"We aim to be balanced, fair and honest with our viewers on all matters we report on, both across our output and within individual reports." So says the BBCâ€™s director of news, Richard Sambrook, when challenged to explain BBC biases, omissions and distortions that routinely favour establishment viewpoints.
But Sambrookâ€™s response evaporates into the ether when set against the publicâ€™s daily experience of BBC news bulletins, as well as major news programmes such as Panorama and Newsnight, which carry only the occasional dissenting voice from within a narrow, acceptable spectrum.
No wonder there is considerable public scepticism of "news values" and a turning away from mainstream political commentary. Ironically, Sambrook himself noted the problem in a speech two years ago to the Royal Television Society in London:
"There is a new political divide: no longer â€˜leftâ€™ and â€˜rightâ€™; it's now â€˜us and themâ€™, with â€˜themâ€™ being politicians, the establishment and the broadcasters and media."
Sambrook expressed concern at the prospect of losing large chunks of his audience:
"Some 40 per cent of the audience feel they are outside looking in, offered few real choices." (The Independent, December 5, 2001)
Politicians, too, are worried, fearing the loss of useful media mechanisms to influence and guide public opinion. Peter Hain, Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State for Wales, told The Independent on Sunday last year that he "had become increasingly frustrated about the truly appalling quality of what passes for political debate in Britain today. And discussing this with some editors and lobby journalists, I found a common acknowledgement that we do have a genuine crisis."
"There is a new political divide: no longer â€˜leftâ€™ and â€˜rightâ€™; it's now â€˜us and themâ€™, with â€˜themâ€™ being politicians, the establishment and the broadcasters and media." -- Richard Sambrook, BBC director
Hain continued in similar vein as the BBCâ€™s director of news: "Politicians, news broadcasters and journalists now form a â€˜political classâ€™ which is in a frenzied world of its own, completely divorced from the people, and which is turning off viewers, listeners and readers from politics by the million." (Independent on Sunday, July 27, 2003)
Hainâ€™s analysis has some merit - the media has become "completely divorced from the people" - but he (and Sambrook) stops short of raising a few pertinent questions. Why has the mainstream media become so divorced from the public? If not the publicâ€™s interest, then whose interests do the media serve? And what does all this say about â€˜democratically-electedâ€™ politicians who do not, in fact, serve their constituents?
Take the BBCâ€™s coverage of the so-called "war on terror," largely presented within a framework that takes at face value the stated aims of US-UK elite power to bring â€˜democracyâ€™ to Iraq. A study by Cardiff University media analysts concluded that the BBC had "displayed the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster."
Viewers in Britain may recall that the BBCâ€™s own political editor, Andrew Marr, proclaimed Tony Blair had "been proved conclusively right" as Baghdad fell to the "coalition" forces last April. "It would be entirely ungracious", continued Marr, "not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result" (BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003). Gushing praise indeed for a warmonger.
In October, Roger Mosey, the BBCâ€™s head of television news, said in a newspaper interview that assumptions within the BBC are "something we need to be alert about all the time." He insisted he and all of his colleagues "recognise the need to make sure that our journalism tests all viewpoints." (The Independent, October 28, 2003)
These are pretty words that have no doubt been successfully internalised within the senior editorâ€™s mindset. But then, dissenting journalists rarely, if ever, reach such rarefied and influential professional heights. Instead, they tend to be filtered out at an early career stage, or they subtly alter their prejudices to suit prevailing values, or they find employment elsewhere. As Noam Chomsky told Andrew Marr, then political editor of The Independent, in a 1996 BBC2 interview, "if you believed something different [in particular, that the mass media is a crucial component of state-corporate power], you wouldnâ€™t be sitting where youâ€™re sitting."
As BBC political editor, Marr no doubt believes he is scrupulously fair and balanced in his reporting. "When I joined the BBC", he wrote, "my Organs of Opinion were formally removed" (The Independent, January 13, 2001). The unintended irony is that his ideological world-view already matched the BBCâ€™s job requirements for such an important position.
Later this month, the BBC - and the Blair government - will discover the fall-out from Lord Huttonâ€™s investigation into the apparent suicide last summer of British weapons expert Dr David Kelly. Dr Kelly had been a source for BBC journalist Andrew Gilliganâ€™s attempt to reveal Blairâ€™s deceptions in portraying a supposed Iraqi "threat". The government - in particular, its now-departed head of communications, Alastair Campbell - responded with fury. This had the desired effect of generating a diversionary media â€˜warâ€™ with the BBC, thanks to the shameful acquiescence of Britainâ€™s other broadcasters and newspapers.
The larger picture, however, was the relentless echoing by the BBC, and other mainstream news outlets, of US and UK deceptions on Iraq. This propaganda service had stretched back many years over the period of "genocidal" UN sanctions, to quote Denis Halliday, the former UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad who resigned in protest in 1998. Halliday, and his successor Hans von Sponeck who similarly resigned 18 months later, were rarely granted coverage by the BBC, or even by The Independent and The Guardian, the two â€˜left-leaningâ€™ daily newspapers. Nor was there much sign in the mainstream of former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter who could have explained authoritatively how and why Iraq had already been "fundamentally disarmed".
No wonder many people are so disappointed, bewildered and disgusted by mainstream mediaâ€™s abysmal performance that they are now seeking out â€˜alternativeâ€™ honest sources of news and comment.