Tag Archives: Tom Mills

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2019

Last month Ritula Shah presented a BBC World Service discussion programme titled Is ‘Fake News’ A Threat To Democracy? Predictably the debate focused on Russian attempts to influence Western populations and political systems.

Asked whether the US has been involved in similar activities, Dr Kathleen Bailey, a senior figure in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1980s, was dismissive: “We [the US] certainly do not have a budget, bureaucracy or intellectual commitment to doing that kind of thing.”

Carl Miller, the Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, also played down the West’s activities: “I think Western countries do do less of this as a kind of tool of foreign policy than autocracies”.

“Read real journalism” – presumably BBC journalism – was one of the guest’s suggestions for countering Fake News.

Putting this self-serving and self-congratulatory narrative to one side, it is worth considering the BBC’s, and particularly the BBC World Service’s, own relationship to the British government’s own propaganda.

“Directly funded by government [the Foreign Office], rather than the licence fee” the World Service is “deeply embedded in the foreign policy, security and intelligence apparatus of the British state”, Dr Tom Mills notes in his must-read 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

In particular, the BBC had a very close relationship to the Information Research Department [IRD] – “a Foreign Office propaganda outfit which sought especially to foster anti-communist sentiments on the left”, explains Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University.

Set up in 1948, the IRD “was one of the largest and best-funded sections of the Foreign Office until it was discreetly shut down in 1977 on the orders of [then Foreign Secretary] David Owen”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain reported in the Guardian in July 2018. A 1963 Foreign Office review of IRD sets out the work of the covert unit: “The primary aim is unattributable propaganda through IRD outlets – eg in the press, the political parties… and a number of societies”.

Focusing on the Soviet Union and its supposed influence around the world, “IRD material poured into the BBC and was directed to news desks, talks writers and different specialist correspondents”, according to Paul Lashmar and James Oliver in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, their 1998 history of the clandestine organisation. The programming of the BBC’s Overseas Service [which would change its name to the World Service in 1965] “was developed in close consultation with the Foreign Office and its information departments”, they highlight.

The BBC “were seemingly quite content to be directed by the FO [Foreign Office] as to how to deal with Middle Eastern personalities, and enquired whether it was desirable for them ‘to deal in a more or less bare-fisted manner with any of the leading statesmen (or their principle spokesmen)’”, notes Simon Collier in his 2013 PhD thesis on IRD and UK foreign policy. Infamously, the BBC played a key role in the US-UK assisted overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, with the signal for the coup to begin arranged with the BBC. That day the corporation begun its Persian language news broadcast not with the usual “it is now midnight in London”, but instead with “it is now exactly midnight”, reveals historian Mark Curtis in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

When it came to nuclear war, the BBC was similarly careful about what was broadcast, effectively banning the dramatised documentary film War Game in 1965 (even though they had originally commissioned it). Discussing the film’s depiction of a nuclear attack on the UK, the Chairman of the BBC wrote to the Cabinet Secretary arguing that the “showing of the film on television might well have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”

Though formally concerned with foreign influence, IRD also took a close interest in UK domestic politics, including in the Northern Ireland conflict, aswell as carrying out campaigns against people they suspected were Communists and trade unionists. For example, writing in the Guardian last year Cobain reported “senior figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour government plotted to use a secret Foreign Office propaganda unit [IRD] to smear a number of leftwing trade union leaders”, including Jack Jones, the General-Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In the same report Cobain highlights a letter the BBC Director General wrote to IRD in 1974 asking for a briefing on “subversives” working in broadcasting. This, it seems likely, was a complement to the wider political vetting the BBC undertook, with the help of MI5, between the 1930s and 1985. Communists and members of the Socialist Worker’s Party and Militant Tendency were barred from key positions at the BBC, or denied promotion if they were already working for the corporation, according to a memo from 1984, with an image reassembling a Christmas tree added to the personnel files of individuals under suspicion.

It is important to understand the relationship between the BBC and IRD and the wider British state was kept deliberately vague, a quintessential British fudge of formal and informal connections and influence. “Many of the executives of the BBC had gone to the same public schools, and inevitably Oxbridge, with their Foreign Office colleagues”, note Lashmar and Oliver. “Both were part of the establishment, attending the same gentleman’s clubs and having an implicit understanding of what constituted the national interest.”

Cutting through this fog, Mills provides a concise summary: “During the Cold War period the BBC was… distributing propaganda material in close cooperation with the British state”. However, he is keen to highlight that though “there is a temptation to view all this as merely a feature of the Cold War… there is no good reason to think that there is not still significant collusion”.

He quotes Dr Emma Briant, who notes in her 2015 book Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism the BBC Director General receives direct briefings from the UK intelligence services “on the right line to take on whether something is in the national and operational interest to broadcast.”

