The BBC has been mired in controversy during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Its latest propaganda on behalf of the Conservative government was another piece of not-so cleverly executed spin. But some anonymous comments from a “senior journalist” have exposed exactly why our public service broadcaster has become even more of a Tory mouthpiece during this crisis.
As The Canary has documented, the BBC has been somewhat removed from the notion of impartial broadcasting during the pandemic. From providing cover for the Tory government over its coronavirus testing lies, to Andrew Marr clusterf*cking more than usual, via not-so-subtle propaganda on behalf of Dominic Cummings – the organisation has lurched from one self-induced crisis to the next. But then, on 8 May, BBC Breaking did this:
Italy's death toll from the coronavirus passes 30,000, the highest in the EU https://t.co/kSuKiy61BA
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) May 8, 2020
As writer Another Angry Voice noted:
The spin on this is absolutely ludicrous, and clearly designed to minimise the higher death toll in the UK.
You're supposed to aim for impartiality, not serve as Pravda for the Tory party
— Another Angry Voice (@Angry_Voice) May 8, 2020
The “spin” in BBC Breaking‘s tweet is subtle. What it said is factually correct: Italy does have the highest coronavirus death toll in the EU. But it was its use of “EU” which is the problem. Because previously on May 5, the BBC was trying to play down the UK having the highest number of deaths in Europe. For example:
The UK death toll is now the highest in Europe, but can you make a fair comparison between countries?
Here's our coronavirus evening update https://t.co/nUa3Q35iHX
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) May 5, 2020
This, too, is factually correct. But the problem lies in this switching of comparisons.
The Europe question: one of institutionalised bias?
Technically, the UK left the EU on 31 January. But as the Guardian noted, little has actually changed. We’re still in the Single Market and Customs Union, freedom of movement still exists, and the UK continues to pay into the EU’s budget. This is the point. Because the mechanics of Brexit are intricate, you’d be forgiven for looking at BBC Breaking‘s tweet and thinking that Italy had overtaken the UK’s death rate. Or that the BBC was lying. Because for many, the notions of EU and Europe are still one and the same thing. Some people’s responses on social media demonstrated these points:
Hello!! Two independent sources show death rates in UK are highest in Europe… and that is excluding care home deaths and deaths in the community. What is the BBC talking about?! pic.twitter.com/ATKFRhuzpJ
— M V 😷 #EndAusterity (@MuseAndVent) May 8, 2020
How can it be the highest when the UK was over 32,000 Deaths days ago???😳🤷🏼♀️
— KELLY WAITE BCA🦋 (@misskellywaite) May 9, 2020
The BBC should, as a supposedly professional public service broadcaster, keep its variables the same when making statistical comparisons. That is, if it’s going to say the UK has the highest death rate in Europe, then Europe (the geographical continent) should be the benchmark. But it hasn’t done this. As Paul Charisse noted:
They put “EU” not Europe. This is great as it really is one of the clearest examples of deliberate propoganda yet. What possible reason would they have to list “EU” deaths as opposed to “European” deaths. Spin deluxe. Another one for the propoganda scrap book!
— Paul Charisse (@PaulCharisse) May 9, 2020
And as Spike also said:
The utter stupidity of this headline is beyond belief. Italy has always had the highest COVID-19 death toll in the EU. It HAD the highest in Europe … until it was surpassed by the UK. What are you trying to hide by diverting attention in this way?
— Spike (@spike_humphrey) May 9, 2020
It’s this kind of low-level yet manipulative propaganda that the BBC does so well. It doesn’t scream like the Daily Mail. It drops in key government lines to ensure that the majority of people get the right message. And now, an article in the Economist gives us an idea of why the BBC has ramped up its government-appeasing propaganda to such an extent.
“Journalistic values”: out the window
It quotes a “senior” BBC “journalist” as saying:
The BBC does have a responsibility to provide what the nation needs… It needs to know what’s being done about testing [for coronavirus]. It doesn’t need a great bust-up about what’s gone wrong in the recent past… the bosses are keen that we come out of this with the sense that we looked after the interest of the nation, not just our journalistic values.
