Friday, 30 September 2022 —Media Lens
Last February, Emily Maitlis left her role as presenter of the BBC’s Newsnight programme to join rival media group Global. In a recent speech, Maitlis made a surprising reference to Theresa May’s former communications director Sir Robbie Gibb:
‘Put this in the context of the BBC board, where another active agent of the Conservative Party – former Downing Street spin doctor and former adviser to BBC rival GB News – now sits, acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality.’
Outraged by this whistleblowing, someone at the BBC activated the corporation’s ageing Complaint Response Autobot:
‘The BBC places the highest value on due impartiality and accuracy and we apply these principles to our reporting on all issues.’
The standard, ‘Just the facts, Ma’am’, claim for ‘impartial’ journalism, in other words, as Matt Taibbi described it in Rolling Stone magazine.
Maitlis’s criticism of bias at the BBC was ironic indeed given her own record. In August 2008, Maitlis opened BBC’s Newsnight programme with an almost Chomskyan comment on the conflict between Russia and Georgia:
‘Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it “peace enforcement operation”. It’s the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’ (BBC2, August 11, 2008, 10:30pm)
It was unclear why Orwell would have been made ‘proud’ by examples of ‘Newspeak’. But anyway, imagine Maitlis, or any BBC presenter, referring to comparable Western propaganda on Afghanistan (‘Operation Enduring Freedom’), Iraq (‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’), Syria, or Ukraine, as ‘the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud’.
On 1 April 2020, Maitlis retweeted a thread on Twitter from someone called Dave Rich smearing Jeremy Corbyn. This was the first tweet in the thread:
‘Goodbye Jeremy Corbyn. They said you don’t have an antisemitic bone in your body. That may be true, but your brain is full of it. Can we remember all the examples? Probably not but I’ll have a go /1’
Maitlis, who is from a Jewish family, retweeted this and similar comments to her quarter of a million followers.
The truth of the BBC’s reflexive claim that it ‘places the highest value on due impartiality and accuracy’ was, of course, tested to destruction by its coverage of the death and funeral of the Queen. A BBC news journalist observed:
‘As crowds wait to see the Queen’s lying-in-state for the final evening, many were touched to see the evening sky light up with a rainbow.
‘Remarkably, a rainbow was also spotted at Windsor Castle on the same day the Queen died on 8 September.
‘The BBC’s Sophie Raworth caught the reaction of people who spotted the rainbow as she noted on Sunday: “As the sun set over Westminster tonight… the crowd gasped.”’
This was the BBC, in the 21st century, clearly suggesting that supernatural forces may have been honouring the Queen. Otherwise, it was not ‘remarkable’ for rainbows to appear as part of the UK’s mixed September weather; nor would a high-profile reporter feel the need to note that a number of overwrought mourners ‘gasped’ at the sight of a rainbow.
Elsewhere on the BBC, the former Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, spoke of how the Queen had performed an act of spontaneous spiritual healing. Sentamu recalled:
‘I went with a huge burden of matters that maybe one day will be revealed.
‘I knelt down, and I said “Your Majesty, please pray for me.” So I put my hands together and she put hers outside mine, and we were silent for three minutes. At the end she said “Amen”.
‘When I got up, the burden had lifted.’
Also on the BBC, we learned that ‘Emma, the Queen’s fell pony, greeted the procession’. Separately, the BBC devoted an entire news piece to the pony and the Queen’s two remaining corgis, Muick and Sandy, who were pictured looking sad and wistful. Apparently drawing inspiration from the Richard Gere film, ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale’, about a heartbroken dog waiting for his deceased master’s return, the BBC reported:
‘The Queen’s last two corgis have appeared during her coffin’s procession to Windsor Castle, as if out waiting for their mistress’s return.’
Any Guardian readers hoping to escape this Disneyfied version of analysis were disappointed. In probably the first and last opinion piece of its kind, Anna Whitelock, professor of the history of monarchy at City, University of London, opined of the Queen:
‘Certainly, a monarch reigning for more than 70 years, but also a monarch who in a modern media age of populism and celebrity retained an echo of the mystical, age-old, divine right of kings.’
Whitelock clarified the assertion, noting that Elizabeth had been ‘cast by accident of birth into a role unearned and then anointed as God’s chosen one’.
To her credit, Whitelock was candid about the personal crisis that lay behind this analysis:
‘For me, the moment when the imperial crown, representing the sovereignty of the nation, and the orb and sceptre, representing spiritual and temporal power, were removed from the coffin, and so from Elizabeth for the last time, was the moment when my expertise abandoned me. In that instance, I became not a professor of the history of modern monarchy, but a disoriented fortysomething who, at least in that moment, witnessed the breaking of the spell: the shattering of the magic of monarchy that I have often described but had always assumed I was quite immune to.’