Indeed, out of all the UK broadcasters’ coverage of the Iraq War, the BBC was revealed to by the most sympathetic to the government, according to a 2003 study led by Professor Justin Lewis from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. Defending the BBC’s reporting in a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, then BBC Director General Greg Dyke noted he had “set up a committee… which insisted that we had to find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on.” The same committee “when faced with a massive bias against the war among phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through and getting onto the programmes”, Dyke explained. This “was done in an attempt to ensure our coverage was balanced”, Dyke wrote, apparently with a straight face.

Moreover, academic studies on issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the financial crisis shows the BBC has tended to reflect “the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives”, to quote Mills on the BBC’s overall journalistic output.

Turning to contemporary politics, in 2016 Sir Michael Lyons, the former Chair of the BBC Trust, raised concerns about the corporation’s coverage of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this”, he noted.

As is often the case, a careful reading of establishment sources can provide illumination about what is really going on. Concerned about the government proposed cuts to the World Service, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted the propaganda role of the BBC in 2014: “We believe that it would not be in the interests of the UK for the BBC to lose sight of the priorities of the FCO, which relies upon the World Service as an instrument of ‘soft power’.”

Fake News indeed.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
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 [1987] 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?

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2017

The morning after a draft of the Labour Party manifesto had been leaked, Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s general election co-ordinator, was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme in the high profile 08:10 slot.

Ten minutes earlier, the 08:00 news bulletin had reported that the manifesto promises to “nationalise the railways as franchises expire and to abolish tuition fees in England… to return Royal Mail to public ownership, to bring in an energy price cap and introduce a levy on companies with large numbers of staff on what it calls ‘very high pay’.”

“It looks like a great big wish list… that no government could possibly push through in five years or even fifty years”, stated presenter John Humphrys, interviewing Gwynne. “It is just unrealistic, isn’t it? It’s also far too to the left, far too much to the left for the British public to stomach, don’t you think?”

Some listeners may have swallowed the subtle assumptions behind Humphrys’ question but luckily a poll released the next day inserted some reality into the debate. Far from being “far too much to the left for the British public”, the Independent’s report on the research was titled ‘British voters overwhelmingly back Labour’s manifesto policies, poll finds’.

According to the ComRes survey 52 per cent of people support the state ownership of the railways (22 per cent opposed), 49 per cent support the state ownership of the energy market (24 percent opposed) and 50 per cent of people support the renationalisation of Royal Mail (25 per cent opposed). In addition, 71 per cent said they back Labour’s proposal to ban zero-hours contracts, while 65 percent supported Labour’s plan to increase income tax for those who earn £80,000 or more.

These findings are not a one off – a November 2013 YouGov poll found 67 per cent of people thought the Royal Mail should be run as a public service, 68 per cent supported nationalising the energy companies and 66 per cent wanted to nationalise the railways.

Humphrys’ attempt to dismiss Labour’s policies fits with the broader media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. Analysing press coverage during the two months after he was elected Labour leader, a 2016 London School of Economics study observed “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” Corbyn, “assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Other left-wing leaders have received negative press attention, though “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.” Another study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition “indicated how large sections of the press appeared to set out systematically to undermine Jeremy Corbyn with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage.”

The supposedly neutral and objective BBC, the most trusted news source in the UK, has played a key role in this political denigration and exclusion, with Sir Michael Lyons, the chair of the BBC Trust from 2007 to 2011, arguing in May last year there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”. Lyons continued: “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.”

One such senior voice could well be BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, who was found to have erroneously edited a November 2015 interview with Corbyn to make it look like he didn’t support a shoot-to-kill policy during an ongoing Paris-style terrorist attack. The interview breached the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy guidelines, the BBC Trust found.

More recently, the Today Programme’s Nick Robinson dismissively tweeted “No-one should be surprised that @jeremycorbyn is running v the ‘Establishment’ & is long on passion & short on details. Story of his life.”

Rather than being aberrations, this bias against Corbyn arguably reflects the BBC’s wider politics. “Its structure and culture have been profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Dr Tom Mills argues in his 2016 book ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’. Unsurprisingly then, the BBC’s news output “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

Analysing the number and type of guests invited onto the programme, research conducted by Cardiff University’s Dr Mike Berry into the BBC Today Programme’s coverage of the financial crisis, confirms Mills’s thesis. “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”, Berry told me.

With the Labour Party’s running on a transformational manifesto and Corbyn promising “a reckoning” with the unscrupulous sections of the British elite if he is elected Prime Minister, is it any wonder the establishment-friendly BBC is unable or unwilling to give the Labour leader a fair hearing?

 

 

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.

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.