The Economist itself noted that:
Amid the struggle against the virus, the corporation has slipped into something like wartime rules. Its website carries articles that gently reinforce public-health messages, such as an interview with a chastened 25-year-old entitled: ‘I thought because I was young it wouldn’t affect me.’ (It very much did, he reveals.) Unofficial rules of engagement with interviewees have subtly loosened, to give subjects more breathing space. And there is a faint unwillingness to dwell on official missteps, of which there have been plenty.
In an insipid and jingoistic attempt to turn the pandemic into some sort of WWII re-run, the BBC is essentially on a wartime footing. It’s pumping out pro-government narratives without question; at times even questioning the facts from a Tory perspective. This is not much different to the BBC‘s role in WWII.
WWII, MK II
As author Tom Mills wrote for openDemocracy, the director general of the BBC during WWII:
wrote of his desire to turn the BBC into a ‘fully effective instrument of war’. Conscientious objectors working in the BBC had their contracts terminated and… [the director general] decreed that:
‘No one who is shown to belong to an organisation, the policy of which is inconsistent with the national effort, or who is shown to have expressed views which are inconsistent with the national effort, may be invited to broadcast in any programme, or to contribute material for broadcasting.’
During the Second Wold War the BBC was fully integrated into the British war machine and it emerged in 1945 with its prestige and status greatly enhanced.
The BBC is running a similar, state-propaganda-led agenda now. And the reasons for this agenda are essentially ones of saving its own skin.
Resus for the BBC
As the Economist noted:
The pandemic has given the BBC a potentially life-saving answer to a question asked with growing frustration in government: what is the point of the corporation? Two months ago a Downing Street source told the Sunday Times of plans to ‘whack’ the 97-year-old broadcaster. Long-simmering resentment among Conservatives about what they see as its left-liberal bias had boiled over during the Brexit campaign of 2016 and the two general elections that followed. Tory complaints were amplified by allied newspapers—which have their own motives for attacking a rival that receives a subsidy of £3.6bn ($4.4bn) a year, courtesy of a £157.50 licence fee levied on households that watch live tv.
After winning his large majority in December Boris Johnson, who has dubbed the bbc the ‘Brexit Bashing Corporation’, set out plans to decriminalise licence-fee evasion, which the broadcaster says would cost it more than £200m a year. He has also leant on it to ‘cough up’ and waive the fee for elderly viewers, which would cost it another £745m.
But the reasons for the BBC‘s snivelling subservience to those in power are the same as they’ve always been.
Take the perpetual argument that BBC News is biased. Politicians, academics and campaigners have long debated that the organisation is either sympathetic to the left or to the right, presenting surveys, research and countless anecdotal diatribes to support their claims.
This is all nonsense, in my view. The BBC has one bias and that is in protecting its public funding, regardless of what government is in charge at the time of its Royal Charter renewal – you only have to juxtapose its coverage of the second Iraq and Afghan wars under a Labour Government with the Syria campaign under the present incumbents to realise this…
Aunty is essentially held to financial ransom by governments of every political persuasion, with the media moguls at the top in their publicly-funded ivory towers obviously wanting to keep themselves in the lifestyles that they have become accustomed to.
So, after all this, there’s only one loser in the BBC playing second fiddle to Boris Johnson’s Churchill impersonation. And that’s the general public.
The public: the only losers?
The UK now languishes at 35th in the world Press Freedom Index. So you’d think the BBC would react accordingly – given it’s the UK’s flagship news and current affairs broadcaster. It should strive for the highest levels of impartiality coupled with diverse analysis of the coronavirus crisis that gives its audience the full picture. The BBC should be providing insight for people to then make up their own minds. We do allegedly live in a democracy, after all. But our public service broadcaster is doing none of this.
Its grotesque abandonment of critical and insightful analysis in favour of pro-government propaganda is nothing new. But during the coronavirus pandemic, it takes on a worrying new twist. We’ve been bombarded of late with extensive talk from Tory ministers and their supportive press of the “new normal” once the dust from this crisis settles. The BBC‘s ‘normal’ before the pandemic was decidedly unpleasant. But now, in its desperate attempts to shore up the finances and careers of its well-heeled bosses, and with its penchant for parroting dangerous government spin, this ‘new normal’ for our public broadcaster could be utterly dystopian.
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