Tag Archives: BBC

The BBC’s John Humphrys on Russian peacekeepers and the democracy-creating British army

Compare and contrast comments made by the BBC’s John Humphrys on Russian forces in Europe with his 2012 comments on British forces in Iraq:

“I think it might just be worth making the point though that some people will raise their eyebrows at the idea Russian armies are peacekeeping armies. The people of Romania might take a slightly different view of that… just a very quick thought about Ukraine. The idea that what Russia has been doing in Ukraine is peacekeeping is a slightly bizarre notion, isn’t it?” (Interview with Vitaly Milonov, a Russian politician and member of the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, BBC Today Programme, 10 April 2017)

Vs.

“…a lot of British lives, 179 British lives, were lost for Basra in effect… If a country [the UK] has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?” (Interview with Baroness Nicholson, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Economic Development in Iraq and the Region, BBC Today Programme, October 2012)

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
3 February 2017

Dr Mike Berry, a Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, co-wrote Bad News From Israel (2004) and More Bad News From Israel (2011) with Professor Greg Philo.

In recent years Dr Berry has turned his attention to the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis. I asked him about his findings and why they are important for British democracy.

Ian Sinclair: In the last few years you have published two journal articles studying the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis – one analysing BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s output on the banking crisis in September and October 2008 and the other looking at the coverage by BBC News at Ten of the debate around the need to reduce the public deficit in the first seven months of 2009. What were the main findings of these two studies?

Mike Berry: Before answering that question directly I’d like to backtrack a little and provide some context to these events and explain why they are intimately linked. After 1979 the Conservatives introduced policies which fundamentally changed the nature and composition of the British economy. The withdrawal of the state from intervention in industry, the lifting of exchange controls and the deregulation of finance strengthened the power of capital at the expense of labour. The effects of what the Oxford historian Andrew Glyn described as, ‘Capitalism Unleashed’, was a shift towards an economy dominated by the service sector, a dramatic polarization in regional economic activity and sharp rise in income and wealth inequality. However this rise in inequality had a deflationary impact on the economy which was only compensated for by a steep rise in household debt. When New Labour came to power they largely accepted the Thatcherite settlement – the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector would continue to be the principal private motor of the economy whilst manufacturing was allowed to continue its long decline. However Labour did introduce record increases in social spending in areas such as health and education which in large part were paid for by tax receipts drawn from the City and the property boom. This meant that public spending increasingly took on the role of an ‘undisclosed regional policy’ by boosting state and para-state employment in areas outside the South-East where private sector job creation was ‘weak or failing’. However this unbalanced growth model, based on asset price inflation and ever expanding household debt financed by an outsized, reckless financial services sector was unsustainable and exploded spectacularly in 2008.

This is the point at which my research picked up the story and I was interested primarily in how the crisis was explained, how the bank rescue plans were discussed and the range of debate on how the finance sector could be reformed. Would the key role of the banks in creating such an unbalanced economic model be unpacked and would there be any voices featured who called for more democratic control of finance and restrictions on the free market? When I looked at the coverage on the Today programme it was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions. This meant that that on the question of what to do with the banks there was strong support for the government bailouts and the idea that the banks should be re-privatised as soon as possible. It also meant that arguments in favour of long term public stake in banking which could be used to support long term productive investment – rather than real estate speculation – never appeared in coverage. In a similar vein, major reforms such as heavier regulation of the shadow banking sector, the introduction of a financial transaction tax, the regulation or even banning of certain derivative classes, a clampdown on tax havens or restrictions on the revolving door between politicians, regulators and major banks, were also invisible. It was remarkable that in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, which was precipitated by extraordinarily irresponsible behaviour by the banks, the Today programme featured a variety of City sources warning about the dangers of too much regulation.

The banking crisis led to a major recession which shrunk the tax base and sharply increased the public deficit (the gap between the tax take and public spending). It also precipitated a major debate about how to respond to the increase in public debt. At the heart of these debates were three interlinked questions: How serious a problems was the deficit? How quickly should it be eliminated?, and how should it be reduced? Some leading economists were sceptical that the deficit represented an economy emergency and believed that deficit reduction needed to wait until the recovery was well established. There were also many voices calling for the burden of deficit reduction to be primarily borne by those who had most benefitted from the sharp increases in asset wealth seen over the previous thirty years. However these voices didn’t appear in coverage. Instead the dominant perspectives in BBC News at Ten reporting were that the deficit was highly dangerous and needed to be dealt with quickly by sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive forms of taxation. These perspectives were mostly expressed by politicians, think tanks and City sources but on occasion they were directly endorsed by leading journalists. So for instance on 10 June 2009 a reporter commented that ‘What will be cut, by how much and when? As the Government’s coffers grow ever more empty, those are questions that can no longer be avoided.’

