21 July 2003
So we have the ironic situation of BBC News reporting on its own alleged unreliability. Can the news be trusted? What is the future of public broadcasting and so on. Yet of course, the nature of the lack of trust in the state media is entirely misdirected. It’s okay that the coverage of the war and the reasons for it, are, as a matter of course, misreported, but as soon as the media gets too close to reporting the real reasons, the roof falls in! Meanwhile on ITV News, which obviously doesn’t watch the other channels, on which the end of civilisation as we know it was being predicted, it was peddling the months old and totally discredited Jessica Lynch ‘rescue’ story as if it were ‘news’. Even the BBC’s Radio 4 news seems to think it’s news, as Lynch, who claims not to remember a single thing about her experience (and very convenient that she doesn’t) tells us about her return to her home town in West Virginia.
The most damning indictments of the BBC have come in the form of various and sundry spokespeople for the state, with looks of real alarm verging on panic, telling us that the worst thing of all was happening, namely, that the citizenry no longer trust the state’s media let alone the government (only one in five trust the Blah)! Plainly this is not the sort of thing we need in a modern democracy. It’s one thing for the majority of of the voting population not bothering to vote but it’s quite another if they lose all trust in the propaganda machine to keep them properly sedated.
A crisis of confidence is in the making. Yet one can see the logic of it, as the enquiry into the illegal invasion of Iraq has all but vanished, but not for long. Lord Hutton, the judge selected for the judicial enquiry into the Kelly affair has already forced Tony Blah to eat his words by saying in no uncertain terms that he’ll enquire into whatever and wherever he wants, in order to get to the reasons behind Kelly’s death. This in spite of Blah’s edict issued while he was at a party in Tienmen Square, Beijing, that the enquiry restrict itself to Kelly’s suicide and not the reasons for the invasion. Which means of course, that the judge will want to know if the story reported by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan is true or not, given its centrality to Kelly’s death. It remains to be seen if Hutton will be true to his word or not.
Meanwhile, to add insult to injury, the BBC (and apparently its critics) had no problem with the total misreporting of the situation in Liberia, where Fergal Keane, globetrotting seeker after disasters in the ‘Terminal World’, gave us the usual guided tour of misery, child soldiers, gangsters in designer shades and told us (according to Keane anyway) that Liberians wanted to know why the Americans weren’t coming to save them! This was the ‘news’ from Liberia where, he told us, the barbarism was bad “even by African standards”!
But why is the BBC’s ‘credibility’ on the line? On the one hand, it has the mandate to “inform and educate” and report the news with “impartiality, integrity and fairness,” whatever that means, and herein lies the rub, as impartial in the state’s terms means maintaining the status quo. Translated, this means treading a fine line between reporting the ‘truth’ impartially as its board of governors interpret the word (the board, by the way, includes the former head of MI5) but when reporting the ‘truth’ means reporting the overwhelming evidence that the government has consistently lied to its citizens, being ‘impartial’ becomes a loaded word that no longer belongs in its lexicon. Suddenly, the BBC is carrying out a “vendetta” against the government, obviously for ‘political’ reasons. The courageous ‘seekers after truth’ have become a liability. The fiction of the free flow of information is exposed for what is is, a sophisticated con job.
At the root of the contradiction is the fact that the political class and the professional classes share a common world view which is everything but impartial. Educated at the same universities, sharing the same values, they are ultimately interchangeable as indeed the reality shows, as journalists become politicians and politicians become journalists with boring predictability. They share a common language and have a vested interest in maintaining a stable social reality, hence the looks of alarm as their carefully constructed world crumbles. It’s no coincidence that the Kelly affair has elicited cries of a “crisis of confidence” in the institutions of the state if the enquiry after the ‘truth’ is allowed to continue unchecked. As I write, I hear the professional pundits telling us “let’s get together and reconsider” after all, “a good man’s died,” he was a “good sort” and so on. “Getting together” in this context means, ‘okay, it’s gone far enough, it’s time to reestablish the comfortable symbiosis that exists between the state and the mass media.’ I’ve not heard or read a single report that comments on the fact that critical, investigative reporting is a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy, nor of course, do I expect one. After all, there are limits. But caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, both the BBC and the state will, in all likelyhood, call a truce before the situation gets completely out of hand and agree to disagree. New ‘rules of engagement’ will no doubt be laid down that defines what’s legitimate ‘impartiality’ and what’s not.
There is a lot at stake. The Iraq invasion has revealed the deep contradictions that exist between the reality of an imperialist state involved in a disastrous adventure gone wrong, and the carefully crafted construction that presents the British state as being based on ” impartiality, integrity and fairness” to paraphrase its mouthpiece, the BBC. There are clearly limits as the events of the past few days has revealed. That the death of one man, an insignificant cog in the wheel of the state bureaucracy, could upset the applecart, points to the deep vulnerability of imperialism in this new epoch. It seems the ‘enemy within’ is not Al-Qu’eda but the truth.