When Royals Attack
The big media story of the last month has been the BBC apology to the Queen for showing footage that implied she had stormed out of a portrait session during a documentary. This followed the revelation that the clip of the Queen furiously marching out in fact showed her furiously marching into the photo-shoot. Photographer Annie Leibovitz recalled:
"She entered the room at a surprisingly fast pace, as fast as the regalia would allow her, and muttered, 'Why am I wearing these heavy robes in the middle of the day?' She doesn't really want to get dressed up any more. She just couldn't be bothered..." (Adam Sherwin, ‘“I've had enough of this,” said Queen as she snubbed bossy photographer,’ The Times, July 12, 2007)
We are to understand, then, that the Queen was made to look particularly awful by the BBC showing her losing her temper and leaving, rather than losing her temper and entering.
In response, there were calls for BBC One controller Peter Fincham, and even director general Mark Thompson, to resign. The title of a Guardian article observed:
“The future of BBC1 controller Peter Fincham hangs in the balance after the royal documentary debacle.” (Leigh Holmwood, Guardian, July 16, 2007)
Lord St John of Fawsley, a friend of the royal family and a director at BBC rival Sky, was quoted in the Observer:
“Peter Fincham should resign. A mistake like this is so colossal it goes right around the world and damages the Queen.” (David Smith and Vanessa Thorpe, ‘A question of trust throws BBC into panic,’ The Observer, July 15, 2007)
John Whittingdale, the chairman of the all-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee, claimed:
“Undoubtedly this has been a very serious blow to the honesty, integrity and the reputation of the BBC.” (Ibid)
Simon Heffer raged in the Telegraph:
“...using the Queen in this fashion was particularly monstrous, and would have been monstrous even if the truth had not been distorted”. (Heffer, ‘Behaving badly... the BBC and Fincham,’ Daily Telegraph, July 14, 2007)
A Times headline read:
“Crisis of trust after BBC says sorry again.” (July 13, 2007)
While the issue is of course trivial, the media reaction tells us much about how the powerful are able to defend themselves, and about how serious issues are trivialised in the mainstream media.
When Balanced Means Biased
The ensuing debate about honesty in broadcasting was limited to issues of retail distortion and deception by producers working under pressure, often on live TV quiz shows. Ironically, this focus was itself an example of the real problem with media mendacity: the fact that the corporate media ignore the deeper, important issues - here of structural media bias - precisely because they are important and threatening to privilege and power.
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An example of serious BBC intellectual dishonesty was provided by a July 25 BBC Online article. We wrote to the BBC Online editor, Steve Herrmann, that day:
“Are we to understand that BBC Online is committed to objective, impartial reporting, except when you decide otherwise? In an age when serious threats from climate change, such as mass flooding, are going unaddressed, your report [‘MoD confirms £3.8bn carrier order,’ July 25, 2007] details the government's decision to spend £3.8 billion on giant aircraft carriers to avert threats that do not exist. Your response is to quote a number of interested parties:
"‘The carriers represent a step-change in our capabilities, enabling us to deliver increased strategic effect and influence around the world at a time and place of our choosing... This will be good news for the three communities.’
"‘This is an absolutely wonderful and brilliant day for the city.’Gerald Vernon-JacksonPortsmouth City Council leader
"‘We welcome the announcement of this £3.8bn project after years of planning. This is fantastic news for Scotland. I congratulate the teams at BAE Systems and Babcock in winning this contract.’Liz CameronExecutive Director, Scottish Chambers of Commerce
“So where is the balance in this impartial BBC news report? Where are the voices of the many people who believe this is symptomatic of an outrageous corruption of politics, a decision designed to fill the pockets of big business to no conceivable strategic purpose? There is, quite simply, not a word of disagreement permitted in response to this insane decision.”
The original version of the BBC's report is available on the Media Lens website here.
The BBC subsequently made these additions to the report:
“Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox welcomed the announcement but said it came at ‘a high price’ for the navy.
"‘Since 1997, the Royal Navy has faced significant cuts in force levels completely at odds with the government's own strategic defence review which called for 32 surface combatants,’ he said.
"‘We welcome the retention of three of our existing naval bases, but there will be a strong suspicion that we are not being told the full story today.’
“Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Willie Rennie said: ‘I am sure the communities of the three navy bases will welcome the decision but will perhaps wait with trepidation about the potential losses in jobs.’"
The BBC, then, had added two more comments supporting the decision from the two other main political parties.
Readers may well be bemused: are the BBC not forever stressing their commitment to balance in everything they do? What happened to the balance in this report?
