By Martin Johnson
25 April 2011
There is simply no amount of arming and bombing and invading by Britain that BBC news cannot explain away as well meant.
April saw another condemnation of the BBC’s legendary political bias, this time by its veteran broadcaster Michael Buerk.
“What the BBC regards as normal and abnormal, what is moderate or extreme, where the centre of gravity of an issue lies, are conditioned by the common set of assumptions held by the people who work for it.”
No surprise Buerk was identifying left-wing bias at the corporation. But the sentence works just as well for those of us who see things the other way round.
Here’s one common assumption that grounds every BBC news report: Whatever actions Britain takes in the world, they are always morally well intentioned. Mistaken or badly executed, possibly, but never done in bad faith. This rule goes without saying, and any journalist who questions it is putting their job on the line. Jeremy Paxman, no less, recently had his knuckles rapped on this issue: Clearly it is fine to claim that the Iraq catastrophe was born of faulty intelligence, but biased to suggest that it was born of lies. Evidence doesn’t enter into it.
Such affrays are of course rare. For all the bashing his right ear has endured, I cannot recall an instance in John Simpson’s forty years of ‘heroic’ reporting where he has questioned the moral basis of Britain’s actions in the world. He may criticise methods, or hint that some acts are foolhardy, but he never questions motives.
This might be because Britain’s intentions in the world really are consistently noble. But note that many non-BBC journalists don’t agree. Tariq Ali and Robert Fisk are perfectly happy to address what they see as the cynicism underlying British foreign policy. Likewise, large sections of the general public are confident that Britain’s role in the world is often immoral and self-serving rather than benevolent.
The robotic BBC response of course is that the corporation must avoid bias. Fisk and Ali are deeply political beings and so not suitable for a strictly apolitical organisation like BBC news. But this claim just exposes its own lie. What could be more political than the root assumption that one’s own country is incapable of moral deviancy? What could be more biased than ruling out the possibility of cynicism on the part of one player before judging the game?
Moreover, if questioning the moral stance of players is a sign of unforgivable bias then why is it acceptable when those players are official enemies? BBC journalists and editors have no trouble questioning the sincerity of Assad or Saddam or Gaddafi. It’s perfectly okay to attribute cynicism to their actions.
Robotic response number two: Some leaders are clearly evil tyrants. The above have gassed or shot or beaten “their own people” so there’s no judgement involved, just the statement of fact. Again this only betrays the lie. The governments of Yemen and Bahrain are currently employing such tactics in their attempts to cling to power. However as client states of the West, to question their morality would risk the accusation of bias. Much safer to focus on Libya and Syria.
Moreover, to suggest the west had acted immorally by furnishing these regimes with the arms they are now using to beat and shoot “their own people” would constitute biased reporting. An ‘unbiased’ BBC journalist would need to pan out a little, factor-in the West’s moral crusade against Islamic extremism, its efforts to protect the Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’.
Deeply hypocritical stuff, but at least it does clarify the true meaning of ‘bias’ in BBC parlance. Bias has nothing to do with favouring one player over another, it is about straying from the officially sanctioned picture, questioning the official bias.
Although more subtle, these are the same techniques employed by Pravda. While it is permissible to portray our leaders as more ambiguous characters than it was with comrade Stalin, the moral motives of the motherland remain beyond question. Like Pravda, BBC news works to constantly recalibrate public opinion, drag it back to blind faith in our nation’s good intent, regardless of the evidence before our eyes. There is simply no amount of arming and bombing and invading that BBC news cannot explain away as well meant.
In consequence, the next arms deal or air strike or ground invasion becomes easier to sell to the public. The BBC’s daily inoculations against the virus of national self-criticism are a key means of keeping the public on board. It is this reinforced sense of national righteousness that lies behind the cry of, “Well what should we do!? Just stand back while he murders his own people!?” which many a well-meaning citizen is heard to holler during the run-up to the latest NATO bombing or invasion of one place or another. The idea that what Britain is already doing might be the problem is off the radar, a core impossibility.