Sunday, 30 May 2010

A reader's challenge - and concern

I thought I'd 'elevate' this comment on the previous posting for a response here, as I think it raises some interesting issues about perceptions of the BBC - and, of less interest, my state of mind.
Anonymous said...


I don't know if anyone's ever asked you this question, but what exactly do you think the BBC gets out of being biased one way or another? Having experience of working within the arena of complaints (at the BBC and elsewhere), getting to watch news report after news report, dealing with endless complaints from people suggesting bias towards Israel, bias against Israel, bias towards the Palestinian peoples, bias against the Palestinian peoples, I'm just wondering if your own personal views are blinding your viewing and reading of BBC News reports? It seems that from reading the endless correspondence you have on these pages with various BBC representatives, you'll never be happy until everyone agrees with your own views. Have you ever considered that, however well intention your views are (and I do agree that Israel's actions are abhorrent on the majority of occasions) there comes a time to accept that you're simply wrong in what you believe about the BBC?

I've seen many people become obsessed with making complaints to the BBC on a variety of subjects. Everyone's got their pet hates, but it's worrying to me that you seem to have been doing this for an extended period of time. I fear that it's now a personal crusade, you versus the BBC, and that you've lost sight of helping others. Is it all about you, really?

29 May 2010 10:39


Hi Anon

I always prefer an actual name, but, of course, respect your identity rights.

Many thanks for that courteous feedback, which I take, quite genuinely, as welcome, constructive criticism.

In that same engaging vein, yes, I believe it's right and healthy to think reflectively about one's own beliefs and actions. Caught up in the passion and commitment towards a cause or injustice, it's always possible to become a little fixated on 'the enemy', as it were.

You may not believe this, but I do actually spend regular mental energy questioning my own understandings, views and conclusions. I regard it as an important heuristic exercise, helping to form what I still consider to be realistic, measured and, above all, evidence-based arguments.

You ask: "what exactly do you think the BBC gets out of being biased one way or another?"

The answer is prosaically simple. The BBC is a crucial part of the ruling establishment, so its role in serving the ideological interests and instincts of that establishment are already encoded as biased understandings.

It would be facile to claim that every single piece of BBC output is false or without useful value. It would be outlandish to say the BBC serves no purpose as a news body. But it's equally valid to show how the editorial content and journalistic impressions behind most of that output is, contrary to claims of neutrality and objectivity, subject to systematic, establishment control.

It's evident in the language of most BBC reports, in the gross omissions and calculated minimising of issues - like this flotilla story, and others before it - and in the very organising structure of the BBC itself.

It all goes to reinforce a set of safe, reliable parameters which, crucially, encourage the self-certain belief among people like yourself that the BBC is some 'impartial' paragon and apolitical entity merely gathering and dispensing news.

That seems to me, on close analysis, to be a quite staggering fixation and blindness to reality.

You talk of "dealing with endless complaints from people suggesting bias towards Israel, bias against Israel, bias towards the Palestinian peoples, bias against the Palestinian peoples..."

That not only sounds a lazy dismissal of complainants' views - token as the complaint process is at the BBC - but an implied reassertion of the BBC as passive victim, stuck in the middle of these assaults from extremist whingers on both sides. That's a familiar and convenient BBC trope.

It's always harder, of course, to dismiss the multiple, respected studies on the issue, such as the Glasgow University media group's output, recording the BBC's consistent bias by language and omission.

Which, given that you've worked at the BBC, leads me to question your own apparent lack of comprehension and self-reflection.

I don't just mean this as a cheap point, but where is the critical self-inspection of working BBC staff, journalists, editors and senior executives?

I'm sincerely interested in the psychology of institutional-think, namely, the ways in which people with genuinely-held views about their own free-thinking credentials and perceived autonomy are, in practice, rendered 'fit for purpose' by the organsation they serve.

It comes down to what Chomsky said to an incredulous Andrew Marr when the latter was asked to reflect on his own self-believing journalistic independence : "if you were saying anything different, you wouldn't be there."

Of course, that conditioning doesn't just happen within the organisation. It will, most likely, be a product of schooling and other life-informing experiences. The overwhelming pressure on individuals aspiring through life is to conform and fit in order to 'achieve'.

