In His Master’s Voice – The BBC’s Mark Urban does a hatchet job on Media Lens By William Bowles

4 June 2007

I don’t know how many readers follow the exchanges between the BBC and other mainstream media outlets and Medialens (there are number of them archived here in the Media section of the site but please do pay a visit to their site). There’s no doubt that ML perform a valuable service by deconstructing the language used by the MSM in their coverage of events. You can argue with their political position but what you cannot argue with is their analysis of the BBC’s overtly political slant that supports without question the USUK occupation of Iraq.

However, the question has to be asked: do these exchanges have any effect on the BBC’s coverage? Judging by the nature of its news reporting the answer is a resounding no. One need only scan the latest response by the BBC’s Mark Urban, well-embedded with the US occupation forces, to ML’s unpacking of his ‘reportage’ on the ‘surge’ to get the measure of the institution he loyally serves.

There are several key passages in Urban’s response that need a closer examination because of what they don’t say, rather, they imply two very typical attitudes of people like Urban, who defend the British state (via the BBC) so loyally.

The first part of the letter to ML that caught my attention reads thus:

‘So what about your analysis? I don’t imagine that the fact it is put together by you sitting at home, sifting current events through a dense filter of ideology necessarily makes you wrong.’

There are two implied putdowns here; the first is the “sitting at home” jibe (a charge that has also been levelled at yours truly by a ‘professional journalist’). Urban of course, has been putting his well-paid backside on the line as an ‘embed’, but of course that ‘dense filter’ he mentions, works the same everywhere. No, the putdown is the implicit, ‘what do you know about Iraq, comfortably ensconced in front of your computer, I’ve been there, thus I know what I’m talking about.’ I can remember a time when those who criticised Apartheid South Africa were also accused of doing the same thing.

The second jibe concerns Urban’s comment about ML’s “dense filter of ideology”. Firstly, Urban assumes that having an ideology automatically excludes ML from making an analysis of his reportage and of course it also assumes that Urban has no ideology of his own. The BBC ‘rules’ ludicrously stipulate that opinions should be left at home, all of course except those that concur with the BBC’s take on events.

Thirdly, Urban attempts to qualify his assertion by saying that ML’s “dense filter of ideology” (whatever that is, except we do know what it is, it’s what they call a ‘signifier’), that doesn’t “necessarily make you wrong” but the damage is already done, ergo, because you have a hidden motivation—your assumed ideology—everything stated is wrong, not only wrong but ‘suspect’. One has to comment that no such stipulation seems to apply to Urban who from his lofty height surveys the scene from some mythical, detached place.

Ideology is such a loaded word that its use condemns ML from the getgo without actually needing to explain its meaning. Worse still, Urban’s a priori condemnation assumes that neither he nor his master, the BBC has an ideology, thus we are led to believe, no opinions, ‘just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.’

The view that defending the British or the US state’s actions is not ideological is patently absurd but then Urban subscribes to the outmoded view that news, any news, can be objective (which is not the same as being as truthful as is possible). Urban’s ‘ideological baggage’ is carefully hidden by shifting the focus from his reporting to ML’s ‘ideology’.

Urban continues using the same thinly-veiled ideological slur:

‘I do however think that your desire to force all of the elements in a woefully complex situation into a simple proposition such as, “America’s real objective is to smother all opposition so they can pinch the oil”, to be a sorry form of fundamentalism.’

“Sorry form of fundamentalism”? Again, yet another slur when he uses the loaded word “fundamentalism”. This is just ‘new age’ red-baiting. But the core of Urban’s putdown is how he puts words into ML’s mouth with his paraphrasing assumption that ML’s criticism of Urban’s reportage is about the real objectives of the USUK (illegal) occupation of Iraq, when in fact the entire thrust of ML’s analysis is not about “America’s real objective” but about the BBC’s own interpretation of those objectives.

It’s a strange world when the BBC’s interpretation of events are simply ‘facts’ and those who criticise are de facto doing so through a “dense filter of ideolog[ical] … fundamentalism”.

Urban goes on:

‘What I can tell you though, after 25 years in this business, is that the stuff you get from your unofficial contacts usually does conform with the official version.’

Oh does it? Urban gives us no examples and in any case, the only difference between an ‘official’ and ‘unofficial contact’ is whether or not the BBC talks to them.