IS: Is this coverage a step change in the BBC’s coverage of finance and economics news, or is it a continuation of previous output?

MB: In many ways this is a continuation of previous output. There is a long history of research stretching back to the mid 1970s which has found that BBC economic news tends to reproduce free market perspectives on the economy whilst marginalising left wing views.

For instance research on BBC reporting of Britain’s industrial malaise in the 1970s tended to blame  industrial action by trade unions whilst sidelining the culpability of management and very low levels of investment in plant and capital, which meant that the average Japanese car production worker was using equipment worth ten times that of  their British counterpart. In the 1980s, research noted that BBC reporting of the Conservatives’ privatisation of state assets was heavily influenced by the governments’ PR campaigns with the consequence that most coverage focused on the potential profits to shareholders while excluding those who argued that 80% of the population would no longer have a stake in the newly private industries.

However, there are two key trends since the 1980s that have narrowed the range of opinion even further. The first was the decision by the Labour Party to abandon contestation of economic policy following a series of election defeats in the 1980s. By the time New Labour was elected in 1997 the party had wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism and the primacy of finance sector in the economy. Since the BBC tends to reproduce the spectrum of opinion at Westminster it meant that the major voice which had traditionally argued for an interventionist state and controls on the free market disappeared from coverage. The second factor was changes in the sociology of journalism. The 1980s saw the disappearance of the industrial news beat which had provided a platform for the views of the trade unions and a space where left-wing collectivist opinion could be articulated. At the same time financial and City news became a much more prominent feature of BBC reporting which provided much greater space for City experts and their apparently neutral opinions on the latest financial and economic news stories.

IS: How does the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis compare to that of other British news organisations?

MB: The BBC, due to its statutory duty to maintain impartiality, doesn’t employ the kind of aggressive editorialising that you see in parts of the national press. Nevertheless the range of opinion is similar.

So during the banking crisis both the Today programme and most national newspapers overwhelmingly viewed the part-nationalisation as the only option and featured commentators who argued against full nationalisation and public ownership of banks. In a similar vein both Today and the national press – with the notable exception of the Guardian – featured little information about serious structural reforms to the finance sector. If anything Today coverage, due to its exceptionally heavy reliance on City sources, tended to feature less criticism of the finance sector and more arguments against further regulation than any national newspaper.

In a similar vein, when I looked at the coverage of the debates around the public deficit what was remarkable was the degree of similarity in broadcast and press coverage with the key differences being in tone and tenor. So both the press and the BBC tended to treat the deficit as an economic crisis which threatened serious consequences such as currency depreciation, interest rate rises, bond strikes and even national bankruptcy whilst sidelining voices who questioned these claims. Similarly both the BBC and the right-wing press overwhelming presented sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive taxation as the only possible solutions to the ‘crisis’. The argument made by some on the left that some of the burden should be borne by the most wealthy just doesn’t appear in BBC coverage and even in the left of centre press it is largely absent except for the Guardian.

IS: The BBC prides itself on the principle of impartiality, and is even seen as left-wing by many commentators. Why, then, were the parameters of the coverage of the financial crisis on two of the BBC’s flagship programmes so narrow and City-friendly, and so dominated by elite, often City-based sources?

MB: If you ask journalists this question they will tell you that in comparison to academic economists City sources are invariably ‘available’ and ‘up to date’ on the latest events. Journalists also argue that you can rely on such sources to give clear concise arguments within the constraints of a brief news item and that they are the sources with the expertise needed to understand the intricacies and complexities of the financial crisis. All those are valid explanations but I think these sourcing patterns also reflect the fact that journalists internalise strong assumptions about who is qualified to speak on the economy or finance sector and this usually means a front bench politician, specific think tanks or a City source. These voices are then routinely over accessed and serve to sharply delineate the boundaries of what is said about how the economy can be managed. But of course there are always alternative sources who could be accessed to broaden the parameters of debate.

IS: Why are your findings about the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis important?

MB: Broadcast news remains a key information source for most citizens and so what appears has significant implications for the construction of public belief and attitudes. In my research in addition to analysing the content of media broadcasts I also run focus groups with members of the public in order to examine how news accounts impact on what people think and believe. What was clear from the focus groups was that most people were quite confused about key aspects of the financial crisis – for instance what a derivative was or the difference between the public debt and deficit. However what they had picked up tended to be very heavily influenced by what they had seen in the press or broadcasting. So most people knew about the ‘fat cats’ and the bonuses but nobody I spoke to had heard of the financial transactions tax or knew about the ‘revolving door’. When I asked people about how the public deficit could be reduced they overwhelmingly pointed to solutions they had picked up from press and television accounts such as reductions in quangos, public sector pension provision, benefit payments or immigrants. Nobody mentioned clamping down on tax avoidance or introducing progressive wealth or income taxes. However when I brought these up as potential solutions in focus groups they were received very well, reflecting the findings of large scale surveys in this area.

