Thursday, 29 December 2011

North Korea and the BBC myth factory

Kim Jong-il dies, North Koreans weep and the Western media deride it all as contrived hysteria and crude propaganda, warning of a dangerous new threat to international security.

The BBC seek to establish the authenticity of the mass wailing. But its constant focus on the public emotion helps reinforce the image of a brainwashed people led by a mad and unpredictable regime.

In a typical exchange (News at One, 29 December), BBC newsreader Matthew Amroliwala presses senior correspondent John Simpson on the problems now for "the international community grappling with this rogue nation."

Simpson responds to this open bias with another rambling 'analysis' of the 'unstable, unknown intentions' of the regime. We learn little, other than 'we have to wait and see' and the implicit message that 'they are not to be trusted'.

In other reports, we hear of the Pyongyang regime's responsibility for mass starvation and see impoverished people eat grass to survive in a country isolated from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, many go hungry, poverty-stricken and without hope here in one of the richest nations on earth. Which economic system is worse?

A nuclear-laden North Korean military sucks the country dry as it guards itself, with some fair reason, against surrounding enemies. With no obvious Cold War or other 'external threat', an already nuclear-burdened Britain orders new multi-billion pound replacements while schools and hospitals are forced to close. Which military expenditure is worse?

North Korea issues token threats and tests an occasional conventional missile. Britain, in contrast, leads in mass wars of aggression, leaving over a million victims in its wake, in order to plunder countries' resources and maintain a perpetual arms economy. Which war-ready state is worse?

A youthful heir, Kim Jong-un, assumes the political leadership, with no notion of a democratic mandate, issuing the same autocratic edicts as before. Meanwhile, we in the West are offered a succession of youngish clone-type leaders, all smart suits, all beholden to the same corporate powers, all ready to hand-down brutal austerity measures that nobody wants, all leading us into more bloody wars we never voted for. Which political deceit is worse?

Kim Jong-il's eccentricities and indulgences are derided as unaccountable indifference to his 'adoring', suffering people. Yet, an 'accountable' Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and the rest of the 'we're-all-in-this-together coalition' have helped elite bankers continue their luxurious lifestyles, while people lose their homes and jobs in record numbers. Which hypocrisy is worse?

Writing from Seoul, BBC correspondent Lucy Williamson said of the North Korean state media:
"It is a myth-making factory that, for most of its audience, is their only source of news."
That can also be seriously said of the BBC, an institution so astute at preserving the myth of 'benign/sane us, menacing/disturbed them' that its audience see it as, if not the only source of news, the only source of 'impartial' news. Which media is worse?

Of North Korea's successor, Williamson asserts:
"Untried and untested, he will perhaps depend even more on the power of his lineage, and the personality cult created by his country's unique cultural machine."
Think, alternatively, of how the unique cultural machine that's the BBC has helped popularise the elite Oxbridge lineage of Cameron and Osborne. Think, also, how that cultural machine has given establishment cover to the "untried and untested" version of 'coalition politics' being used to impose the most brutal assault on the poor since the 1920s.

But this is not just about comparing/contrasting systems, societies and leaders. It's about the ways in which hegemonic legitimacy here is asserted through media vilification and derision of the 'strange and volatile' other.

While eager in its parody of North Korea's personality cult and state propaganda, liberal correspondents have very little to say about the illusions we live and internalise as a 'free and democratic West' - and certainly nothing about their own central part in that vital mythology.

Just try to imagine Amroliwala and Simpson on the BBC news labelling Britain a "rogue state" for the mass crimes it has committed around the world. The possibility is even more far-fetched than the odd claims of regime-supporting 'natural phenomena' coming out of North Korea these past days.

North Korea's myth-making factory may be in full-scale creative production right now, but it can't compete with the BBC's smarter range of state-approved Orwellian lines. That many would consider the comparison facile rests, of course, on the BBC's own mythical branding of itself as a free and neutral product. Crucially, while Pyongyang depend on industrial-scale output of its reinforcing myths, the BBC need only keep turning out that simple and more effective conceit.



Anonymous said...

The blogosphere really cracks me up sometimes. Are you seriously comparing the BBC to either North Korea or its state TV? I'm simplifying your arguments of course, but it's utterly preposterouous.

When you look at some of the other blogging cranks (take for example the appalling out there who could be viewed as your exact opposite (supports Israel, believes the BBC shows a left wing bias, believes that the corporation actively supports Islam) I sometimes wonder, who is worse? Then I decide that both are viewing the BBC's output through a filter of personal opinion that taints any comments made about BBC coverage. It's a relief to come to the conclusion that, although the BBC has its flaws, you're both utterly and completely wrong.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Anon.

You are, indeed, simplifying my argument, which, while not in itself preposterous, seems intellectually lazy.

The point is not to compare the BBC's output to that of North Korean state TV, per se. It's to pose questions about the relative forms of ideological illusions - or, propaganda, for short - produced in each.

It's blatantly obvious that Pyongyang's myth-making factory serves to nullify any contending view. We call it totalitarian control.

What we get here is a different kind of illusion factory - based on the core deceit that we live in a free society where 'democratic political choice' permits serious change. That's a more effective system-supporting illusion, vitally reinforced by institutions like the BBC.

The related point of the piece comes down to this: in a society so massively more wealthy and developed than North Korea, isn't the spectre of poverty and social degradation here harder to defend?

How can the affluent Western world, with so much more at its disposal, permit the massive levels of social insecurity we see around us? Answer: corporate-determined life, zero-sum competition and the all-important profit ethic.

It's rather telling that you should label me a "crank" and use that old 'BBC-caught-in-the-middle' line.

Suffice to say that most of the things I write concerning Israel and the BBC's Middle East coverage is all backed by qualitative evidence - see, for example, - and documented by highly-respected writers such as Pilger, Chomsky and Cook. Are they also "cranks"?

You note:

"Then I decide that both are viewing the BBC's output through a filter of personal opinion that taints any comments made about BBC coverage."

Try to think about the personal, subjective opinions of BBC journalists and how the things they believe and convey are influenced and filtered by the BBC ideology of impartiality.

Thanks again for posting.