Media Lens: BBC Apology on Iran

26 January 2005 — Media Lens

On January 21, we published a Rapid Response Media Alert, ‘Targeting Iran – The BBC Propaganda Begins,’ in which we noted that the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, James Robbins, had reported that US relations with Iran were “looking very murky because of the nuclear threat”. (BBC1, 13:00 News, January 20, 2005)

Robbins also spoke of Iran as a place “where the President is confronting the nuclear threat”. (BBC1, 18:00 News, January 20, 2005)

This Media Alert produced a massive and impassioned response from readers all over the world who sent many complaints to the BBC. Emails in support of our complaints were sent by Richard Keeble of the University of Lincoln, and John Theobald of the Southampton Institute. Former cabinet minister and Labour MP, Tony Benn, wrote to us:

“Dear David

The build up of lies about Iran is going on apace to prepare us for war or to explain an Israeli attack if they do.

When I was Energy Secretary and the Shah – imposed by the Americans – was on the throne they kept trying to persuade me to sell nuclear power plants to Iran which I would not do.

Please add my name to letters you send to the BBC.” (Benn to Media Lens, January 22, 2005)

On January 24, we received the following response from Helen Boaden, Director of BBC News:

“Dear David Cromwell and David Edwards,

I am forwarding to you the following from our diplomatic correspondent, James Robbins:-

’I accept that it would have been better to have said “alleged nuclear threat”. I am sorry that my wording was not as precise as it could have been.

Yours sincerely,

James Robbins’

I trust this addresses your concern.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Helen Boaden
Director, BBC News” (Email to Media Lens, January 24, 2005)

We are grateful to both Helen Boaden and James Robbins for such a gracious response.

The problem, however, is not imprecise use of language but a deep pro-establishment bias within the BBC. It is a bias that leads journalists to talk reflexively of themselves, the government and the government’s armed forces as “we”. It is a bias that assumes the government and its allies are motivated by fundamentally benevolent intentions – “we” merely seek security at home and freedom and prosperity for others abroad. It is a bias that accepts that officially designated “rogue states” represent serious and current, rather than merely alleged, threats to the West.

As a result, government warnings of threats and statements of benevolent intent are taken at face value rather than subjected to the exacting scrutiny and scepticism that recent events simply demand. Always hanging over the BBC is the reality of power – the fact that senior BBC managers are directly appointed by the government of the day, and the fact that managers and journalists who cross the government can be, and recently have been, ‘disappeared’.

Consider, for example, this response from Helen Boaden:

“The Iraqi elections are the first democratic elections in Iraq for 50 years – acknowledged as a democratic opportunity. We know that the Americans and the British want the elections to be free and fair – but of course we don’t yet know if that will be the case – especially bearing in mind security. But our aim is to provide impartial, fair and accurate coverage, reflecting significant strands of argument to enable our audiences to make up their own minds.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, January 21, 2005)

Boaden confidently declares the election “the first democratic elections in Iraq for 50 years”, and has no problem reconciling this with her claim in the same paragraph that the BBC seeks to provide “impartial, fair and accurate coverage”. This, for her, is an uncontroversial statement of fact “acknowledged” by everyone. How can it be biased to simply state what is obviously true?

We might wonder how Boaden arrived at this conclusion. Are we to believe that she has carefully examined the key issues that need to be evaluated in determining the legitimacy of any election: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of organisation, the absence of highly developed and pervasive instruments of state-sponsored and other terror, freedom of party organisation and ability to field candidates, absence of coercion and fear on the part of the general population? Frankly, we doubt it – no one else in the media has. And if she had, she could not possibly declare the elections democratic.

Has she studied the long and horrific US record of organising “demonstration elections” in Third World countries like El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Vietnam as propaganda exercises legitimising violent interventions slaughtering tens or hundreds of thousands of people for power and profit?

Has she overcome the elementary objection posed, for example, by Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies:

“An election cannot be legitimate when it is conducted under foreign military occupation; when the country is nominally ruled by, and the election will be officially run by, a puppet government put and kept in place by the occupying army and the election will be under the ultimate control of the occupying army; when war is raging extensively enough to prevent participation by much of the population; and when the election is designed to choose a new assembly responsible for drafting a constitution and selecting a government that will continue to function under the conditions of military occupation.”? (Bennis, ‘Iraq’s Elections,’ Institute for Policy Studies, December 20, 2004)

We suspect Boaden believes the election will be democratic simply because “we” are organising it – the British and American governments (currently packed with war criminals evading justice) are fundamentally well-intentioned and can therefore be taken at their word. After all, Boaden goes on to write:

“We know that the Americans and the British want the elections to be free and fair…”

Comment should not be necessary. There could not be a better example of mainstream journalism’s unthinking subservience to power. Doubtless Boaden thinks she is being ‘reasonable’ and ‘positive’, as opposed to ‘cynical’, in thinking the best of our leaders doing a difficult job against violent insurgents. But in fact she is part of a system that makes mass violence possible by legitimising the abominable and normalising the unthinkable.

Probably every cultural tradition on the planet admires the willingness to believe the best of others. But every sane cultural tradition also emphasises that this optimism must be balanced by rationality and realism – focusing on alleged ‘benevolent intentions’ is not virtuous if these are actually masks for self-aggrandisement and exploitation. Then, after all, the claimed ‘virtues’ are vices – attempts at deception.

Consider, also, this comment from Roger Mosey, head of BBC Television:

“Dear [Name Withheld]

I may be missing something here, but can you explain why you think the British and the Americans don’t want to have democratic elections in Iraq when they’ve set out a process and a timetable by which that’s achieved? I can understand a frenzy if George W Bush had said ‘no elections’ – but hasn’t he said the opposite?

Best wishes
Roger” (Forwarded to Media Lens, January 22, 2005)

The level of naivety from such a senior BBC executive is almost beyond belief. Does anyone anywhere have any reason to believe anything George W. Bush says ever again?

Boaden and Mosey take the US and British governments at their word – of course Bush and Blair want free and democratic elections. Of course they have put a process in place to ensure that outcome. That senior media executives can be so completely gulled by US-UK government propaganda is a catastrophe for both the British people and the people of Iraq. The consequences for the people of Iran remain to be seen.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to James Robbins:

Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC News

Write to Roger Mosey, head of BBC TV news

Please also send all emails to us at Media Lens:

Visit the Media Lens website:

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