The press and television thus plays a key role in framing how we understand the economy and the range of possibilities as to how it can be managed. If the great bulk of the press argue that the public deficit represents a national emergency which can only be solved by cuts to a ‘bloated’ and ‘inefficient’ public sector – and crucially if such views are reinforced (in rather more temperate language) in public broadcasting then it is hardly surprising that such views become widely accepted amongst the public.

IS: What changes do you think the BBC should make to provide a wider selection of voices and a broader debate when it comes to financial and economic news?

MB: I think that the first thing that needs to happen is for the BBC to recognise that its economic reporting should be more balanced. On the day that the bank bailouts were finalised (13 October 2008) the discussion during one news segment was conducted between Sir George Cox, described by a BBC journalist as ‘someone with a liberal, free-market economic background, Institute of Directors and from perhaps the more right end of British politics’, and Patrick Minford who was introduced as ‘one of Mrs Thatcher’s chief economist supporters’. Such a narrow range of reporting was not uncommon and appears to reflect a belief within BBC economic reporting that, as Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there is no alternative’ to the free market.

However, when even economists at the IMF, the organisation mostly closely associated with the promotion of neoliberalism, are now publishing papers explicitly linking the decline in labour bargaining power with debt increases, financialisation and economic crises then surely it is time for BBC reporting to widen the spectrum of opinion it features in its new programmes.

There are many alternative sources that the BBC could turn to to provide an alternative to free market perspectives. Individual sources such as Ha Joon Chang, Geoff Tily, Simon Wren-Lewis, James Meadway, Ann Pettifor, Mariana Mazzucato, Mark Blyth or Graham Turner could offer fresh perspectives. Institutionally the BBC could source from thinktanks like the New Economics Foundation, the Tax Justice Network, PRIME or from academics connected to the Manchester Business School or SPERI. Occasionally such sources do appear, but to provide true balance they need to be featured routinely as a counterpoint to the views of City economists who tend to dominate reporting.

 

The BBC is neither independent or impartial: interview with Tom Mills

The BBC is neither independent or impartial: interview with Tom Mills
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
25 January 2017

Tom Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University and former Co-Editor of New Left Project, has just published his first book, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service. Using archival research, original interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources Mills examines the politics of the BBC, arguably the most influential and trusted news organisation in the UK.

I asked Mills about the popular image of the BBC as independent and impartial, its Iraq War coverage and what changes he would like to see made at the Corporation.

Ian Sinclair: In an interview with the Press Gazette after she was recently named Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor, said ‘Among the many jewels and gifts that the BBC has is our editorial independence’. She went on to argue ‘I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC. That’s what we do.’ Is the BBC independent and impartial?

Tom Mills: The simple answer is ‘no’. But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds.  First it is important to state from the outset what is rarely acknowledged in discussions about the BBC: that it isn’t independent from governments, let alone from the broader Establishment. The BBC has always been formally accountable to ministers for its operations. Governments set the terms under which it operates, they appoint its most senior figures, who in future will be directly involved in day-to-day managerial decision making, and they set the level of the licence fee, which is the BBC’s major source of income. So that’s the context within which the BBC operates, and it hardly amounts to independence in any substantive sense.

But though politicians have never ceded overall control, they have generally granted the BBC editorial autonomy, at least for the most part. In the interwar period, the system of broadcasting pioneered by the BBC was referred to as ‘remote state control’. It emerged from a situation where politicians did not want a chaotic system of broadcasting to develop, especially given the presumed political power of the new medium. But equally, officials did not want to assume responsibility for producing broadcasting content, which is what the radio companies wanted – they basically had radios to sell but no broadcasting service for potential customers to listen to! So what emerged from this was the BBC, a broadcaster with an ambiguous kind of independence that in some cases has enjoyed substantive freedom, but which has always been kept under some degree of political control, and often enormous political pressure.

Does this mean it’s independent? Well really the BBC’s not so different to various state institutions that are afforded operational autonomy but ultimately answerable to ministers or to Parliament through various mechanisms, such as the police or the Bank of England.

Getting back to Laura Kuenssberg, she spoke specifically about ‘editorial independence’, so I presume what she has in mind here is government interference in editorial decision making. Well that’s not exactly how this works. What happens is the editorial policy is defined at the top of the BBC – which is the most politicised section of the Corporation given that senior executives have to periodically negotiate with governments over its funding, its Charter and so on, and senior editorial figures have to respond to constant complaints over its reporting – and that policy then cascades down the hierarchy, in rather complex and uneven ways. You occasionally see glimpses of this at work, such as in 2010 when the then Director General Mark Thompson attended Downing Street to discuss the BBC’s reporting of the Coalition Government’s austerity agenda, and you get a much fuller picture of how this works in practice from archival sources and autobiographies, which I draw in the book.