The answer is that, for the BBC, this report +was+ balanced. When it comes to ‘defence’ issues, BBC journalists believe their responsibility lies solely in reporting the views of mainstream political parties. And where there is a party political consensus, ’balanced’ reporting therefore means, quite remarkably, giving one side of the story. Edward Herman explains:
“the mainstream media, as elite institutions, commonly frame news and allow debate only within the parameters of elite interests... where the elite is really concerned and unified, and/or where ordinary citizens are not aware of their own stake in an issue or are immobilized by effective propaganda, the media will serve elite interests uncompromisingly”. (Herman, ‘The Propaganda Model Revisited,’ Monthly Review, July, 1996; http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/199607 — .htm)
The elite is very much unified on the need to siphon billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into the arms industry and into militarism more generally. Ordinary citizens are largely unaware of their own stake in this and are very much immobilised by effective propaganda, for example from tabloids like the Sun - a billionaire’s propaganda organ parading as a faithful friend of working people. The Sun trains readers to associate militarism with patriotism and lethal arms programmes with ‘jobs’. Thus the tabloid's July 25 headline:
“Carrier job joy.”
The paper commented: “Two massive new aircraft carriers are to be built in Britain, safeguarding thousands of jobs for years.” (‘Carrier job joy,’ The Sun, July 25, 2007)
This was all Sun readers needed to know about the spending of nearly £4 billion of their money on Cold War weaponry in a world refusing to address the terrifying, perhaps terminal, threat of climate change. The carriers will take 40 aircraft each - the Ministry of Defence intends to buy US-made Joint Strike fighters at a further cost of £12 billion. A Mirror headline read:
“Joy as ship deal seals future for troubled yards - just the jobs.” (Maggie Barry, Mirror, July 26, 2007)
Just as democratic citizens, renamed “consumers”, are supposed to be concerned only about the impact of world events on supermarket prices, so working people are supposed to be grateful for “jobs”. The Mirror article contained comments from six individuals supporting the decision - not a word of dissent was printed.
The Guardian news report on the decision was matter of fact, commenting merely: “Trade unions welcomed the announcement.” (Richard Norton-Taylor, ’£3.9bn go-ahead for new aircraft carriers,’ The Guardian, July 26, 2007)
In May, the media reported the launch of the first of seven new Astute class British submarines. The first three vessels will cost a total of £3.5 billion. It is thought they may later be adapted to carry the Trident nuclear missile system - another folly of Cold War thinking that has been ordered at a cost of £20 billion. The Sun commented on the Astute:
“She can carry 38 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which have a range of 1,240 miles each. A vital weapon in the War On Terror, Astute can use them to blast land targets with pinpoint accuracy in North Africa from off the coast of Plymouth, in Devon.” (Tom Newton Dunn, ‘Supersub,’ The Sun, May 9, 2007)
Comment Is Free - But Facts Are Not Sacred
As the above suggests, the media-political system is very much a closed loop. Because the mass media primarily, and often solely, report mainstream political views as ‘newsworthy‘, challenges to the status quo are, by definition, not newsworthy.
Former Guardian editor C.P. Scott’s famous dictum: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred” (Manchester Guardian, May 5, 1921) is as naïve as it is misleading. Facts are not sacred, pristine, untouchable - they are unavoidably rooted in personal opinion, in the reality that they are selected, highlighted or ignored on the basis of individual belief. To highlight one fact over another is already to comment, is already to express personal opinion.
The myth of professional journalistic impartiality - the idea that "When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed" (Andrew Marr, The Independent, January 13, 2001), as though facts exist separately in the outside world waiting to be discovered - is a red herring. Moreover, as we have seen, it is a red herring used to camouflage a deep structural media bias that uses “impartial” as a synonym for “officially approved”. It is used to insist on an “editorial line” that squeezes out honest voices challenging this structural bias.
As an alternative, individual journalists and editors might decide to highlight views that strike them as credible, rational, humanly important, most likely to relieve human and animal suffering. If all political parties support Cold War-style arms spending as ‘vital for national security‘, journalists might take into account the powerful corporate interests driving this idea through the political system - they might seek responses from credible, articulate non-corporate voices.
There is nothing 'professional' or 'impartial' about taking the claim that we live in a democracy at face value and reporting mainstream political opinions as though they represent the full spectrum of informed and/or popular opinion. Journalists need to consider that the claim of 'democracy' might be a charade serving power and privilege. They cannot simply assume our 'democracy' is authentic and report 'facts' on that basis - they need to think and act independently, and consider the moral consequences of their actions. This might also be considered ’professional’, ’impartial’ journalism, with viewers and readers invited to vote with their feet.
It is impossible to overstress the impact of media distortions and imposed silence. Multi-billion pound UK weapons systems, for example, do not simply drop into the sea, or pile up in aircraft hangers, without consequences. They generate a powerful economic and political momentum that tends to perpetuate a particular kind of corporate profiteering and a particular kind of mass violence.
The jokey headlines in today’s tabloids, the bland reports of ‘jobs’ and delighted locals, will soon change into headlines recording the latest US-UK assault on some dread ’threat’ overseas. Media silence, democratic frauds, royal charades - all come at a price.
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