The day after the funeral, high-profile Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff breathed a sigh of relief:
‘GOOD MORNING to the day the news is allowed back in the room’
‘Well, who stopped the news? Who has that right? And why did you allow it to happen?’
Other journalists also expressed limited dissent. Long-time Guardian and Observer contributor, Dan Hancox, commented:
‘I think if I worked for BBC News in any capacity I would absolutely mortified after the last fortnight. “Public service”, “BBC balance” and purported pluralism revealed for what it truly is – an inflexible arm of the state and the elites that control it. Truly an embarrassment’
Michael Crick, former political editor of the BBC’s Newsnight programme, went further:
‘The past days, with a few honourable exceptions, have been a shameful period for British journalism, in which scrutiny, challenge, perspective, balance and common sense have been ditched in favour of fawning banalities.’
We asked Hancox about the newspapers that publish his work:
‘And how did the Guardian and Observer fare, Dan?’
Donnachadh McCarthy, aggrieved climate columnist at the Independent, responded first:
‘Seemed like they replaced the newspaper with 30 page royal souvenir promotion brochures, for 11 days solid!! Arghhh
‘I was a captured subscriber.’
‘Utterly failed on balanced reporting, just like they did with 1200 articles trashing Corbyn, to ensure Johnson got elected.’
Clearly peeved, Hancox responded to our tweet:
‘This would maybe be a scathing gotcha if 1) I was editor of these newspapers, rather than a freelance writer, and 2) our monolithic licence-fee-funded PS broadcaster was the same thing as a privately-owned newspaper. For media critics, you could use a bit of media literacy’
McCarthy responded to Hancox again:
‘Seems like you did not read the 11 royal souvenir brochures, which replaced Guardian Observer for 11 days!!
‘Now that is what was really shameful…’
We replied to Hancox’s tweet referring to our attempted ‘gotcha’:
‘I’m genuinely asking: as a Guardian and Observer contributor, how mortified have you been by their performance?’
‘You sad little men, shouting at a freelancer via QTs [quote tweets]. As usual showing your nuanced understanding of where power is located in the media’
As other tweeters pointed out, Hancox had himself been ‘shouting’ at people who worked at the BBC ‘in any capacity’ – presumably including ‘sad little’ freelancers. We replied:
‘For 21 years now, journos have responded with rage and insults when we’ve asked them to comment on media publishing their work. It’s a way of avoiding the question. In essence: “You’re so nasty and vicious, and I’m so angry, that I won’t respond.” We haven’t been shouting at all.’
Being described as ‘sad little men’ reminded us of the time filmmaker and BBC producer Adam Curtis commented to us two decades ago:
‘I don’t know whether it occurred to you that I might have been away – instead of stamping your little feet and trying to whip up an attack of the clones.’ (Email to Media Lens, 18 June 2002)
To the painfully swollen egos of the Guardian and BBC, we are annoying ‘little men’ with ‘little feet’ barely worthy of consideration. After all, who are we? How dare we challenge them? As Peter Beaumont, the Observer’s foreign affairs editor, noted in a rare ‘mainstream’ mention (unthinkable now), we are ‘self-appointed media watchdogs’. (Beaumont, ‘Microscope on Medialens [sic]’, the Observer, 18 June 2006)
It was a telling comment. We are not appointed by authority of any kind and are therefore ‘little men’ to commentators afflicted by what Erich Fromm called ‘the authoritarian character structure’ – people who look to hierarchy, status and power for guidance, rather than to their own capacity for critical thought.
The ‘Unprovoked’ Invasion
We received a further telling response from high-profile reporter Wyre Davies of BBC News & Current Affairs. For reasons unknown, Davies likes to occasionally vent his spleen in our direction. This time, he responded to our retweet of a deeply disturbing prediction about the war in Ukraine by political commentator and former chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter:
‘The mobilization of 300,000 men, as well as the announced goal of bringing all other units up to the standards of the Russian army, will not happen overnight. Russia will be forming new units, and this takes time.’
Ritter’s grim conclusion:
‘I believe we will see a strategic pause… But once Russia consolidates the new territory politically, and accrues the necessary military capacity, I believe we are looking at the physical destruction of the Ukrainian nation as the endgame for this conflict.’
Ritter has been banned by Twitter, so Davies responded to us:
‘Indeed; one precipitated by Russia’s illegal, unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine.’
Like anyone who has looked at the facts, we agree that the invasion is illegal and brutal, but reject the claim that it was unprovoked. As John Pilger commented recently:
‘The news from the war in Ukraine is mostly not news, but a one-sided litany of jingoism, distortion, omission. I have reported a number of wars and have never known such blanket propaganda.
‘In February, Russia invaded Ukraine as a response to almost eight years of killing and criminal destruction in the Russian-speaking region of Donbass on their border.