None of the actual evidence is suggestive of the kind of independence and impartiality that Kuenssberg praises to the skies. But her remarks reflect the fact that, rightly or wrongly, she has personally come to symbolise the BBC’s very conspicuous failures in exactly this regard. So naturally it’s in her interests to make these kinds of statements. But strongly asserting something doesn’t make it true, and it’s not.

IS: A key issue seems to be the BBC’s working definition of impartiality. How would you define this?

TM: I think the most straightforward way of putting this is that the BBC will aim to fairly and accurately reflect the balance of opinion amongst elites. In that respect it’s not so different to other reputable media organisations. But a number of studies suggest the range of opinion on the BBC is narrower than some of its rivals. Channel 4 News tends, I think, to have a broader range of perspectives, and the recent Media Reform Coalition’s report on the coverage of Corbyn found that the BBC gave much more airtime to Corbyn’s opponents than ITV.

IS: As you note in your book, ‘The Gilligan Affair’ – when a critical April 2003 radio report by BBC Today Programme journalist Andrew Gilligan about the government’s claims about Iraqi WMDs kicked off a high-level conflict between the Labour Government and the BBC – is often cited as evidence of the BBC’s independence. For example, the BBC’s official historian Professor Jean Seaton views it as an instance of the ‘determination of broadcasters not to be controlled.’ What do you think ‘The Gilligan Affair’ tells us about the relationship between the BBC and government?

TM: The Iraq War was another area where scholarly research found that the BBC was more favourable to the government and its supporters, compared with other broadcasters, and that’s one of the very important factors that tends to get lost in the conventional take on this affair, which is actually very misleading. On the one hand, the report itself is evidence of independent reporting vis-à-vis the government, and that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, the reason the Today Programme felt confident broadcasting the report was that it was being briefed by MI6 and other sources, and so knew that sections of the British state were anxious about the case for war and what the possible fallout might be if and when no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found. So the ‘determination’ of the BBC in this case is based on the support of some of the most powerful and authoritative sources in the British state, and of course there was an enormous public mobilisation around this time as well.

When the Blair Government then attacks the BBC, it’s true that the BBC leadership stands firm, and that’s certainly commendable. But what then ultimately happens is that the Chair and Director General are both forced to resign, and the BBC publicly apologises to the government – a government that let’s not forget had launched an illegal war on a plainly false pretext. The former BBC Governor, Kenneth Bloomfield, argues that ironically part of the reason the BBC leadership stood firm after the Gilligan report is precisely because it was personally so close to the Blair Government. The then BBC Chair, Gavyn Davies, a former Goldman Sachs partner, was not only close friends with Blair and [then Chancellor Gordon] Brown, his wife worked for Brown and his children were reportedly bridesmaid and pageboy at his wedding. So I think the ‘The Gilligan Affair’ is best understood as a rather bitter conflict within the British elite during a period of considerable crisis, and the lessons in terms of how we understand the BBC are much more complex than is generally recognised.

IS: The arrival of John Birt as Deputy Director-General in 1987 seems to have heralded a significant change at the BBC?

TM: Yes, that was the year when the then Director General Alasdair Milne, father of Guardian journalist and Corbyn advisor Seumas Milne, was forced to resign by the Thatcher appointed chair Marmaduke Hussey. Milne wasn’t a leftist by any means, but he had represented the more independent spirit of BBC programme making at that time. He was replaced by a BBC accountant called Michael Checkland and John Birt was meanwhile brought in from an ITV company to head the BBC’s journalism, later succeeding Checkland as Director General.

Birt wasn’t really understood by his critics at the time, who seem to have been rather puzzled by his authoritarianism and his belligerent managerialism. They seem to have regarded him as a Stalinist, or something like that. But in fact he was an out-and-out neoliberal who wanted not only to introduce stronger editorial controls over BBC journalism, but also to radically shift its institutional structure and culture away from its ‘statist’ character and in a more neoliberal, business-friendly direction. This was resented by BBC staff and the Corporation went through a quite unhappy period, with a brief respite under Greg Dyke. As I describe in some detail in the book, Birt’s ‘reforms’ were part of a broader process of neoliberal restructuring, and in some ways Dyke was also part of that, especially in terms of the extent to which business reporting was pushed up the agenda during his time as Director General.

IS: Why are the politics and quality of the BBC’s news output important?

TM: The BBC is the most popular single source of news for the British public, and is much more trusted than the press, for example. How it reports particular issues has a material effect on the political process, which in turn has consequences for everyone. In many cases – such as reporting on foreign policy, health or welfare issues – this is literally a matter of life or death.

