The BBC – how to spin a lie

Watching and listening to the BBC yesterday I was presented with a master class of political spin that would put the worst dictatorship to shame.  The best propaganda isn’t uniform and obvious, peddling straightforward lies, but invites you to look at things differently, to think yourself into a view that you may treat as your very own.

So I listed to PM on Radio 4, looked at the BBC News web site and watched the BBC six o’clock news on television.  The lead item for two was the revelation that Boris Johnson had lied when he said he had been told categorically by Porton Down laboratory that the poison that infected two Russian citizens came from Russia.   In fact, the official response from the Porton Down spokesman was that they couldn’t say.

This was picked up by Jeremy Corbyn, who rather charitably said Johnson had exaggerated and had questions to answer.

The BBC could have run with precisely how the Foreign Secretary had lied, why he had lied and what were the consequences of his lying, particularly given his senior and sensitive position in government.  A backstory could have been filled with Corbyn having taken a more measured approach and having a track record of getting these international issues right, while Johnson had a history of lying.  The great British public could then have been invited to form its own opinion.

Of course, no one who gets their news regularly from the BBC would have expected anything like the above.

Instead we were invited to believe that Johnson ‘appeared’ and might ‘seem’ not to have told the truth, while on the six o’clock news I remember hearing three responses by Johnson to the charge that he lied with the accusation repeated that Corbyn was playing the Russian’s game.  The BBC reporter took the view that it was all a bit of a mess, which given the BBC coverage was actually an accurate portrayal of the way the issue had been presented.

On Radio 4, the BBC talking head was deploring, more in sorrow than in anger, along the same lines but majoring on how the Russians would gain and we (as in Britain) would be put on the back foot by this disagreement between the two British political parties. This was the issue – the whole thing didn’t make Britain look good.  Rather like a person accused of rape; the issue is not whether that person actually did it, and what effect it has had on the victim, but that it doesn’t make them look good.  Pick your own crime and you could repeat the example a thousand times.

On Radio 4 the lead item was wrapped up in the first 15 minutes by an American ‘expert’ who had worked with various intelligence agencies, who reassured us that of course it was the Russians.  So, with the issue being that it was, at the very least, questionable to blame the Russians without evidence, the news item finished with yet another example of the very same, from someone whose bona fides were rather obscure.

When we consider that on the same day the Foreign Office deleted a tweet that claimed what Johnson had claimed – that it was the Russians who were the source of the poison, it seemed rather lop-sided to allow Tory spokesman to avoid the question of lying and simply declare without challenge that of course it was the Russians – who else was going to do it? Well, perhaps the BBC could have taken this question more seriously too?

The explanation for the original tweet, that it was truncated and did not accurately report “our ambassador’s words”, looked lame, particularly when the official transcript of the speech from which it came said the same thing as the tweet. Yet another question that should have been posed by the BBC but was ignored.

The narrative the BBC presented was therefore not one of lying by the Government, and embroiling us in heightened international tensions that had the happy circumstance of diverting attention from Brexit and another Tory reverse.  Instead we have had just a bit of a mess and only the Russians will gain from any controversy; which of course conveniently absolves the BBC of doing any real reporting, of news as opposed to certain views, of the establishment in particular.  And anyway, it was the Russians what done it.

But as we see, the real propaganda value of the BBC coverage is not in what it says but in what it doesn’t – in its highlighting the questions it thinks are important and to which we are invited to divert our attention, and the questions and issues that are ignored.  Lies by the Government while the perceived radical opposition leader is proved correct again?  Such a narrative would obviously be anathema to the BBC and its lofty self-perception of balance.  Just a pity this lofty approach doesn’t touch the truth.

Should we demand that the BBC really be impartial?  Well, it is useful to point out as loudly as possible its bias when it is particularly ourageous.  But why would it be expected the broadcasting arm of the British state would stray from the rest of it?

Perhaps instead we should secretly welcome the BBC when its bias becomes egregious; all the more likely then that more people will notice it. And perhaps do what we say we should always do – try to create an alternative.