‘In 2014, the United States had sponsored a coup in Kiev that got rid of Ukraine’s democratically elected, Russian-friendly president and installed a successor whom the Americans made clear was their man.’
‘Last December, Russia proposed a far-reaching security plan for Europe. This was dismissed, derided or suppressed in the Western media. Who read its step-by-step proposals? On Feb. 24, President Volodymyr Zelensky threatened to develop nuclear weapons unless America armed and protected Ukraine.
‘On the same day, Russia invaded – an unprovoked act of congenital infamy, according to the Western media. The history, the lies, the peace proposals, the solemn agreements on Donbass at Minsk counted for nothing.’
‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is wanton and inexcusable. It is a crime to invade a sovereign country. There are no “buts” – except one.
‘When did the present war in Ukraine begin and who started it? According to the United Nations, between 2014 and this year, some 14,000 people have been killed in the Kiev regime’s civil war on the Donbass. Many of the attacks were carried out by neo-Nazis.’
As former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook wrote:
‘The encirclement of Russia by Nato was not a one-off error. Western meddling in the coup and support for a nationalist Ukrainian army increasingly hostile to Russia were not one-offs either. Nato’s decision to flood Ukraine with weapons rather than concentrate on diplomacy is no aberration. Nor is the decision to impose economic sanctions on ordinary Russians.
‘These are all of a piece, a pattern of pathological behaviour by the West towards Russia – and any other resource-rich state that does not utterly submit to western control.’
Noam Chomsky commented recently:
‘In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the major establishment journal, Fiona Hill and Angela Stent – highly regarded policy analysts with close government connections – report that:
‘“According to multiple former senior US officials we spoke with, in April 2022, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement. The terms of that settlement would have been for Russia to withdraw to the positions it held before launching the invasion on February 24. In exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.’”
Aaron Maté of The Grayzone website added:
‘In confirming that US officials were aware of this tentative agreement, Hill bolsters previous news that Washington’s junior partner in London was enlisted to thwart it. As Ukrainian media reported, citing sources close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Kiev in April and relayed the message that Russia “should be pressured, not negotiated with.” Johnson also informed Zelensky that “even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on [security] guarantees with Putin,” his Western patrons “are not.” The talks promptly collapsed.’
Chomsky notes that it is not known if similar peace initiatives continue to be made:
‘If they do, they would not lack popular support, not only in the Global South but even in Europe, where “77 percent of Germans believe that the West should initiate negotiations to end the Ukraine war”.’
Craig Murray, who was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004, offered this shocking observation:
‘There really are – and remember I worked over twenty years in British Foreign Office, six of them in the senior management structure – people in NATO, and in all western governments, who have no problem with the notion of hundreds of thousands of dead people, particularly as they are nearly all Eastern Europeans or Central Asians. They are not even particularly perturbed by the risk the conflict could turn nuclear. They are delighted that the Russian armed forces are being degraded and vast sums pumped into western military budgets. That is worth any number of dead Ukrainians to them.’
Typically for ‘mainstream’ journalism, Wyre Davies was forthright in his condemnation of Russia’s invasion – nobody ever harmed their career by criticising Official Enemies. As with Hancox, we thought it would be interesting to test his honesty closer to home:
‘Wyre, in your opinion, was the 2003, US-UK invasion of Iraq illegal, unprovoked and brutal?’
‘Jeez … “look over there!” I thought for a minute this was all about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?’
Which is how ‘mainstream’ journalists like it – it should be ‘all’ about Russia’s crimes. After working on Media Lens for two decades, it is still unclear to us whether journalists like Davies understand the consequences of damning the crimes of Official Enemies while refusing even to comment on the crimes of our own government. Do they understand that this one-eyed moral condemnation forever portrays the West as compassionate crusaders responding to the despicable illegality and violence of the ‘Bad Guys’? And do they understand that the results are catastrophic? The public simply doesn’t know that the West destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria on packs of lies at vast human cost, fighting completely avoidable wars, while Western oil companies, like BP and Exxon in Iraq and Libya, reap the spoils.
It is because all crimes are equal for journalists like Davies, but some crimes are more equal than others, that the public can’t conceive the utterly ruthless nature of Nato’s actions in Ukraine. To the public, it really does seem like the West is spending tens of billions of dollars to defend Ukrainian freedom. Even after the human catastrophes of Western ‘intervention’ in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the public can still be made to believe that the chief Western concern in Iran is women’s rights, rather than the oil for which ‘we’, unprovoked, illegally and brutally overthrew the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953.
It is only the awesome, brainwashing power of our state-corporate media that makes it possible for anyone to imagine that this is how Great Powers behave in the real world. If foreign policy really worked that way, planet Earth would long since have been transformed into a paradise of peace, equality and justice. We need only look around us to see how close we are to achieving that aim.