IS: What changes would you like the BBC to institute moving forward?

TM: There’s not really space to do this question justice here, but very briefly I think first of all that all the various mechanisms of political control need to be eliminated altogether and replaced with forms of independent, or better still democratic, processes. That would be a big step in the right direction.

But really I think we need to be thinking much more ambitiously about institutional design in the same way as Birt and the other neoliberals did in the 1980s and ‘90s. What kind of BBC do we want for the 21st century?, that’s the real question we should be asking. It’s very clear that the BBC leadership are unable or unwilling to advance anything like an ambitious vision for public media. If they have a vision it is for the BBC to be retained as a source of public funding, quasi-official news, and a leading British brand that can give UK media companies an edge in the international market.  They simply have no notion of the severity of the social crisis we are currently in and the political importance of public media and the values it should embody. If we want public media to survive, we are going to have to come up with a vision for the future. The BBC, or at least the people at the top of the BBC, will not do that for us.

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 January 2017

What grade does President Obama deserve for his environmental policies? According to the BBC the Obama Administration should be awarded an “A-” for negotiating the 2016 Paris climate agreement, introducing new regulations governing pollution from US power plants and designating 548 million acres of US territory as protected areas.

The Guardian anticipated this positive assessment of Obama’s actions on the environment, with a 2014 leader column asserting that “President Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change has not been in doubt”.

This support for Obama was taken to extraordinary lengths by last year’s BBC documentary series Inside Obama’s White House. With the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen heralded as the final chance to save the planet from dangerous levels of climate change, the BBC’s one-sided account explains Obama worked to solve the climate crisis in the face of Chinese intransigence (the Chinese – and not the US, apparently – “were afraid of the impact on their economy”). With India, Brazil and South African joining China in a supposedly secret meeting “to stop the climate deal”, the film excitedly tells a story of Obama crashing the party to force an agreement on China in a sincere attempt to save the planet.

There is, of course, more to the story. As the US historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data.”

In contrast to the BBC’s hagiography, George Monbiot, arguably the most knowledgeable environmental commentator in the UK, noted at the time that “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.” Bill McKibben, a leading US environmentalist, concurred, arguing Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.” Missing from the BBC’s account, Canadian author Naomi Klein highlighted a key reason behind Monbiot’s and McKibben’s conclusions: “Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.”

How low? The European Union went into the talks promising to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama – whose commitment to fighting climate change, remember, “has not been in doubt” – offered a measly four percent cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama was “the conservative voice among world leaders” when it came to climate change, “supporting the least-aggressive steps”, noted Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in the Wall Street Journal.

The attempt to block significant action on the international stage broadly mirrors the Democratic president’s (in)action domestically during his first term. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg uncovered an important spring 2009 meeting at the White House between the Obama Administration and leaders of the US green movement in which, incredibly, the environmentalists were told not to talk about climate change. With the Obama team apparently concerned about attacks from industry and conservative groups, Goldenberg noted the meeting “marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word”, which in turn produced a near total absence of the issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Goldenberg reports that “environmental groups, taking their cue from the White House… downplayed climate change” after the meeting. McKibben, who attended the summit, was one of the few people to speak out against the strategy: “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem”.

While the liberal media was dazzled by Obama’s Christ-like campaign rhetoric about slowing “the rise of the oceans” and healing the planet, in office the first Black president pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. This, according to environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard, “made the United States the world’s leading producer of oil and gas by the end of his first term.” Writing in 2013, McKibben provided clarification: “We are… a global-warming machine. At the moment when physics tells us we should be jamming on the carbon breaks, America is revving the engine.”

What about the Environmental Protection Agency rules Obama introduced in 2014 to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent? These are certainly a step in the right direction but, as Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute noted, the proposals are “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.”

Internationally, the ongoing UN climate talks continued to be a fiasco in the years after Copenhagen, with the Guardian’s chief environmental correspondent John Vidal laying the blame in 2012 “squarely on the US in particular and the rich countries in general.” Vidal continued: “For three years now, they have bullied the poor into accepting a new agreement. They have delayed making commitments, withheld money and played a cynical game of power politics to avoid their legal obligations.”

Troublingly, the widely heralded Paris Agreement – for which the liberal media have repeatedly congratulated Obama for realising – is looking increasingly like a red herring. Though the text of the accord agrees to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, a recent survey of a number of leading climate scientists and analysts by author Andrew Simms found that not one thought the 2°C target would likely be met. Speaking last year to the Morning Star top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson said the pledges made by nations at Paris would likely lead to a catastrophic 3-4°C rise in global temperatures (“and probably the upper end of that”).

