Thursday, 22 May 2008

BBC Bias: all the news that's fit to invent?

I woke up this morning to an interview on Radio 4 which illustrated, in a bizarre way, the problems of public ‘thought control’ we now face in this country.

The interview was ostensibly a news item about the fact that British soldiers are back on the streets of Basra, having withdrawn earlier in the year, supporting the Iraqi army. This situation has come about because, although the original operation was mismanaged and needed American intervention to succeed, the Iraqi military is now strong enough to confront the Mahdi army and other Iranian-backed elements who had been dominant in Basra and had made life miserable for ordinary citizens (especially, it might be noted, women).

The situation on the ground thus reflects the growing, though fragile, stabilization of Iraq and the increasing success in bringing the appalling violence of the last few years under some measure of control — violence which, incidentally, is largely by Muslims against Muslims, and which itself shows signs of discrediting Al Qaida’s campaign there.

None of this, however, would have been gleaned from the BBC story. I cannot be bothered to go back and produce, verbatim, what was said. You can listen yourself here if you’re quick.

The story, however, went something like this:

Interviewer: What is happening in Basra?

Interviewee 1: The Iraqi government has confronted the Mahdi army, which has adopted a ceasefire so as to remain a ‘player’ in Iraqi politics, and is not shooting at either British or American troops.

Interviewer: The Iraqi army doesn’t seem to be able to cope.

Interviewee 1: This is about getting the Iraqi army to operate effectively. The extra firepower of the British Army enables this.

Interviewer to second Interviewee: How important is this operation?

Interviewee 2: It is critical. The Iraqi army will either succeed or it will not. If it fails, the British Army will be drawn into conflict.

Interviewer: Is that failure inevitable?

Interviewee 2: It is quite likely. The Iraqi government is only one faction in Iraqi politics. It may try to fix the forthcoming election and if it does, the Mahdi Army will be back on the street with guns.

Interviewer to Interviewee 1: How seriously are British Army commanders taking this?

Interviewee 1: They are very wary. They don’t know if conditions will hold and whether the Mahdi Army will be satisfied or may fight after elections. If that happened, the British Army could not sustain their current presence as they would be mortared, shot at and rocketed.

Interviewer to Interviewee 2: If the British Army had to withdraw under that pressure it would be extremely awkward wouldn’t it?

Interviewee 2: There would be nothing they could do. They would be sniped at, mortared and rocketed, and there would be a steady stream of dead and wounded.

Interviewer: Thank you very much

Now notice what the ‘story’ has become, compared with the actual facts reported.

The facts: There is a ceasefire holding in Basra as a result of a successful military campaign. British and American troops are reinforcing the Iraqi army presence. There is an election coming up, but no one knows exactly how that will turn out, or what will happen afterwards.

The story: We are about to see the resumption of a steady stream of British casualties in Iraq. This will result from a huge increase in sniping, mortar and rocket attacks which will require another British withdrawal. This will be caused by the Mahdi Army going back on the offensive after the Iraqi government fixes the results of the forthcoming election, and this will be because the failure of the Iraqi army is almost inevitable.

The brilliant thing about the ‘story’ is that it is all possible. The important thing, which the listener may not have noticed, however, is that none of the conditions necessary for the story has actually happened yet. Of course, they may all happen — or some of them may happen and some will not. The story could go: the ceasefire holds, the elections are fine, the Mahdi Army gradually fades into obscurity, life in Basra continues to improve and there is no great increase in British casualties.

To emphasise: either outcome is possible. I will not be ‘proved wrong’ if everything the Interviewer implied actually turns out exactly that way.

The important thing is that neither has happened, yet the BBC interviewer chose to profile one as it if already had, to which I can only say, in the words of Ricky Tomlinson’s character, Impartiality, my a...!’, and wonder why this is the case.

Revd John P Richardson
22 May 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. Let's hope the worst doesn't happen. But if it does, wouldn't people be crying about the BBC's partiality if they had only reported your "facts" that "There is a ceasefire holding in Basra as a result of a successful military campaign"? Don't we need to hear also the possibility and warning that the whole situation could go dreadfully wrong again? Is the BBC wrong to warn us that we are heading towards a dangerous place, just because we might get through the danger unscathed?

    (Still in Chelmsford, indeed looking forward to seeing you at my parish church in a couple of weeks.)

  2. ----* Vicar, if this is a duplicate, please disregard. I had an error at fist go of it... *------

    Good afternoon Vicar,
    It would seem that the BBC uses the same Sytlebook as many of the mainstream media outlets (NBC, CBS, CNN) use on this side of the pond. Anything remotely resembling objective journalism has been replaced by advocacy reporting. The news consumer has to look to Fox (Sky News' sister network)

    Completely off the topic, but great picture. What is the make of the shotgun? Do you shoot trap/skeet?


    Andy Terry

  3. Peter. I appreciate your comments, as always, but the "facts" I've reported are not mine, nor are they in inverted commas. They are embedded in the story itself, combined with background material. And of course it could all go wrong. The point is, it also might not. Indeed, the evidence is that things are progressively going less wrong in Iraq - although this is clearly much to some people's chagrin. The 'story' is, I think, an example of how what is presented as 'news' is in fact 'commentary' - what Andy calls 'advocacy reporting'. Media Studies courses have been aware of this for years. However, I don't think most of us are aware enough.

    Andy, I have no idea what model the gun is (apart from being a shotgun). This was the first time I'd ever fired one, at a men's event organized by the church here. About sixty turned out for a morning of 'clay pigeon' shooting, with lunch and an evangelistic talk.

    By the end of the afternoon, I was hitting about one in three. I don't know if clays are traps or skeets! They're round things, a bit bigger than a hockey puck, fired into the air where you try to hit them.

  4. One out of three?
    If you were a Baseball player, you could make quite a salary with that .333 batting average.


    Andy Terry