Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts
by Ian Sinclair
25 March 2021
Increasingly shared on Twitter, Andrew Marr’s 1996 interview with Noam Chomsky has become a well-known TV moment for many on the left.
Over the course of 30 minutes discussing the politics of the media on BBC2’s The Big Idea, the seemingly unprepared Marr, who would become the Editor of the Independent in 1996, is repeatedly corrected and out-argued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.
Chomsky begins by summarising the Propaganda Model he developed in the late 1980s with Edward Herman, which they argue shows the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity.”
Discombobulated, Marr says: “I was brought up like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on to believe that journalism was a crusading craft and there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism.”
Chomsky doesn’t dispute there are people like this in the media but argues the Propaganda Model can be applied to US media coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate. For Chomsky, one of the roles “of the liberal intellectual establishment”, within which the New York Times, BBC and Guardian operate, “is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. This far, and no further.”
“How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”, Marr asks. To which Chomsky replies: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
It’s an extremely telling interview – at one point Chomsky has to explain what COINTELPRO is to Marr – which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.
25 years later and Aljazeera has provided another illuminating example of an established journalist having the politics of their own profession explained to them by a left-wing academic.
After broadcasting their Battle for the BBC documentary, last summer Aljazeera organised an online discussion with key interviewees from the programme – BBC big beast David Dimbleby and the academic Tom Mills, author of the 2016 book The BBC Myth Of A Public Service. Former BBC Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason was also on the panel, but the crux of the debate is between Dimbleby and Mills.
Aljazeera presenter Flo Phillips led the discussion on three key events in BBC history: the 1926 General Strike, the Thatcher era and the corporation’s coverage of the Iraq War.
As the Aljazeera documentary set out, the BBC backed the government during the General Strike, with BBC founder Lord John Reith even helping to write one of the Prime Minister’s speeches, which was delivered from Reith’s own home. This supportive relationship occurred within the framework of a typically British compromise: the government did not commandeer the BBC, as some members of the cabinet wanted, on the tacit understanding the BBC would broadly serve the government. “Dissenting voices, from the trade unions to the opposition Labour Party, were banned”, Phillips notes in the documentary.
“They know they can trust us not to be really impartial”, is how Reith put it in his diary at the time.
Dimbleby is quick to dismiss the focus on 1926: “It’s like talking about an adult who is now in his middle age, like the BBC as it is now, and then complaining about what it did when it was a toddler. It’s absurd to go back that far.”
Mills explains why the history is important: “If you want to understand the BBC, if you want to understand any institution, you have to understand first of all its origins.”
“It tells us something about the ambiguous position that the BBC has found itself actually since the General Strike, which is that it has neither been independent of government, nor a direct instrument of government.”
Turning to the BBC under Thatcher, Mills sets out how John Birt pushed through a radical process of organisational and cultural change when he became Deputy Director of the Beeb in 1987 (and then Director-General from 1992), integrating the BBC into the market and making its journalism more risk averse.
“Birt was allied with the New Right”, Mills says. “He was a neoliberal in the very narrow sense of the word. He would go for lunch with [right-wing Tory Minister] Keith Joseph and… the Institute for Economic Affairs.”
Dimbleby, though opposed to Birt’s ‘reforms’, is again dismissive. “I don’t think there was a political agenda here”, he says, before layering on the sarcasm: “He had lunch with Keith Joseph? Wow”. To back up his position, Dimbleby notes Labour-supporting Peter Jay, who was Economics Editor at the Times and then at the BBC, also supported Birt’s changes.
Mills is fully aware of this, and unlike Dimbleby can clearly think outside the narrow Tory vs. Labour framing of British politics, replying that Jay “was one of the largest advocates of monetarism in that period” and “a big fan of Milton Friedman.”
“I’m surprised you don’t know that”, Mills says, likely annoyed by Dimbleby calling him “Tim” moments before.
Dimbleby can’t quite believe what he is hearing: “Sorry. What are you saying? That Jay and Birt came in to take over the BBC with monetarist policies? Is that your line?”
Mills: “That’s what happened, yes.” Mills tries to elaborate but is unable to as Dimbleby temporarily takes over as chair and invites Mason to comment.
Dimbleby has less to say on Iraq, other than to point out that the anti-war campaigner Tariq Ali had been a guest on BBC Question Time (Mason had noted BBC Newsnight “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices”, including Ali, “were not allowed”).
It is left to Mills to provide the key bits of evidence, mentioning the 2003 Cardiff University study which found the corporation displayed the most pro-war agenda of any broadcaster in the UK.
Marr himself infamously became the government’s spokesperson as the BBC’s Political Editor. Speaking about Prime Minister Tony Blair on the News At Ten just after US-UK forces had taken Baghdad in April 2003, Marr opined “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”
Mills also highlights how Kevin Marsh, the Editor of the BBC Today programme from 2002-6, had admitted they were not interested in covering the anti-Iraq War protests.
Mills is referring to testimony that appeared in my 2013 book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003.
“Since we, rightly or wrongly, see ourselves as public policy journalists then necessarily we look at what is happening in public policy i.e. politicians and officials”, Marsh told me. “And it is probably true that we would think more about what politicians and the military and so on were saying to us than we would think about those who were not in a position to make decisions, like the anti-war movement.”
As Mills explains, many people at the BBC believe the job of political journalism is “to report what is going on in the corridors of power.” Indeed, responding to complaints about his reporting on Iraq, in 2004 ITN reporter Nick Robinson – soon to become a BBC big beast himself – explained “It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… that is all someone in my sort of job can do. We are not investigative reporters.”
Two conclusions can be drawn from the Aljazeera panel discussion and Marr’s interview with Chomsky.
First, senior media figures often simply don’t understand the history and political economy of the institutions they work – and exercise considerable power – in. As Chomsky might say, it is precisely their establishment-friendly, ideologically-restricted mindset that has allowed Marr and Dimbleby to rise to the top of the BBC: if they had a more radical worldview they wouldn’t be senior figures at the BBC.
Second, faced with academic evidence and critical thinking both Marr and Dimbleby had very little to offer in response except spluttering disbelief, well-worn clichés and anecdotal evidence.
Rarely has Upton Sinclair’s well known dictum been illustrated so well: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Andrew Marr’s interview with Noam Chomsky can be viewed on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjENnyQupow. As can Aljazeera’s The Battle for the BBC panel discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74qcsksuqtU