Asked by Hertsgaard in 2014 how history will judge the 44th president on climate change, senior Obama adviser John Podesta replied that while his boss “tried to address the challenge… fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.” Writing in The Nation earlier this month, Hertsgaard reconfirmed Podesta’s conclusion: “Obama did more in his second term, but nowhere near enough. The climate emergency is still advancing faster than the world’s response, not least because of the United States’ inadequate actions.”

Two lessons about climate change can be taken from the eight years of the Obama Administration. First, it is clear the liberal media such as the BBC and the Guardian cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of what Obama actually did in office – what George Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Second, many of the positive steps Obama took on climate change were arguably down to grassroots pressure. For example, the Obama Administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline which was going to transport oil from the deadly Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico was, as McKibben and Hertsgaard have argued, a victory for the indigenous-led grassroots resistance movement.

With the climate change-denying President Donald Trump and his powerful supporters threatening a bonfire of US environmental regulation and international climate agreements, it is essential the US and global green movements grow substantially and become more active and effective. Terrifying though it is to contemplate, it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of humanity rests on the outcome of this struggle.

Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors

Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
February 2009

With several academic studies now published on the subject and public apologies from the two most influential US newspapers, it is now widely understood that in the run up to the invasion of Iraq the mainstream media completely failed to hold government to account on both sides of the Atlantic. As Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post news website accurately pointed out, the “watchdogs acted more like lapdogs”.

Less talked about is the mainstream media‘s subsequent failure to accurately report on the continuing occupation of Iraq, in particular the large, violent resistance that sprang up after the initial US/UK assault in March 2003.

Sheffield-born photojournalist and filmmaker Steve Connors believes most western journalists working alongside him in Iraq just after the fall of Baghdad “weren‘t all that interested in going out and doing this story” because they had “swallowed the party line – we are the good guys, they are the bad guys. The people who are resisting us are dead-enders, it was foreign fighters.” Connors, 50, explains the right to resist is enshrined in the UN Charter, but “when we go and invade somebody‘s country all of a sudden their right to resist is not legitimate in our eyes.”

Working closely with fellow journalist Molly Bingham, Connors soon came to understand it was “ordinary Iraqi people” who were resisting the occupation. Sensing an important story, they started hanging out in the teashops of Adhamiya, a northern suburb of Baghdad, spending ten months speaking to 45 Iraqis involved in the growing resistance movement.

Eleven of these interviews make up Connors and Bingham‘s superb 2007 documentary Meeting Resistance, a much-needed antidote to the crude propaganda that has been disseminated about those resisting the occupation. In the middle of conducting a statistical study of the resistance, a Professor of Political Science at Baghdad University sums up the film‘s main findings: “the vast majority of resistance is a nationalist, popular resistance by Iraqis who have no relationship to the former regime.”

Talking to me at a screening of the film at the British Museum in London, Connors suggests the inconvenient truths they uncovered in Adhamiya are the main reason why they‘ve been unable to get their work out to a wider audience. Both the BBC and Channel Four declined to show the documentary, with the latter refusing to “believe these people were who they said they were.” Despite this setback, Connors is upbeat as joiningthedocs.tv are releasing Meeting Resistance on DVD next month, and there will hopefully be a limited theatrical release in the near future too.

With the interviews occurring more than four years ago, is Meeting Resistance still relevant to the situation in Iraq today? “There were more attacks in 2008 than there were when we finished making the film”, Connors replies. “It peaked and then it went down again.” He also quotes Department of Defence figures off the top of his head: “from May 2003 to May 2008, 73 per cent of attacks that were carried out in Iraq were directed at US forces. 12 per cent against civilians. 15 per cent against Iraqi security forces. So the main violent energy is being directed at the occupation.”

The spike Connors refers to is the much heralded February 2007 US ‘surge‘, seen by many commentators and politicians as a huge success, including the new US president Barack Obama. In contrast, Connors argues the ‘surge‘ itself did little to reduce the overall levels of violence. “It was a set of political conditions that happened at the same time as the surge”, he explains. “You had the Mahdi Army standing down, there was a sectarian cleansing of districts of Baghdad – there was nobody left to kill.” He also points to the creation of the Awakening Movement, presented as a successful counterinsurgency operation by the US forces, as it supposedly increased security in Anbar province, “What they have done essentially is chosen elements from some tribes and promoted them over other elements, upsetting a system that is hundreds of years old”, he says.  “I liken it to handing over Scotland Yard to the Kray twins. For a short-term tactical gain there is going to be a huge price to be paid for this. They are creating the conditions for another civil war, this time among the Sunni tribes.” And Connors attributes the reduction in violence to one more glaring factor – “the Americans started to withdraw in that period, so they were not presenting targets.”

