The British Broadcasting Corporation came into life in October 1922 at the same time as a young Eric Blair [George Orwell] departed for Burma to join the imperial Police Force. That same year Benito Mussolini took power in his infamous “March on Rome” which inspired the Hitler’s 1923 Bavarian Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment at Landsberg Prison where he set about writing Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote glowingly of England and dreamt of a great Germanic anti-Communist alliance with the British Empire. Not only that but he knew our cultures were aligned for he saw British propaganda as a shining example to his young NSDAP disciples. He claimed that Germany lost World War One because the British had better propaganda. Some thirteen year later Orwell was to write “Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicized form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi Gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.”
The Orwell quote itself comes from his 1937 book “The Road to Wigan Pier“. Orwell’s work display a deep appreciation for how close authoritarianism runs just below the surface of British society. For all our outward claims to democracy the British establishment has more often seen universal suffrage as a problem than a solution. Hence it would always need a method to subvert democracy by closely editing the voices that the British people could hear. This has been painfully true, if well disguised, in that very British institution – the BBC. In Tom Mills’ 2016 work “The BBC Myth of a Public Service” (ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-482-9 Verso Books) the author has dug deep into the relationship between the British state system and the national broadcaster. His findings expose the measures to which the BBC has always remained just another branch of the Civil Service. It has never strayed too close to any measure of independence.
To believe that the BBC has been independent in spirit but kept on a close government leash is an oversimplification. Two clear narratives emerge. Firstly: Governments of every stripe have assumed it was their prerogative to use the BBC as a tool of state propaganda. Secondly, for many generations the BBC has regarded itself as an integral part of Whitehall infrastructure. When it emerged in 1985 that MI5 had been vetting large number of senior appointees to the BBC it was less well know that MI5 had been pressing for years to scale back such oversight. It was senior management at the BBC itself that requested so much vetting. It was part of the BBC culture to assume of itself an important role inside the national security state. The BBC is not a victim of the establishment, it has been a willing accomplice.
Hence Hitler’s observation, coming at the dawn of the BBC’s history, was remarkably apt. The British are very good at propaganda and we were never going to let an opportunity like the BBC be passed up. Being a proud propagandist for King, Country and Empire was always part of the mission. However, in order for those propaganda messages to be most effective the public had to BELIEVE that the BBC was truly independent of the British State. It was an effective subterfuge. During the general strike of 1926 the BBC’s “founding father” John Reith proudly recalled the anti-strike approach the BBC took and wrote
“…if there had been broadcasting at the time of the French Revolution, there would have been no French Revolution.”
Mills goes on “Revolutions, he reasoned, are based on falsehoods and misinformation, and during the General Strike, the role of the British Broadcasting Company had been to ‘announce truth’. ” In other words the very sort of propaganda that Hitler has so admired about the British. It was only natural that the BBC should be on the side of the Government. There was no question of the BBC being on the side of history, or the people, or the workers or any other egalitarian socioeconomic grouping. It was on the side of power.
Reith himself was well know for his pro-Fascist views. Mills describes him as a “notorious authoritarian” and displayed an explicit distaste for democracy at the BBC. This lack of democracy he considered to be a model for British society as a whole and lead him to “an otherwise surprising sympathy with the goals of fascism, if not the means“. The views of such authoritarian, pro-King-and-Empire, BBC founders, lead to the inevitable deference-to-power that became the hallmark of BBC culture right up until the 1960s. Yet, remarkably it has become much-maligned in today’s right-wing press for having a left-wing bias.
Such claims have always told you somewhat more about the nature of the claimants than anything about the BBC. It may well have been that a new influx of journalists during the 1960 may have lead to a more neutral reflection upon the values of the British public. But the right-wing establishment has never been interested in having the BBC reflect the views of the public. State power would only ever be served if the BBC were to LEAD and create the views of the general public. Neutrality was never the intended role of the BBC. Hence the prevalent myth of the BBC as being leftist. This myth dates back to the 1930s such is the natural assumption that the BBC should be a vehicle for state propaganda. There was to be no room for truly egalitarian popular movements to have a voice through the channels of the BBC. Conservatives have always hated the BBC for not being quite as conservative as them. Conservatives are most aligned with authoritarian State power hence any news organisation that reflected values outside of the needs of this elite were to be suspect.