Harold Pinter once wrote a fascinating piece on the psychology of conformity, pointing out the disincentives in putting one's head above the parapet. In short, it's much easier to be safe and quiescent.

Sadly, there's nothing in your comments here suggestive of any such self-awareness or possible exploration of BBC bias.

In stark journalistic contrast, think what people like Pilger, Chomsky, Edwards and Cromwell at Media Lens and a whole raft of informed others are saying about the BBC. Are they all just fixated lefties and obsessed malcontents with some disturbing axe to grind?

Look at what the fine journalist Jonathan Cook has written about the BBC - notably, in relation to its Israeli-centred bureau - and other major media organisations, providing invaluable insights into the daily conditioning, expectations and institutional understandings which prevent and discourage the dissemination of news and information deemed too 'controversial' or threatening to power.

Then look at what the 'best' of the BBC, such as Jeremy Bowen, are saying about such matters. Precisely nothing.

To my certain knowledge, Bowen offered no principled reaction or rebuke to the BBC Trust's ruling taking him to task over his 'Israel as Zionist state' reference. The lesson is clear: keep your head down, don't bite the hand that feeds.

I recall during our recent occupation of BBC Scotland - in response to the BBC's DEC appeal refusal and multiple other instances of bias in reporting the assault on Gaza - being told by BBC insiders that there was a "climate of fear" within the organisation, with people too afraid to speak out in opposition to senior management.

I understand, of course, why people do refrain. It's pretty obvious. And it's different for me and others who don't depend on the BBC for our livelihood. But that doesn't preclude people from looking more closely at their employer.

You say Israel's actions are "abhorrent". Do you genuinely believe that the extent and severity of those actions are being adequately conveyed to the public by the BBC?

Take a look at what BBC News Online's Middle East section actually put out in the course of a week about the West Bank and Gaza. Risibly little, and always lacking in context about the sustained nature of the occupation and Israeli violations.

So, have you anything more challenging to say about the BBC's reporting of Israel's "abhorrent" conduct?

Which takes us to your conclusion on me:
"I've seen many people become obsessed with making complaints to the BBC on a variety of subjects. Everyone's got their pet hates, but it's worrying to me that you seem to have been doing this for an extended period of time. I fear that it's now a personal crusade, you versus the BBC, and that you've lost sight of helping others. Is it all about you, really?"
I suppose I should be a little concerned about such an assertion: either I've got, as you imply, a psychological condition - obsessive BBC-baiting? - or I'm one of that increasingly aware community actively challenging what we see as systematic BBC propaganda.

The possibility of the former should, I guess, never be dismissed. Maybe one can become a little too focused on these things - I've also seen decent people burned out by such causes. On the other hand, I'm somewhat calmed by the possibility that the 'disorder' may have taken a wider hold, and that I'm in pretty good company.

I'm also deeply aware of the need for a healthy balance of activities and outlets in one's life.

So, touched by your "worrying [about] me", please be reassured that my correspondence with the BBC is not "personal" in the sense of deriving some kind of suspect gratification. Rather, in the spirit of proactive compassion, hopefully promoted at Zenpolitics, it's about being of some practical help to others - in this case, suffering Palestinians.

You say I'll "never be happy until everyone agrees with your own views."

Thankfully, not so, Anon. Please be assured that my imperfect understanding of 'happiness' doesn't depend on such conformity. That would be too much like the sacrosanct consensus that prevails within the BBC bubble.

Kindest regards


Saturday, 29 May 2010

BBC still silent on Gaza Flotilla

It's now Saturday morning, 29 May, the Gaza aid flotilla - follow its progress here - has encountered dark restrictions from the Cypriot authorities, there's been an intensification of threats from Israel - notably Avigdor Lieberman - to attack the boats and the situation has become increasingly tense as international statements of support for the convoy build and the activists vow to break the siege in order to deliver their valuable cargo.

And guess what? There's still not a word on the issue and all these crucial developments from the BBC.

Despite rolling reports now from other international media like Al Jazeera, the New York Times, Reuters, AFP, the Guardian, Independent, Irish Times and Haaretz, the BBC's News Online page remains completely silent on this major story.

Isn't it astonishing disgrace? Leaving aside the blatant bias by selective omission, what does this say about the standing of the BBC as a principal news dispensing body?