Although he has previously reported from Sri Lanka, the violent break up of Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Connors is still shocked by the “state of chaos” in Iraq, the dire security situation making it very difficult to accurately estimate the number of Iraqi dead. He believes the Iraq Body Count figure of around 100,000 – calculated from cross-checked reports of violent deaths in English language media – is a gross underestimate, noting that in Iraq “especially in the summer, you can have someone killed and buried within two hours. There is no report of that death. Most people don‘t go to the morgue.” And although the 2006 Lancet study that estimated 655,000 Iraqis deaths has been criticised by both the US and UK governments, Connors highlights that the epidemiological studies upon which the figures are based “have been accepted in virtually every other conflict throughout the world”.

“The reason we find it so difficult to accept, is because we are the bad guys this time.  We have caused all this pain and suffering”, he says.

Rather than arguing over the exact number deaths, Connors is quick to point out the central question “is the magnitude of the crime is the crime itself – and everything accrues from that. If you go back to the Nuremberg Principles, to commit aggressive war is the supreme crime. And what we did in Iraq is we committed aggressive war.”  Summing up, he laments, “Britain is as guilty as the United States. We are on the wrong side of history.”

www.meetingresistance.com

Book review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 October 2016

One of the most important political and cultural institutions in the UK, polls show the BBC is the most trusted news source in the country. For example, in 2011 Michelle Stanistreet, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, argued in this paper that “BBC journalism is of the highest quality in the world”. This is because, she explained a few years later, the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage”.

Dr Tom Mills’s superb first book deftly demolishes this – and many other – popular and comforting myths surrounding the BBC. For Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University, “the BBC is neither independent nor impartial.” Instead, with “its structure profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Mills shows how the BBC’s journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

What causes this establishment-friendly output? Mills highlights a number of factors, including the elite-populated, government-appointed BBC Board of Governors (since 2007, the BBC Trust), the class and educational background of senior management, the fact the government of the day sets the corporation’s budget and decades long vetting of employees conducted by the security services.

The BBC’s output during the 1926 General Strike was an early indication of the state of play. “The BBC was afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent”, Mills notes. However, this was “on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government.” As the first BBC Director-General John Reith famously noted about this gentleman’s agreement at the time: the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”

On war and peace issues, from the Second World War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, study after study has highlighted how the BBC has tended to toe the government’s line. Special mention should go to Mills’s analysis of the conflict between the government and BBC over Andrew Gilligan’s ‘sexed up’ dossier claims in 2004. Seen by the official BBC historian Jean Seaton as an example of the BBC’s independence, Mills counters that it was infact “something of an imbroglio among the British elite”, with the huge anti-war movement largely excluded from the airwaves.

Also impressive is the book’s exploration of the neoliberal shift at the BBC after the arrival of John Birt as Deputy Director-General in 1987. “There was a turn away from industrial reporting and a remarkable growth in business and economics journalism”, notes Mills. The perspective of workers was marginalised, with industrial reporters downgraded and let go.

In the last few pages, Mills sketches out what the much needed radical reform of the BBC would require: the end of political control over senior appointments and budgets, a more representative workforce and the public commissioning of investigative journalism.

An absolutely essential read for anyone interested in British politics, the book has profound implications for social movements and those, like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, who challenge the neoliberal establishment.

The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service is published by Verso, priced £16.99.

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
7 October 2016

“We’ve got to win in Cardiff North. We’ve got to win in Nuneaton. We’ve got to win in Milton Keynes”, asserted Owen Smith in the recent leadership campaign. “We’ve got to get Tories and Greens and Liberals to vote Labour.”

In the mainstream commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, one thing is clear – he must claim the centre ground of politics and reach out to Tory voters. The BBC’s political coverage is often based on this assumption, with the corporation deciding to hold its 2015 televised Labour leadership debate in the well-known marginal seat of Nuneaton.

This has been the dominant, so-called pragmatic, way of doing parliamentary politics for my lifetime – what Professor Jeremy Gilbert from the University of East London calls “politics as marketing”. In this conception of politics, “there is only ever a very narrow range of opinions which can really be considered sensible, because they are predicated on an understanding of how the world really works.” Voters are rational, self-interested actors with fixed preferences. The politician is sold to the voters as likable and competent, much like a salesperson selling the party brand to customers. “The target market is almost exclusively floating voters in marginal constituencies”.

Writer Tariq Ali argues this endless battle for the mythical, ‘sensible’ centre ground has led to the creation of an “extreme centre” in British politics, with Tory-Labour bipartisanship leading to destructive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the financial crisis, privatisation, rising inequality and nasty and dangerous narratives being pushed on welfare and immigration.

Aswell as being tone deaf to radical social movements, this focus on a tiny number of voters in marginal seats ignores what has been called the largest party in British politics – the 15.7 million who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election.

Corbyn himself has repeatedly said he wants to reach out to those who don’t vote, especially young people. Noting that turnout went down from 84 percent in 1950 to 66 percent in 2015, Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Oxford agrees, arguing “the best strategy for Labour to increase its share of the vote is to target people who vote for minor parties and the much larger groups [who] have given up voting or even registering to vote.”

