BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?
by Ian Sinclair
3 October 2021
“Watch Newsnight tonight.” This was the response from BBC Newsnight’s Policy Editor Lewis Goodall to someone tweeting on 12 August “Who should I follow to understand the contemporary situation in Afghanistan? Feel like the media in the UK not covering it enough/from all angles.”
How well has Newsnight been reporting on Afghanistan? In an attempt to gain some insight into this question, I made a list of the people the BBC news programme directly interviewed about Afghanistan in August, when the Western military forces were compelled to hastily withdraw and a crisis ensued in and around Kabul airport. This amounted to 118 people interviewed either from the studio or as part of a video report (this figure includes multiple appearances on different days by the same person). I didn’t include pooled news clips of speeches and interviews – those shared with other outlets – which were largely of US-UK government and military figures.
Who gets invited on the UK’s premier news programme, who gets to speak, who the BBC believes to be an expert and therefore worthy of our time is, of course, very important. Those who appear have the power to frame the debate, and inevitably bring their own experience and politics, and therefore bias, to the topic. An appearance on Newsnight confers legitimacy and credibility – at least in the eyes of many – and will likely lead to more invitations from other news outlets, increasing the power of the interviewee to define the debate across the wider media.
My analysis shows just 32 per cent of the 118 guests were women, with Afghans making up 31 per cent of interviewees.
In contrast, Western voices (current and former representatives of the US and UK governments, US and UK political parties, Western militaries and thinktanks based in the US, UK and Canada) made up 48 per cent of interviewees.
Of the Afghan interviewees, 62 per cent were either current or former representatives of national government, local government, MPs or had worked for the British.
And who were the guests on the 12 August, the night Goodall recommended people tune into Newsnight? Three Afghans were interviewed – freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary and Gul Ahmad Kamin, the MP for Kandahar, appeared in a news report, while Mariam Wardak was a studio guest, appearing via video link. Wardak was billed as the founder of the women’s rights charity Her Afghanistan. However, she also worked as the Communication Adviser to Afghan National Security Adviser from 2015-18, which wasn’t mentioned (though was when she appeared on the programme earlier in the month). Joining Wardak for the studio discussion was General Lord Richards, the former British Chief of the Defence Staff, and David Sedney, ex-US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Afghanistan. Hardly a recipe for deep understanding and enlightenment.
Of course, an examination of guests invited to speak by Newsnight only gives a small insight into how the programme has covered Afghanistan. The guests aren’t robots. Affiliation is not destiny: interviewees may, intentionally or unintentionally, say something that significantly conflicts with their current or previous employer’s interests or viewpoint. For example, ex-British Army officer Michael Martin, who briefly appeared in a news report on 2 August, wrote the 2014 book An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, which contains many inconvenient and important facts about the British intervention in Afghanistan. (Martin didn’t say anything controversial during his Newsnight appearance, just gave an update on what was happening on the ground in Helmand).
Despite these caveats, I believe Newsnight’s selection of guests is very telling, and is a good indicator of their broader coverage of Afghanistan. However, arguably as important as who is chosen to appear on Newsnight, is who doesn’t appear on the programme, those whose voices are excluded.
No representatives of the Taliban are directly interviewed by the programme (pooled interviews with Taliban spokesmen briefly appear in a couple of video reports). From what I can tell this exclusion isn’t because of access – several other news organisations, including France24, NPR in the US and Turkey’s TRT, all conducted in-depth interviews with Taliban representatives in August.
Except for a representative from peace organisation Pugwash, no one from the British or American anti-war movement appeared. No one from Stop the War, the Peace Pledge Union, Peace News or individuals like peace activist Maya Evans, who has visited Afghanistan many times in recent years. This omission is especially frustrating when you consider, as Richard Burgon MP tweeted in August, “The political establishment needs to learn the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They got it disastrously wrong and the anti-war movement got it exactly right.”
All of the 13 British MPs who appeared were either members of the Conservative Party or the centre and right of the Labour Party. No members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, namely Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, all three of whom opposed the war in parliament in November 2001, were interviewed by Newsnight. No one from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.
Organisations like Veterans for Peace UK and individual ex-soldiers who served in Afghanistan and who take a principled stand against the war, such as Joe Glenton, did not appear. No one from the lower ranks of UK and US forces who served in Afghanistan got to speak – all of the current and former Western military representatives who were interviewed were mostly very senior figures in the military (General Lord Richards appeared twice, while Major General Charlie Herbert, NATO Adviser to the Afghan government from 2017-18, appeared four times).
All of this won’t be a surprise to most Morning Star readers. As academic Tom Mills summarises in his 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, the BBC’s “journalism has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”
This pattern of news coverage holds for Iraq too. Speaking about the run up to the 2003 Iraq War during a 2020 Aljazeera panel discussion, former Newsnight Business Editor Paul Mason argued the programme “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices,” including writer Tariq Ali “were not allowed.”
This broadly fits with academic research done on the BBC’s performance during the Iraq War. For example a 2003 Cardiff University study of peak-time television news bulletins during the course of the Iraq war found the BBC was more reliant on government and military sources than other UK broadcasters. According to a Guardian summary of the study “The BBC was the least likely to quote official Iraqi sources, and less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent (and often sceptical) sources such as the Red Cross.”
As Newsnight Editor Peter Horrocks reportedly told staff in 1997, “Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” This power-friendly MO was perfectly illustrated in 2005 by Horrocks’s successor, Peter Barron. Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about a Newsnight presenter assuming President Bush wanted democracy in Iraq, Barron replied “While there’s bound to be a debate about what kind of democracy the US is furthering in the Middle East, there can be no doubt that President Bush regards it as a foreign policy goal to install what he regards as democracy.”
Contrary to what Goodall self-servingly believes, the brief survey of the people interviewed by Newsnight suggests watching the programme is unlikely to provide an accurate picture of what has been going on in Afghanistan. Indeed, for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Afghanistan and Western foreign policy a good idea would be to seek out the groups and individuals excluded by Newsnight and listen to what they have to say.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.