My complaint letter, yesterday, to BBC Online also remains unanswered.

Did we ever need any more proof of the BBC's 'journalistic' and editorial complicity in Palestinian suffering?

Today, people will visit our Palestine human rights stall. And we'll tell them about the flotilla and all these mendacious efforts to stop it. And they will be appalled and saddened. And they'll probably say, "but we didn't hear anything about all this on the news." And they might well ask, "why wasn't it reported by the BBC?"

Questions of vital importance for the BBC to answer. If only they had the self-inspecting honesty and journalistic integrity to do so.


* This statement of complaint has also been submitted to BBC Online.

Friday, 28 May 2010

BBC conveniently quiet on Gaza Flotilla

Friday, 28 May, and the long-planned aid flotilla for Gaza is getting underway - follow its progress here.

But, of course, you wouldn't know a single thing about this heroic, humanitarian voyage if depending on the BBC.

A note to Steve Herrmann and Tarik Kafala at BBC News Online:

Dear Major International News Gathering Organisation (Middle East section)


As a BBC online viewer, I'd like to alert you to reports that a big flotilla of boats is currently making its way across the Mediterranean to Gaza with around 800 activist passengers and a massive cargo of humanitarian aid.

You may not know about this international convoy, widely covered and tracked as a major story by other principal news outlets like al Jazeera, AFP, the Guardian, Haaretz and others.

As a Major International News Gathering Organisation (Middle East section) you may want to check the story out, as it might be of some substantial interest to your readers.

Aside from the key humanitarian issues, there's a potentially explosive situation pending after the Israeli cabinet met in emergency session and instructed its navy to intercept the flotilla, arrest all its passengers and seize the cargo, all in gross violation, so many expert observers say, of international law.

I'm no expert myself in these matters, but I'd speculate that any Israeli seizure of the large Turkish liner, in particular, carrying the bulk of supporters and cargo, might just become a critical diplomatic incident.

There might also be some scope, in running such a story, to help explain the continuing siege of Gaza and the reasons for all these international efforts to provide assistance for the Palestinians - you know, that BBC thing about informing and educating viewers.

Meanwhile, I'm curious to know why there's been no report of the matter, to date. I assume it's just an innocent oversight and realise, of course, that even a Major International News Gathering Organisation (Middle East section) can't cover everything, even this kind of globally-supported flotilla and emergency situation for Israel. It's always interesting to know how a Major International News Gathering Organisation (Middle East section) selects and determines its news output.

Anyway, I hope, as a Major International News Gathering Organisation (Middle East section) you can find some time, resources and willingness to put up a report soon.


John Hilley

Friday, 21 May 2010

Nursery militarism - Us and Them

"Listen son, said the man with the gun
There's room for you inside"

My thanks to Simon, a Media Lens contributor, for posting this revealing email letter received from his two year-old child's nursery:

We’re Busy helping our Heroes at Nursery!

Dear parent/guardian

Busy Bees Nurseries in our region are holding special Heroes open weeks across the UK to celebrate local heroes in our community, and raise vital funds for the Help for Heroes charity to support British soldiers wounded in service.

from the 7th – 11th June, the nursery will be holding a special Heroes Open Week, when the children will be taking part in various hero-themed activities including a march around the nursery garden, an assault course, and a creative day, where children will have the chance to make cards and presents for their Dads, just in time for Father’s Day! Special visits from firemen, nurses, and policemen and other community and Nursery heroes will also take place throughout the week, sharing their skills and knowledge with the children.

The climax of the Heroes Open Week will be a ‘Family Fun Day in aid of Help for Heroes, on Saturday 12th June. This exciting event will include a one minute silence at 12pm in remembrance of all the brave soldiers who have served for their country, followed by a superheroes fancy dress parade.

We hope you can support this fantastic fundraiser by coming down to nursery on the 12th June for a spectacular event the whole family can enjoy!

Yours sincerely

The Busy Bees Team

Simon objects to his child being selectively exposed to this kind of militaristic display and 'Hero' ethic. While happy to see people from the emergency services present, he believes this "goes way beyond that". Simon is concerned at the prospect of his little one marching around a nursery building, military style, and being urged to negotiate assault courses.

I share his concern. It's deeply disturbing that such innocent minds can be inculcated in this way; indeed, one might reasonably view it as a form of child abuse.