So, who doesn’t vote and why don’t they bother? Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary university, notes the people who don’t vote tend to be “the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested.” Speaking to voters in Manchester before the last general election, the BBC’s Emma Ailes reported that “it seems anger not apathy is turning people off voting” – an observation highlighted by polling. According to a 2013 poll by Survation the top reasons given by people for not voting were a belief that their vote will not make a difference; that the parties and candidates are all the same; a lack of interest in politics; not enough information or knowledge to choose; and that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates.

This deeply concerning reality is neither natural nor inevitable. As I note above, in 1950 general election turnout was around 20 percent higher than it is now. The Nordic countries have very high levels of voter turnout.  Indeed there have been British elections recently with very high turnouts – the Scottish referendum (85 percent – the highest turnout in any British election since universal suffrage) and the EU referendum (72 percent). Arguably, in contrast to most of the elections of the past 35 years, these two votes actually meant something – there was actually a real choice for voters to make.

This gets to the heart of the issue. Citing British Social Attitudes survey data, in 2010 Alison Park, the Research Director of the National Centre for Social Research, noted one reason for the low turnout in recent elections “is that New Labour’s move to the political centre in the 1990s has led to voters thinking there is relatively little difference between the two main parties.” Professor Bale explains turnout goes down when “the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague”.

To counter these common criticisms of modern politicians, Corbyn needs to position the Labour Party as a clear and easily understandable alternative to the Conservatives and make sure the party follows through on any promises it makes. In addition, Labour needs more working-class MPs, a problem Corbyn’s 2015 proposal to provide grants to less affluent parliamentary candidates would help alleviate.

To mobilse non-voters commentator Owen Jones has suggested Labour carry out the biggest registration drive in history. And with Labour membership standing at over 600,000 and Corbyn attracting crowds of 1,000s of people, journalist Paul Mason believes Labour supporters can play a key role by being ambassadors in their communities, engaging with the wider electorate. Trade unions, which have traditionally encouraged the working-classes to vote, also have an important role to play.

However, it is important to note the First Past The Post system means significantly expanding the electorate will not, on its own, win the election for Corbyn. This is because the people who don’t vote tend to live in Labour dominated seats, meaning a higher turnout in most constituencies would simply mean a bigger win for the Labour MP. However, it would still lead to some gains, with a Fabian Society analysis showing a 7.3 percent boost in turnout in marginal seats would lead to Labour winning 52 seats if each new voter backed Labour.

Corbyn, then, will almost certainly need to attract significant numbers of people who had voted Conservative. This isn’t as unbelievable as the mainstream media would have you believe. Polling suggests many of Corbyn’s political positions – on the NHS, on railways, on housing and foreign policy – have the support of large sections of the British public, sometimes the majority of Tory voters.

Beyond the narrow electoral math, there are a number of reasons why Corbyn’s Labour Party (and other political parties) should work hard to engage with non-voters – for their party’s own benefit and for the nation as a whole.

First, though it may not translate into immediate electoral gains, getting the support of non-voters would increase the popular vote for Labour, one source of legitimacy in political debates. In addition, it would increase the number of the poorer people who are interested and involved in Labour politics, and politics more generally. This process would hopefully mean Labour increasingly becomes more responsive to working-class concerns (such as income inequality and social housing) and begin once again to seriously represent the working-class communities who have been effectively ignored by New Labour and the Tories for decades.

More broadly, this could be the starting gun for a mass reengagement with the political system, with previously disheartened and unrepresented sections of society becoming invested in parliamentary politics and the outcome of elections. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It is clear the Brexit vote was decades in the making, the product, in large part, of the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ that the UK has endured since New Labour was established. For example, a recent Oxfam report noted the UK’s extreme level of inequality was a likely contributing factor in the vote to leave the European Union. Similarly, focus groups ran by Britain Thinks found “Britain is divided – a nation of people who describe themselves as ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’”. The research found the ‘have nots’ – who were much more likely to vote Brexit – described “a powerful sense of injustice about their situation in life” and “the feeling that systems are in place which work in favour of elites and against their best interests”.

In a similar vein the 2011 riots that swept England were informed by social and economic issues coming out of ‘the extreme centre’. In addition to difficult relations with the police, an extensive LSE-Guardian study noted rioters identified a number of motivating grievances, “from the increase in tuition fees, to the closure of youth services and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance.” The report continues: “Many complained about perceived social and economic injustices.”

If the UK is to move forward and build the progressive, more equal, tolerant, just society that Corbyn supporters and many others want, then the political system has to sincerely engage with, and listen to, all of society – not just swing voters in Nuneaton.