Thursday 2 May 2013

Real journalism and BBC royal make-believe

A basic element of serious, inquisitive journalism is its readiness to expose official lies and liberal posturing. The thought came to mind on reading two fine examples of the art.

The first is John Pilger's searing account of Aboriginal persecution, past and present, as shown by the brutal incarceration of indigenous people in Western Australia; historic and current crimes glossed-over by 'commercial development' and tourist-promoting spin.

The second is Glenn Greenwald's admirable defence of whistleblower extraordinaire Bradley Manning and the disgraceful capitulation of San Francisco Gay Pride in refusing to honour him, all in compliance with Obama-image politics, US militarism and corporate imperatives.

Both articles shine critical lights not just on specific injustices, but on larger issues of power, control and incorporated thinking.  

They also got me wondering how some BBC reporters might really feel when they see this kind of exemplary journalism: embarrassed, threatened or, perhaps, even quietly admiring?

How, for example, might the BBC's royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell view Pilger, Greenwald and the kind of journalism that actually exposes and indicts, rather than glorifies and protects.

Have a look at this latest BBC film report from Witchell on the 'young royals' and ask the question: real journalism or elite PR service?  

One might think it inappropriate, even bizarre, to compare and contrast the likes of Pilger and Witchell. There's a weird-seeming bathos in even citing their names and output in the same discussion.

Yet, consider how so much Pilger-type, truth-bearing journalism - on warmongering, invasions, human rights violations, suppression of information, climate change and other crucial public interest issues - is routinely shunned, while this kind of populist propaganda is accorded expansive airtime on the Six O'Clock News.

I recall a 2010 sighting of Witchell at Glasgow Central Station as he delivered a report on Prince Charles, who had just arrived on a private royal train to head-up a 'sustainable living' promotion.

It was strange to see them both in the flesh, Mr Windsor, owner of Cornwall and much else, looking all eco-earnest as he was guided around by bowing lackeys, Witchell all sycophantically enthused as, on cue, he trotted-out cringing lines about 'green-caring' royalty.

More surprising was my actual thoughts on observing Witchell, which weren't straight feelings of hostility, but of quiet incredulity, even a certain sadness, that someone could have prostituted themselves so eagerly in the name of career 'journalism'. (Nicholas Witchell, if you ever happen across this blog, I'd be greatly interested to read your own thoughts on these matters.)

The whole scene was a perfect encapsulation of establishment posturing, royal branding and issue-cloaked reporting.

Watching Witchell's grovelling piece later, there was, predictably, no content or commentary on the real problem of corporate-driven climate catastrophe, or any suggestion of this being a 'green-washed' event. The idea of having such balancing opinions from the BBC on this or the legitimising function of such royal PR was, apparently, unthinkable.  

This is the liberal prism through which we're encouraged to approve the 'public-serving virtues' of 'our royals' and a media which rationalises their privileged existence. From jubilees and weddings to pregnancy updates and charity visits, blanket royal coverage provides a double establishment facade: one to popularise the monarchy, the other to reaffirm the role of state-service journalism.

It's a template royal reportage that even extends to other countries, as in the BBC's voluminous coverage of Queen Beatrix's abdication and successor in the Netherlands, an event of little general interest made 'notable' news for the public.  

Royal reporting fits closely with other BBC news output in authenticating the dominant system and, like the monarchy, any component of it that might be questioned as class-ridden, archaic and undemocratic. Indeed, that protective role is even more effective with royal reporting, situated somewhere akin to 'info-tainment', thereby helping to disguise its true political and power-supporting function.  
While such reports might be defended by the BBC as just additional 'feel-good' news items, the anachronism of 'court correspondence' and daily observance of royal minutiae helps feed a significant cultural message of subservience, passivity and deference. 

In that vein, here's Witchell's sickly summation of William, Kate and Harry visiting the Warner film studios:
"This is the make-believe world of Harry Potter. In the real world, though, there is no doubt that these three are becoming the principal supporting stars in the enduring family epic that is the Windsors. The British monarchy has shown what a powerful spell it's capable of casting. And, in these three, few can doubt that that spell remains in powerful hands..."
It's a powerful illusion, for sure. But, there's little doubt either about the make-believe world crafted by Witchell and the BBC in helping to cast a feudal, privileged institution as something modern and democratic.  In similar 'spellbinding' ways does the BBC seek to present itself as something alluringly benign. In that dual fairy tale, the ideological 'wands' remain in enduringly powerful hands.

All of which subject-gazing leaves diminishing space and opportunity for viewing real news subjects, the news that matters, excluding, for certain, the kind of searching, humanitarian journalism noted above, an invigorating journalism still rarely permitted in the liberal media, though to be found, more hopefully, through an emerging alternative media.

One wonders whether Nicholas Witchell and his make-believe peers ever venture to that real world for illumination of the news, issues and truths they themselves are unlikely ever to convey.


Anonymous said...

Good piece, John, thanks. It's always weird seeing a camera crew out and about. It's almost as though they're not in the real world; they're detached and artificial, and puffed full of self-importance. You sum it up well with your recollection of seeing Windsor and Witchell (that famous comedy duo) prancing around at Glasgow Central Station. I'm surprised that some Glaswegian wag didn't walk past in the background shouting:

'Ach awa' an bile yer heids, the pair o' ye!'

David C

John Hilley said...

'Ach awa' an bile yer heids, the pair o' ye!'

Hee, hee!

Thanks, David, yes nothing like a good Glesga 'endorsement'.

In the good socialist republic to come, Chic Windsor might be on this train rather than that prestigious royal one:


Mary said...

I totally agree.

All the more excruciating and toe curling on Witchell's part when he was the subject of 'royal' mutterings here.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Mary.

Yes, I recall that cringing moment too.

We all, in this life, have to recognise that others may criticise, disparage, curse or say worse of us in private. On a personal level, I feel an odd sense of sympathy for Witchell in being bad-mouthed like this. It must be humiliating.

Yet, as a public figure, serving to prop-up the Windsors with such grovelling propaganda, he, the royals and the obnoxious establishment system they're all part of are fair game for exposing.

Still, one wonders how people like Witchell rationalise what they do. Is it the career, the status, a true belief in BBC 'ethos journalism'? I find the whole psychology of such self-denial, servility and incorporation rather fascinating.

Best wishes,