But it's symptomatic of the intensified popular militarism we're currently seeing and the darker ways in which the 'Heroes' agenda serves to authenticate brutal and illegal wars.

I had a useful chat, in passing, the other day with a Help for Heroes collector. I asked her whether injured, traumatised, bereaved and displaced Iraqis and Afghans could also be considered heroes and worthy of support. She said that would be "controversial" and that "in time of war, we have to support our own."

I suggested that all human beings, irrespective of ethnicity or state, should be regarded as "our own", that "we're all the same human beings worthy of equal care and empathy." She accepted the point, agreeing that there are many victims of war, but that our priority is still with "ours".

"Ours." 'Us' and 'Them'. What ideological assumptions and 'educational' values lie behind those words? Only the lives and well-being of 'our' soldiers seemingly matter, not the tragedy and suffering of civilian and - yes, dare I say it - military 'others'.

Charity, some say, should begin at home. That's often a convenient pretext for downgrading or ignoring the suffering of those 'we' consider 'them.' Despite its proclaimed intentions, Help for Heroes is part of that same 'our boys' jingoism peddled by 'our' political elite and obedient media to excuse and sanitise violent and unconscionable actions against those 'others'.

The irony is important: it is they, 'our' rulers and controllers, who, in thought and deed, are actually foreign to many, probably most, peace-seeking citizens of the planet. As was massively articulated on streets around the world, the warmongers do not speak in 'our' name.

Help for Heroes claims it is not political. Judge for yourself from the appeal presented in their handout leaflet:

"The charity was launched in October 2007 and, with the backing of celebrities, including Jeremy and Francie Clarkson, The Royal Family, The Media [sic] and countless ordinary decent people, it has raised over £1 million since then.

The message is simple, H4H does not seek to criticise or be political, we simply want to help and to do so by asking everyone to do their bit to raise money. Once that money is raised, we go to the experts in the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force for guidance as to how best to spend it. It is our intention to spend all we raise on the practical, direct support of those wounded in the service of our country since 9/11."

The much-loaded last line here should alert us to HfH's disingenuous claim that we can somehow remain apolitical about these wars and still support 'our troops'. The problem, again, is with the fabricated notion of 'ours' and the way in which "help" for individuals becomes synonymous with unquestioned "support" for "our country", in effect, an unquestioning endorsement of those who have led "our country" to war.

While it is, indeed, possible, and compassionate, to help suffering soldiers, just like any other person, the language used by HfH gives added legitimacy to Britain's aggressive wars and the culture of militarism, more generally.

HfH's online Q&A offers further "non judgemental" disclaimers:

Are you criticizing the way the Government supports the blokes?
No, we are non judgmental. If we fundraise for our local hospital’s CAT scanner or Air Ambulance we do it because we want to help enhance facilities. It is not an implicit criticism of the NHS; it is a welcome additional facility.

Is H4H politically motivated?
No, H4H is strictly non political and accepts that wars happen under any Government. H4H seeks to support those people wounded in war, not to criticise the reasons for those conflicts. We accept that wars happen, they are brutal and servicemen and women are injured, we can’t prevent that but we can help them recover and that is our focus. We are a fund raising organisation that seeks to support our blokes; it’s as simple as that.

If only it was that simple and non-political. HfH really could, if it chose, "criticise the reasons for those conflicts", thereby helping, even in some small way, to "prevent" more of them happening - in turn, preventing more human suffering and the need for aid. But, of course, that would be anathema to its core allegiances. One need only peruse the list of this organisation's trustees and patrons to see where its essential politics and agenda lie.

We can be sure that Help for Heroes would not get the sponsorship of the establishment and royalty, the patronage of the armed forces or the favoured exposure of "The Media" were it an avowedly anti-war body loudly decrying the press-ganging of young, economically insecure people and lack of state support for injured soldiers.

My exchange with the collector ended amicably, with her also questioning the usefulness of the war in Afghanistan and me repeating my sympathy for wounded combatants from all sides, but reminding her that while 'our' service-people are, indeed, victims, they are also - contrary to the ideological message from Help for Heroes - part of a violent military force engaged in two illegal invasions.

In the same sympathetic vein, I believe she is also a victim, a victim of the cultural propaganda which serves to legitimise war, militarism and the selective interpretation of who is worthy of our help and compassion.

