BBC's Iraq coverage - biased or balanced?
- 19 Mar 07, 10:47 AM
To coincide with the BBC's week-long examination of the situation in Iraq four years after the US-led invasion, Newsnight has invited critics of the BBC's coverage of the conflict and its aftermath to set out their arguments. Here, Media Lens, an online group that monitors mainstream media output, argues that BBC reporting too often follows the establishment lines. We're keen to debate the issue so read the piece and post your views and comments below.
The Bias In BBC 'Balance'
The BBC's claim that it provides balanced news reporting does not stand up to scrutiny.
As Baghdad fell to US tanks on April 9, 2003, Andrew Marr, then the BBC's political editor, hailed the invasion as a great triumph. Of Tony Blair, Marr declared: "tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result". (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)
This is the standard BBC version of objective news reporting. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, took a different view of the invasion:
Indeed it would be hard to find a better example of the supreme war crime - the waging of a war of aggression.
Before the invasion, Bush and Blair insisted that the pretext was a "single
question": Would Iraq eliminate its weapons of mass destruction? As late as February 2003, Blair affirmed that Saddam could still save his regime:
"I hope, even now, Iraq can be disarmed peacefully, with or without Saddam."
When not a single weapon of mass destruction was found, the story quickly changed and BBC reporting changed with it: the liberation of Iraq, not its disarmament, we were told, was the guiding concern. The BBC's Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, said:
"There's no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East... is now increasingly tied up with military power." (BBC1, Panorama, April 13, 2003)
Newsnight's Mark Urban described "President Bush's grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East."
(Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005)
Roger Hermiston, assistant editor of the Today programme, wrote:
"I think there's a big difference between the aggressive 'invasions' of dictators like Hitler and Saddam and the 'occupation', however badly planned and executed, of a country for positive ends, as in the Coalition effort in Iraq." (Email to a Media Lens reader, November, 2006)
As the use of inverted commas suggests, BBC journalists find it difficult even to accept that Iraq is under occupation. The BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson described Iraqi insurgents as "opponents to what they see as the foreign occupation of their country". (Panorama, BBC1, January 30, 2005)
In June 2004, the BBC toed the government's propaganda line declaring that there had been a "transfer of sovereignty" from the 'coalition' to the interim Iraqi government. The death of a British soldier in Basra was particularly tragic, Middle East correspondent Orla Guerin noted, because he was "the last soldier to die under the occupation". (BBC1, 13:00 News, June 28, 2004)
Alongside this legitimising of the occupation, the BBC has sought to delegitimise the insurgency. In July 2004, Newsnight described how insurgents were "blighting US attempts to bring peace and stability to Iraq". (Newsnight, July 5, 2004) Imagine the BBC in the 1980s describing how CIA-backed Mujahadeen were "blighting Soviet attempts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan".
The insurgency is currently being spun as merely "sectarian violence", with US-UK forces depicted as innocent bystanders. In a BBC online article titled, 'Iraq's spiralling sectarian strife,' Mike Wooldridge wrote last August that "The Americans [are] working with Iraqi forces in a new drive to reclaim parts of the Iraqi capital from gunmen and bombers," with the aim of "bringing a measurable improvement in people's lives... and reversing the flight from mixed areas."
The Americans were thus portrayed as a peace-keeping force, not as an invading army seeking to crush domestic resistance.
Two days after Wooldridge's article appeared, the New York Times reported that the number of daily attacks against American and Iraqi security forces had doubled since January. An analysis of the 1,666 bombs that exploded in July 2006 showed that 90 per cent were directed against the American-led military force and Iraqi security forces. Who would have guessed that from BBC reporting?
None of this should come as a surprise. The BBC has always protected the establishment of which it is very much a part. The BBC's founder, Lord Reith, noted in his diary of the government:
After all, the BBC's senior managers are appointed by the government of the day. Before joining the BBC, the previous chairman Gavyn Davies was chief economist at Goldman Sachs where he was touted as the next Governor of the Bank of England. At the time he became chairman, Davies was estimated to have amassed a personal fortune of £150 million. His wife ran Gordon Brown's office. The chairman he replaced, Sir Christopher Bland, became chairman of British Telecom.
The overall strategic direction of the BBC is set by the BBC Trust. There are twelve trustees, mostly high establishment figures. Jeremy Peat recently retired as Chief Economist of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Dermot Gleeson is Executive Chairman of Gleeson Group plc. Diane Coyle is Managing Director of Enlightenment Economics, an economic consultancy to large corporate clients and international organisations. In short, the BBC is run by elites with fingers in any number of political and corporate pies.
The BBC does occasionally provide space for dissident opinions, but these are vanishingly rare moments of honesty swamped by an overwhelming pro-establishment bias.
David Edwards & David Cromwell
Co-Editors, Media Lens