BBC Machinations

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Shortly after
the collapse of the Iraqi regime, the BBC’s Today programme sent
Andrew Gilligan to Baghdad. Gilligan’s reports were unlike anything
the BBC had broadcast. They contradicted the official Anglo-American
line about "liberation" and made clear that, for a great
many Iraqis, the invasion and occupation were at least as bad as
life under Saddam Hussein.

This
was heresy, prompting Alastair Campbell to move Gilligan to the
top of his list of "rants," as Greg Dyke has described
them. "Gullible Gilligan" was Campbell’s term of abuse,
which meant that the reporter was on to something. Like his subsequent
report that the government had "sexed up" its Iraq dossier,
Gilligan’s conclusion was right, and has since been repeatedly proven
right. There is no liberation in Iraq. There is a vicious colonial
occupation. The government "sexed up" not one, but two
dossiers.

Campbell’s
attacks were reminiscent of those orchestrated against other journalists
who have distinguished themselves by departing from the script.
For telling the truth about the carnage of Queen Victoria’s favourite
war, in the Crimea, the Times correspondent William Howard
Russell was damned as a traitor. For revealing the human cost of
the American bombing of North Vietnam in 1965, James Cameron was
smeared as a "dupe of communism."

"When
they call you a dupe," Cameron told me, "what they are
really complaining about is that you are not their dupe." The
BBC bought the exclusive rights to Cameron’s film, then suppressed
it; just as it suppressed The War Game, Peter Watkins’s brilliant
recreation of Britain under nuclear attack; just as it suppressed
or doctored countless works that sought to explain the British war
in Northern Ireland, such as Article 5, Brian Phelan’s play about
torture, and Colin Thomas’s film City on the Border. Thomas was
ordered by BBC chiefs to cut a scene which showed a gravestone that
read, "Murdered by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday."
He refused, and resigned.

A
barrister called Brian Hutton, representing the Ministry of Defence,
is remembered from the Bloody Sunday inquest in 1973 for his tirade
at the coroner, who had dared suggest that the soldiers had no justification
for shooting 13 people dead. "It is not for you or the jury,"
said Hutton, "to express such wide-ranging views, particularly
when a most eminent judge has spent 20 days hearing evidence and
come to a very different conclusion." The eminent judge was
Lord Widgery who, as we now know, oversaw yet another gross miscarriage
of justice. In the obsequious Hutton, Blair had the right man.

The
parallel of Iraq with Ireland is instructive. Among those currently
mentioned as a new BBC chairman is John Birt, the former director
general made a lord by Blair. During the late 1980s, Birt decreed
that the views of Irish Republican representatives could be broadcast
only if an actor mimed their words. This was finally abandoned after
a group of journalists (myself included) took such an abuse of freedom
of speech all the way to the European Court.

The
current exhumation of Birt may be a joke, but I doubt it. For in
many ways Birt was an authentic voice of the BBC. He was a champion
of what the more pompous at the BBC call "rigour." He
demanded corporate discipline and built a Kafka-like bureaucracy
to order. Will Wyatt, one of Birt’s executives, has written the
following about the current acting director-general, Mark Byford,
another Birt man: "I expect him . . . to restore the level
of rigour that existed under John Birt."

Ah,
the "rigour." Not once was Blair called to account for
the human cost of his sanctions policy in Iraq, let alone his invasion.
Alastair Campbell was allowed to walk away from Newsnight without
serious challenge to his preposterous "vindication" by
Hutton.

How
is this "rigour" viewed from afar? In the Australian
Financial Review on 31 January, Brian Toohey, his country’s
most distinguished investigative journalist, recalled that Panorama
on 23 September 2002 claimed to have "hard evidence" about
Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. "It did no such thing,"
wrote Toohey.

"Instead,
it presented a load of nonsense which bolstered the case for subsequent
invasion. One of the programme’s prime sources was an Iraqi, whom
it described as ‘credible’. The programme fell hook, line and sinker
for his claim to know that a secret biological weapons laboratory
existed under a major hospital in Baghdad [and] Panorama had the
gall earlier this month to attack a BBC radio news item (Gilligan’s),
which correctly reported concerns among officials about the accuracy
of British government dossiers on Iraq’s WMDs."

That
edition of Panorama was not untypical of the BBC’s coverage of the
build-up to the invasion, and the "war on terror," or
indeed any war fought or supported by the British establishment
in living memory. None of this is conspiratorial; it is a venerable
tradition. Following the example set by the BBC’s founder John Reith,
who secretly wrote propaganda for Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government
during the General Strike, the hallowed principle of impartiality
is invariably suspended when the establishment is threatened, especially
when it decides to pursue its imperial tradition and join the United
States in subverting other nations by violent or other means. By
channelling and amplifying established agendas, devoted practitioners
of "impartiality" minimise the culpability of governments,
prime ministers and their allies.

It
was hardly surprising that a recent German survey of the world’s
leading broadcasters’ coverage of Iraq found that the BBC gave just
2 per cent to demonstrations of anti-war dissent — less than even
American broadcasters — even though the demonstrators probably represented
a majority of the British people.

This
is the "rigour" whose recent lapse Wyatt and Byford lament.
It is the rigour, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, of "your
sham impartialists, wolves in sheep’s clothing, simpering honestly
as they suppress." It is the rigour of false respect for a
corrupt elite, of "that combination of mediocrity and ambition:
death to the spirit," as the historian Norman Stone wrote.

There
have always been honourable exceptions, and the emergence of one
of them explains why the Blair gang became hysterical when Andrew
Gilligan told the truth about their "liberation" of Iraq
and a deception intended to cover their violence — a violence that
took up to 55,000 lives, including 9,600 civilians: a violence that
kills or injures 1,000 Iraqi children every month as a result of
unexploded cluster bombs that the British military scattered in
urban areas: a violence which has again contaminated much of Iraq
with uranium. This crime, and this alone, is the single issue crying
out to be reported with genuine rigour, not "inquired into"
by yet another establishment panel clearing an exit for those responsible.

February
11, 2004

John
Pilger
was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker 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 originally appeared in
The New Statesman.

©
John Pilger 2004

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Pilger Archives

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