Meanwhile, Simon has written, in good conscience, to his child's nursery challenging its planned displays of militarism. His complaint has been passed on to the group's regional operations director for consideration.

It often takes not a little courage to defy 'educational' convention and other parents' polite or 'dutiful' acceptance of such events. Indeed, risking possible social estrangement in doing so is a little heroic statement in itself.


* Busy Bees is currently owned by the US-Singaporean corporation Knowledge Universe, which was co-founded by Michael Milken, the convicted US junk bond dealer and model for Oliver Stone's character Gordon "greed is good" Gecko in the film Wall Street.

(Thanks to Mary for this information.)

Monday, 17 May 2010

The great Lib Dem betrayal

And so it came to pass. The great Lib Dem sellout. Or, for those, like me, who never saw any progressive intent from Clegg and his party, anyway, not so much a sellout as a crude grasping for power at any cost.

What should we realistically expect from such a stacked system and machine politics, with an obedient media working overtime to convince us that we have a serious political choice and that our votes really matter?

A virtually unchallenged agenda prevails on cuts, Trident and the rest, and we're encouraged to survey the 'choices' like some enticing
à la carte menu. It's another salutary lesson in the process of hegemony, the popular illusion they, the elite, with our conditioned aquiescence, like to call 'democracy'.

Still, if the Clegg-Cameron coupling was to be expected - though, curiously, it came as a surprise to many of our 'seasoned' political analysts - it's certainly a betrayal of all those Lib Dem members and voters who never wished for the Lib Dem deliverance of a Tory government.

As Ian Bell asked of Clegg in the afternath:
"What has he gained? Not, assuredly, the thanks of those who worked for and voted for his party: a majority will be dismayed or dis­gusted."
Or, as leftist Labour MP John McDonnell put it in The Morning Star:
"In return for the bauble of the title of Deputy Prime Minister and a few seats in the Cabinet, Nick Clegg has sold out the country by delivering us all up to the Tories for the most savage assault on our public services since the 1980s under Thatcher."
It's, of course, notable that Clegg's grouping got no top jobs in this 'sharing' cabinet. Clegg himself might have pushed for Foreign Secretary - advancing Lib Dem 'positions' on Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he wanted to be Deputy PM, essentially a non-role, but with that all-important-sounding title.

And how will the Lib Dem's pre-election declarations in support of Palestine now sit inside a Tory-dominated cabinet?

We also now have Vince Cable, the saintly darling of liberal politicos and its echo media, safely ensconced in Cameron's government, lending a 'wise, moderate' face to the first, £6 billion, round of Tory spending cuts.

Many probably don't know about Cable's Orange Book, classic economic liberal leanings and other quietly-forgotten entries in his CV, such as adviser at the World Bank and chief economist for Shell in Nigeria during the regime's/company's purging of the Ogoni people and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

None of which inconvenient truths have got in the way of drooling reportage from the BBC's Nick Robinson et al or liberal Guardian gushings on the 'new dawn' for Britain. It's another 'Obama moment', a 'renewal' for Jonathan Freedland, a Con-Lib birthing of centre-ground politics.

At least the Guardian's Steve Bell managed to capture the cartoonish truth of their relationship. As did Mark Steel in his satirical depiction of the fawning love-in round the back of Number 10, leading to the crucial point about what's really expected of any incoming government:
"But one issue apparently agreed upon by all the main parties is a government had to be found that would satisfy the markets. Because to solve the economic crisis caused by the people who run the markets, we must pick a government that doesn't upset the people who run the markets."
For Ian Bell, it really is a renewal: a renewal of old class privilege posing as 'new non-class' politics:
"Like everyone else, I caught sight of the birth of the new politics in the Downing Street backgreen last week. I was supposed to be impressed, I think, by the outstanding display of grovelling from minor school media types. It was new, it was modern, it was – for anyone dead from the toes up – cool. I just thought: F*** me, it’s the 1950s."
But, as Osborne's emergency cuts commence, here's a last little homily from Clegg for another spirit of axe-wielding Tory past:
"I’m 43 now. I was at university at the height of the Thatcher revolution and I recognise now something I did not at the time: that her victory over a vested interest, the trade unions, was immensely significant. I don’t want to be churlish: that was an immensely important visceral battle for how Britain is governed."
The last person in Number 10 to praise the leaderene in those kind of fond, reflective terms was Tony Blair.