Two implicit views are buried herein: without actually quoting the ML’s “unofficial contacts”, Urban makes the unfounded accusation that ML is actually twisting the facts to fit their view of events and furthermore, Urban slyly insinuates that “unofficial contacts” are less valid than his (ideologically motivated) official contacts. Here, Urban is actually asserting that “official contacts” are in fact reliable by equating them with ML’s “unofficial contacts”, again without offering a shred of proof. This is an especially galling accusation given the litany of lies that have been told regarding the reason for illegally invading Iraq in the first place! Oh sorry, I forget, the BBC’s official line is that it was all a terrible “mistake”, that the government and therefore the BBC were “misled” by “faulty intelligence”. What Urban fails to mention is the fact (borne out by the official record) that the decision to invade was in fact taken at least as early as the middle of 2002 (two former UK government employees went to jail for revealing this fact) and possibly much, much earlier.

But let’s not let these niggling little details get in the way of Urban’s disingenuous whitewashing of the ‘official’ record for the fact is, Urban is paid and no doubt handsomely for peddling the official line and dissing anyone who disagrees and dissing them in a particularly loathsome manner made worse by the fact that he fails to actually detail his disagreements with ML’s analysis (the folks at ML are much too polite to say anything).

His technique is standard fare for an official mouthpiece of the state, namely to red-bait by linking opposition to the ‘official position’ to an unidentified “ideologically [motivated] fundamentalism.”

But we know what he really means; nothing ML writes can be trusted because they (ML) have a ‘hidden agenda’. Quite what this is, aside from their openly stated position of analysing the ‘news’ because much of it clearly jibes with reality, Urban doesn’t actually say except in vague terms like:

‘I do however think that your desire to force all of the elements in a woefully complex situation into a simple proposition such as, “America’s real objective is to smother all opposition so they can pinch the oil”, to be a sorry form of fundamentalism.’

Here, Urban incorrectly presents the debate as being about ML’s alleged (hidden) agenda, namely that it’s ‘all about oil’ as well as implying that in fact it’s just much too complex for us to understand (‘leave it to the ‘professionals’ like me’ is Urban’s sub-text, justifying it on the basis of his twenty-five years of experience as a journalist). Urban’s technique is to try and undermine ML’s credibility as an observer and interpreter of events which (should) concern us all and about which we all have the right (some would say duty) to comment on and if necessary, act upon.

Read Urban’s full response here which interestingly contains only one quote from the ML’s ‘The Surge – Here To Help’ let alone a thoughtful rebuttal of their analysis. The technique is transparent; instead of dealing with the substance of their argument(s), once more the ploy is to make vague and unsubstantiated attacks on their credibility in an attempt to bring their honesty into question. (See also ML’s ‘Newsnight Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban Responds to the ML essays’.)

But does ML’s unpacking persuade people that the BBC is not to be trusted and just as importantly, does it alter how the BBC covers events? History shows that it will take a lot more than ML’s often excellent essays to alter the BBC’s presentation of events important to the state. To assume otherwise is to be naïve about the role of the BBC in delivering the ‘party line’ which as events at the BBC following the ‘Gilligan Affair’ and the ‘Dirty Dossier’ so clearly showed. The heavy hand of the state showed up like an elephant’s footprints in the butter with much of the top management either being fired or ‘resigning’ as a result of Gilligan’s little faux pas.

One should never lose sight of the fact that the BBC’s primary ‘mission’ is to serve the interests of the British state and it has always been this way and one has to say that it has done an excellent job in creating the illusion that it operates from some neutral and objective position (with the able assistance of people like Urban), an illusion that it has used to great propaganda effect.

Destroying the myth the BBC has promulgated is no easy task, it is a master in the use of language to mystify and obscure reality and in presenting itself as the voice of reason and moderation when the reality is entirely the opposite. Aside from the Gilligan ‘aberration’, it has faithfully served its master the British state through thick and thin as any investigation of the BBC’s coverage quite clearly reveals.

But it also has to be said that Urban’s odious response is indicative of just how sensitive it is to any criticism that unmasks the lies that the BBC delivers to an audience inculcated with the idea that the BBC can be trusted, for once that trust is broken, restoring it is no easy task.

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