Sunday, 27 February 2011

Cameron in Egypt - an exchange with the BBC

An exchange with the BBC over David Cameron's visit to Egypt and the issue of British hypocrisy.

(21 February 2011)
Dear Steve Herrmann and Helen Boaden,

The proclaimed watchword of the BBC is 'balance', as in providing within articles and reports an alternative view or interpretation, that which gives a contrary voice to what government and other officials say and claim to represent.

Please could you look at the BBC piece, 'David Cameron hails "opportunity" on Egypt visit', and tell me where the balancing opinion is.

James Landale is not only travelling with David Cameron, he's amplifying his every word and claim as if they were obvious truths.

He and you, I'm sure, must be aware that, while Cameron is calling for an end to Egypt's 30 year emergency laws, the British state, including his government, have faithfully supported Mubarak and his regime over that same period, a policy which has seen a continuous flow of US/UK arms supplies and a blind-eye to his torture/rendition agenda.

Where in any of the BBC's output do we see even the merest hint of British complicity in Egypt's repression?

Isn't there room for even a token challenge over Cameron's 'first Western leader' appearance and the suggestion of British hypocrisy?

Such output is a clear breach of the BBC's own notional guidelines.

I'm passing this on to the BBC Trust.  In the meantime, perhaps you could reference someone like historian and author Mark Curtis who, I'm sure, would provide a rather different take on Cameron's visit and the nature of the British state 'concerns' in Egypt.

Just in the interests of balance.   


John Hilley

(25 February 2011)

Mr Hilley,

Thank you for your e-mail. There is a distinction between balance and historical context, and a straight news report is not always the best place for that. In fact, James Landale later provided a separate piece of analysis, including this paragraph:

"But why should Egypt, or any other country in the Gulf, listen to Britain's lessons in democracy? Until recently, the UK supported the nation's autocrats in the name of trade and security, turning a blind eye to the treatment of their people."

You can read his full report here:

The following day, James Landale tackled Mr Cameron on the issue of arms sales to the new Egyptian democracy.

Also, during Mr Cameron's visit to Kuwait ( ) we reported his view on past dealings with repressive regimes:

"Mr Cameron said Britain had been wrong to support some repressive regimes just to promote stability: 'I say that is a false choice. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse.'"

Elsewhere, Bridget Kendall has explored Britain's past relationship with Bahrain:

So we would disagree that such issues have been ignored but are grateful for your observations on our output.

Best wishes,

BBC News website

(27 February 2011)

Dear BBC

Thanks for writing back.  Yes, indeed,  some credit is due here to James Landale for questioning the Prime Minister.

Landale's point to David Cameron does contain a tacit charge of hypocrisy, as does the paragraph in the piece you note.

Both assertions came after the initial BBC report cited in my letter.  

The BBC shouldn't, of course, be seeking some kind of pat on the back for raising what should be glaringly obvious.  Nor should it be resting on its 'journalistic laurels', resisting the opportunity to say much more critical things about Britain's hypocritical postures in the Middle East.
How much more effective and truthful that challenge would have been if Landale had suggested to Cameron that Britain has been criminally supporting, aiding and funding a torture regime rather than just "turning a blind eye to the treatment of [the Egyptian] people.'"

And what of the UK's own capacity for mass killing in the region - notably, its part in the million souls lost in the illegal destruction of Iraq?  It seems, for the BBC, that, whatever 'our' governments do, they are still in a position of ethical superiority to Mubarak, Gaddafi and the other Western clients now being discarded. 

You make the term "historical context" sound like some past aside to Britain's involvement here, when, in fact, this country has played a decisive role in propping-up a known tyrant and a torture regime.  That, in itself, should be the news story.

If the BBC is so dedicated to 'balance' in its reports and analyses, why doesn't it provide some actual comment and statistics from an authoritative counter-voice, like Campaign Against the Arms Trade?

Instead, we have reporters repeating Cameron's 'pleas for democracy' and his economic case for arms sales, with no illustration of the arms involved or detailed rebuttal of his claims.

Likewise, where does Landale or any other BBC reporter raise the issue of Britain's complicity in US-sponsored rendition involving Egypt?  Or is this kind of question just too sensitive and off-limits for the BBC?

A different, more accurate and, yes, still balanced (for BBC purposes) headline here might have read:

"Cameron's 'democracy' visit to Egypt 'hypocritical' given Britain's long-standing support for Mubarak's torture regime."

Such presentation, supported by critical quotes, would offer a reasoned, factual and open line of enquiry for readers and viewers to follow.  It would also go against the grain of the BBC's establishment-line reporting, ever-subjectively safe in its framing.   

It's the subjective judgement of BBC editors in how headlines, comments and quotes are ordered.  And, despite Landale's nominal rebuke to the PM over arms and democracy, it's pretty clear that the BBC would never countenance any content disputing this country's basic 'democratic values'.  It's still the British Broacasting Corporation.

I'm not sure what point you are seeking to make in citing the BBC's coverage of Cameron in Kuwait, other than to repeat his same 'appeals for democracy' in the region.  Indeed, this blanket 'Mr Cameron said' piece is even more disgraceful than the one initially complained about.

Again, why no serious counter-comment or consideration of Cameron's worries about the potential fall of such regimes and their replacement with real democracies hostile to arms-supplying Britain and the oil-demanding West?

It's the same with Bridget Kendall's article on Bahrain, 'analysis' which tells us precisely nothing about the UK's dirty dealings in that state, past and present.  Yes, we read about Britain's and the West's "nervousness" over losing its strategic interests.  That, again, is all rather obvious.  But where's the critical discussion of its dark corporate-military actions in keeping such regimes in power?  Kendall, like the others, knows the line that can't be crossed.

One can only hope that James Landale's useful mention of the eight arms contractors in Cameron's party emboldens him to probe a little deeper into the UK's murderous arms economy.

The nature, provenance and life-effects of such weaponry on our fellow humans is pretty clear: nasty, British and short.

Saying something more damning about that ugly industry and its unapologetic state sponsors would surely result in Landale's own 'journalistic rendition', but he might earn a little more public respect in the process.

Kind regards

John Hilley 


mary said...

Well done John and you received a unusually prompt reply.

Anonymous said...

Same old same old John. Surely you know by now that balance isn't always provided within one report or article? I've seen enough of your correspondence with the BBC on this blog to realise that, so why do you continue to raise the same tired point time and again?