Class, power, Eton, 'democracy', hypocrisy, liberals, Liberals, 'stability', liars.

Need any more be said?


Monday, 10 May 2010

Clegg's true colours

These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others.
Marx (Groucho)

He went, seemingly, for a night and stayed for an extended weekend.

Clegg's love-in with Cameron and the Tories didn't take much in the seduction stakes. All Dave had to do was tempt Nick and a few pals with some token jobs to get them inside, a risible submission which Clegg has sweet-coated with mitigating appeals to 'constitutional duty', the 'national interest', 'economic stability', 'market reassurance' and all that 'responsible' politician stuff.

While Guardian liberals and purple-clad reformers await the great PR deliverance, their 'champion of the new politics' has been locked in power-grasping embrace with Cameron, the media- populist Etonian and favoured suit of big business. With Gordon Brown's resignation and formal talks now commenced with Labour, Clegg's dalliance has shifted. But the ways in which he and his party circle were lured and seduced should be a key lesson in itself.

It's always instructive to observe the psychology of incorporation and vanity politics, as in Clegg composing himself, so statesman-like, so measured, appealing for the country to "bear with us."

That Clegg could even countenance an alliance with the Tories, still the truest home of Little England and big capital, confirms all we ever needed to know about his get-me-into-office priorities. It's not just the content of talks with the Tories, it's the very act of considering such a scabrous pact.

Was there ever any clear blue water between these parties? None of any significance. Take your pick between business party C, L or LD. The Lib Dem Orange Book agenda is not so far from the ruthless neoliberal package ready to be enacted by the Tories. This is what
they, the parties, understand as consensus politics – the consensual understanding that there's no alternative to market/banker demands.

However, there are more obvious incompatibilities which Lib Dem - and Tory - members would find impossible to stomach. Their stated differences on Europe illustrates, most notably, just what kind of awkward coupling any alignment would involve.

But it's the promiscuous relegation of PR during these talks which damns Clegg and his party elite as craven opportunists. There was, and is, simply nothing serious on offer from Cameron and his party on a fair voting system. Never mind that the Lib Dems only got 57 seats on 23 percent of the vote, as opposed to Labour's 255 on 29 percent and 305 for the Tories on 33 percent.

Many decent people in the Lib Dem ranks will never forgive their leaders for selling, or even considering to sell, their souls to rampant Conservatism. For all its faults, there's still some desire within this party for left-leaning, reformist politics - including the comprehensive removal of Trident. It's a pity their party leadership don't intend to act on those beliefs.

Were we ever fooled by Cleggmania? Well, it seems many would-be liberal progressives were - and are. There's also been talk of a 'dream team' Lab-Lib coalition which could enact a great new reform bill and recalibrate a left-centre progressive agenda. Again, for concerned centre-left Lib-Dem and Labour members, this should be the natural pairing. But even this deal looks subject to the same expedient compromises, amounting to a fudged set of pledges on some to-be-discussed version of PR - probably Labour's not-so-proportional Alternative Vote (AV) 'offering' - and the same City-instructed economic and austerity package.

Some may object that the Tories got the most seats and are still, therefore, entitled to form a government. But this, again, ignores the blatant arithmetic of the limited votes it took to put Cameron there – and, with Clegg's complicit hand, might still make him PM.

As the contradictions between the Lib Dems and Tories become all too graphic, Clegg now switches talks to the Labour side, apparently buoyed by Brown's resignation. But, whatever transpires, we can be sure that there's no mainstream option to the savage cuts and big business-pleasing administration now forming.

The granting of serious PR might still make a useful difference to this dismal scenario. But, even with a Lib-Lab deal it's not necessarily on the horizon. As Clegg downgrades the issue and preens himself on helping to deliver 'stable government', it's the same, safe version of token vote 'democracy' we seem to be landed with.

At least Nick and his mates are all set for insider jobs, in whatever cabinet, and will be able to change any unfairness from within. Well, that's how they'll try to sell the expected great sell-out on PR.

Which reminds me of Pilger's maxim about how particularly dark and dangerous 'lovable liberal leaders' can be.