killing women,
old people and children caught in the open: the horrific handiwork
of one of Nato's "precision-guided" missiles, of which
only 2 per cent hit military targets. Wark asked not a single question
about this, or about any civilian deaths.

are not isolated examples, but the BBC "style." What matters
is that the received wisdom dominates and is protected. When a US
missile killed 62 people at a market in Baghdad, BBC News affected
a fake "who can tell who's responsible?" neutrality, a
standard technique when the atrocity is "ours." On Newsnight,
a BBC commentator dismissed the carnage with these words: "It's
a war after all… But the coalition aim is to unseat Saddam Hussein
by winning hearts and minds." His voice trailed over images
of grieving relatives.

of the spat over Andrew Gilligan's attempt to tell the truth about
the Blair government's lying, the BBC's amplifying of government
lies about a "threat" from Iraq was routine. Typically
on 7 January, BBC1's 6pm news bulletin reported that British army
reservists were being called up "to deal with the continuing
threat posed by Iraq." What threat?

the 1991 Gulf war, BBC audiences were told incessantly about "surgical
strikes" so precise that war had become almost a bloodless
science. David Dimbleby asked the US ambassador: "Isn't it
in fact true that America, by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons
we've seen, is the only potential world policeman?"

like his news colleagues, had been conned; most of the weapons had
missed their military targets and killed civilians.

1991, according to the Guardian, the BBC told its broadcasters
to be "circumspect" about pictures of civilian death and
injury. This may explain why the BBC offered us only glimpses of
the horrific truth – that the Americans were systematically targeting
civilian infrastructure and conducting a one-sided slaughter. Shortly
before Christmas 1991, the Medical Education Trust in London estimated
that more than 200,000 Iraqi men, women and children had died in
the "surgical" assault and its immediate aftermath.

archive search has failed to turn up a single BBC item reporting
this. Similarly, a search of the BBC's coverage of the causes and
effects of the 13-year embargo on Iraq has failed to produce a single
report spelling out that which Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's
secretary of state, put so succinctly when asked if the deaths of
half a million children were a price worth paying for sanctions.
"We think the price is worth it," she replied.

was plenty of vilifying of the "Beast of Baghdad," but
nothing on the fact that, up to July 2002, the United States was
deliberately blocking more than $5bn worth of humanitarian and reconstruction
aid reaching Iraq – aid approved by the UN Security Council and
paid for by Iraq. I recently asked a well-known BBC correspondent
about this, and he replied: "I've tried, but they're not interested."

are honourable exceptions to all this, of course; but just as BBC
production values have few equals, so do its self-serving myths
about objectivity, impartiality and balance have few equals – myths
that have demonstrated their stamina since the 1920s, when John
Reith, the BBC's first director general, secretly wrote propaganda
for the Tory Baldwin government during the General Strike and noted
in his diaries that impartiality was a principle to be suspended
whenever the established order and its consensus were threatened.

The War Game, Peter Watkins's brilliant film for the BBC about the
effects of a nuclear attack on Britain, was suppressed for 20 years.
In 1965, the chairman of the BBC's board of governors, Lord Normanbrook,
secretly warned the Wilson government that "the showing of
the film on television might have a significant effect on public
attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent."

speaking, outright bans are unnecessary, because "going too
far," which Watkins did, is discouraged by background and training.
That the BBC, like most of the Anglo-American media, reports the
fate of whole societies according to their usefulness to "us,"
the euphemism for western power, and works diligently to minimise
the culpability of British governments in great crimes, is self-evident
and certainly unconspiratorial. It is simply part of a rich tradition.

5, 2003

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, film-maker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. This article first appeared in the
New Statesman.


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