3 thoughts on “The BBC – how to spin a lie

  1. Have you noticed the difference with the BBC reporting on Foreign Affairs compared to the reporting of Domestic Affairs? The reporting on foreign affairs follows Government indications and hints in a much stricter fashion. The BBC world service is a well funded agency of the Foreign Office and even takes occasional briefings from the intelligence service.This is not unique to Britain. The government Ministries concerned with foreign affairs of most States get a relatively free ride to manage things without popular scrutiny. It is not uncommon for the foreign policy of a State to be handled by a mere handful of career officials. It is very striking how current American foreign policy is being conducted without minimal verbal backing from Donald Trump to give just one example. The community of socialist commentators are not that different, almost every thing they agitate over concerns domestic matters, things only divert to foreign matters when the country is at war, in between the wars foreign relations of State on State relations receives little critical attention.

  2. “Perhaps instead we should secretly welcome the BBC when its bias becomes egregious; all the more likely then that more people will notice it. And perhaps do what we say we should always do – try to create an alternative.”

    Absolutely. The reason we should cherish the fact that we have a “free press” in Britain, even though as described it is a very biased, and inevitably so, is that freedom of the press at least gives us the opportunity of creating our own such alternative. That possibility does not exist in Russia, Iran, and various other places.

    The question here is why it is taking so long for what is still a very sizeable, and resource rich labour movement in Britain to create such an alternative. Corbyn and Momentum have done a good job in recognising that most younger people nowadays get their news from social media, not from the TV, and that has been a powerful tool in them gaining support, but the TV remains a powerful means of shaping the general media environment. It does that not just in terms of news and current affairs programmes, but by the way even drama, comedy, quiz shows and so on, create a social ethos, and set of memes.

    The Cambridge Analytica affair should give us all pause for thought about just how powerful that is, and which those who utilise it continually want to diminish in significance. I was led to think about it the other day. It was the first proper sunny day of this year, and having walked the dog, me and my wife got the chairs out to sit in the garden, looking out across to the woods. It was very pleasant, and into my mind popped the idea that it would be nice to have a glass of beer to accompany situation. That was what made me consider this power of suggestion. The fact is I haven’t drank any alcohol now for about two years, and even before that I only had the very occasional glass of beer, or maybe a sherry at Christmas.

    The reason I stopped altogether was that I found that even a glass of beer was giving me a muzzy head, and other discomfort, and besides which I have never actually liked the taste of beer or any other alcohol. As a teenager, I drank because everyone else did, because it appeared to be an element of machismo, and it also gave you Dutch courage in talking to girls. And the reason for drinking in later life had some similar aspects, but was as much about it being an automatic response, a part of your mindset of what things go together in particular situations – I’ve never smoked, but I can understand, why people who smoke automatically reach for a fag, after a meal, and so on.

    The reason that sitting outside on the first warm sunny, day, in a tranquil environment led to the idea of a glass of beer popping into my head even though I recognise that I don’t actually like alcohol, and haven’t drank any for a couple of years, is that it is simply an automatic connection made in the brain, in the same way that a scent or other such stimulus, can immediately send you back to a previous memory, a different time and place. I have studied yoga since I was about 14, and one element in it is about just this, the difference, for example between a feeling of hunger and consequent need to eat, and simply a desire to eat, because of a pleasant memory of eating food in the past, and wanting to repeat the pleasant experience. Its one reason with food being cheap and accessible, today we have such problems with obesity.

    But, if, in reality, as Skinner described long ago, three is really no such thing as free will, because we are all being continually conditioned, in one way or another, its obvious that those who understand the methods of conditioning, and have control over the means of that conditioning, have a far more powerful tool in their hands than any number of armed men, as a method of social control.

    Its time that the labour movement looked back to some of those things it took for granted in the earlier part of the last century, such as socialist sports clubs and so on, but also that its now time alongside the use of social media, and Internet TV, to also establish our own Labour Movement TV channel, providing not just news and so on, but drama, comedy, quiz shows and so on, to begin creating our own culture, and our own set of social norms and memes.

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