Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
22 September 2017
The myth of the BBC exerts a powerful grip on many liberals and leftists in the UK. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee recently described the corporation as “the nation’s crucible, upholding an idea of fair reporting in the turmoil of these bitterly divided times”, while in 2015 the National Union of Journalists General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet wrote an article for the Morning Star that argued the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage.” For BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg it’s a matter of life or death. “I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC. That’s what we do”, she told the Press Gazette after collecting the prize for Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards last year.
Compare these platitudes with what the first BBC Director-General said at the height of the 1926 General Strike. Considering the tacit understanding that existed between the government of the time and the BBC to give the latter operational autonomy, John Reith noted in in his diary the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”
The publication of Tom Mills’s book The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service 90 years later suggests little has changed. Surveying the history of the BBC, Mills notes its structure is “profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society” which means its news journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”
The mainstream media’s bias towards established power tends to increase during wartime. Take the BBC’s John Simpson’s whitewashing of the British occupation when British forces officially withdrew in 2014, for example. Afghanistan “is stable, it is working and it doesn’t look as though the Taliban are coming back. I think in the grander view of things you’d have to say it has been pretty successful even though it ought to have been more successful”, Simpson reported on the Today Programme.
The BBC’s usually Western military-friendly coverage resonates with much of the British media’s reporting of Afghanistan. “With few honourable exceptions, in the Afghanistan war the media failed” to “to tell the people what is really going on, as distinct from what the government says is going on; to penetrate propaganda and lies” and “to provoke debate”, according to the late veteran reporter Philip Knightley.
Rarely mentioned during the UK’s direct military occupation of Helmand was the wider historical context for the intervention. Speaking about the war in 2014 Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War at University of Oxford, was clear: “Quite frankly, what drives British defence policy in the first decade of the 21st century is its alliance with the United States. No government says that openly because it wants to pretend it continues to have an independent defence policy.”
Speaking at an event earlier this month organised by the Royal United Services Institute thinktank the BBC’s Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban highlighted just how serious he was about the cementing the so-called Special Relationship. ‘They [British unit commanders] were lacking in intellectual curiosity. If you told them you had been there when the Russians had been there, there was almost never a follow up question about “Oh, how did they do this?”’, Urban commented about his experiences of reporting on the ground in Afghanistan. ‘Whereas I was contacted by officers from US Marine battalions that were deploying saying “We are doing our study day and we’ve got your  book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Can you explain X, Y and Z?” And as a result of which I built relationships with some of these US Marine guys that then resulted in embeds when they were taking over some of these places.’
To summarise, Urban appears to reveal he advised the American military on how to fight better in Afghanistan – a war, we shouldn’t forget, that was deeply unpopular in the UK, involved the military occupation of another country and tens of thousands of conflict deaths. Moreover, through building a friendly relationship with the US military Urban believes he was given embedded reporting posts with American forces.
How, exactly, does this fit with the BBC’s claims to be impartial and independent?