Attempts by the hard-right wing of the Conservative Party to monitor the BBC for supposed anti-Conservative bias dates back to Winston Churchill in 1947. Such cultural dislike of the Right for Britain’s public broadcasting institute was a persistent feature of British political life right up to the current day. Even if 2017 Right-wing pro-Brexit Conservative MPs had claimed that the BBC was pro-EU. This antipathy reached its peak under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s when Norman Tebbit established a media monitoring group at Conservative Central Office. This was amidst claims that the BBC simply wasn’t pro-British enough during the Falklands War or pro-American enough during the bombing of Libya. An essential element of all such claims was the natural assumption that the BBC should be even more extremely pro-establishment than it already was. Any attempt at genuine objectivity in presenting the other side of any story was immediately hit upon as evidence of anti-Thatcherite scheming. Dossiers of so-called evidence were accumulated on the new crimes of the state broadcaster
“Like the reports produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs and other neoliberal think tanks, the dossiers were flimsy by scholarly standards. But such documents play an important role in constituting and consolidating such political networks, reinforcing ideologies and focusing their political actions.”
“Considering the case of Tebbit’s Libya dossier, the former Conservative minister Ian Gilmour writes that is was ‘an inaccurate and trivial propagandist compilation which identified impartiality with what Conservative central office would like the BBC to have said‘. The BBC, he writes, ‘had no difficulty in shooting it to pieces’. “
From the 1970s up until 1997 genuine academic scholars (themselves obviously quite suspect from the revolutionary point of view of the neoliberal dogmatists) were also conducting regular surveys of public attitudes. Unsurprisingly most of the public could not discern any political bias. Of those who did most thought it was pro-Conservative. This is very telling. The public clearly did not believe the version of reality that they were MEANT to believe. Clearly more propaganda was required and the BBC was not trying hard enough. In parallel what was happening in this 30 year period was the shutdown of traditional left-wing working class newspapers and the conversion of the rest to the Right-wing agenda.
“This had the effect of shifting political culture in the UK to the right. Crucially through, this shift was more due to changes in the political economy of the press than to public attitudes.”
All this was happening at a time when the new Right was resurgent. Neo-liberal policy was becoming the accepted norm in state affairs across the Western World.
“The right, therefore, was attacking the BBC as left wing at a time when the public, if anything, viewed it as a conservative organisation, a fact which made the attacks seem overwrought, even deluded.”
In most respects it is NOT ironic that criticism of the BBC peaked at this time. Neo-liberalism was a totalitarian revolution that commanded the exclusion of any dissenting voices. In this charged atmosphere it was certainly NOT the role of the BBC to represent the views of British society. Mills writes that this was an emerging “coherent political strategy“. The BBC was targeted in order for it to be reborn as an effective political propaganda weapon of the extreme-Right. The Right-wing establishment expected the BBC to take up the mantle of neo-liberal propaganda with revolutionary fervour. To this end the Right believed that the BBC was not moving quickly enough towards preaching the new revolutionary dogma to the people. In 1987 the old order was swept out of the BBC and a new high-priest of the neo-liberal order was installed. His name was John Birt.
Birt was a political appointee, a “committed neoliberal“, he rewrote the BBC rule-book and organised it around a free-market philosophy. An internal market for services was created that lead to an explosion in consultants, accountants and administrators who ran the new bureaucracy. Salaries for the new layer of managerial-elite sky-rocketed. Yet none were actually making any broadcast-able material. The installation of a hard-Right apologist at the BBC did not stop the extreme-Right assault on the institution. The Telegraph opened its Beebwatch column in 2003 aiming to further influence the imagined leftist culture within the BBC.
“Minotaur Media Tracking was established with the backing of Lord Pearson, a neoconservative Tory peer who later defected to the UK Independence Party.”
“…produce a number of reports for the Eurosceptic think tank Global Britain and the Centre for Policy Studies, the neoliberal think tank founded by Thatcher and Keith Joseph…”
Thus opened the anti-Europe assault by the extreme-Right who deluded themselves that “concerns” about immigration expressed by The Times and The Daily Mail were not properly reflected by the BBC[!]. These new anti-freedom-of-movement dogmas embodied within Europhile xenophobia became a battleground that simply could not be won with facts. The public need to be bombarded from EVERY news outlet with an unremitting tirade of anti-foreigner propaganda. They needed the BBC to supply propaganda not facts. What worried them was the fact that the BBC had introduced policies to make BBC staffing reflect the ethnic and diversity mix of society as a whole. The BBC was claimed to have, not so much a left-wing bias, but [shock-horror] a “liberal” bias. The political ground map of Britain had changed so much since 1970 that it was no longer necessary to define the “enemy within” as being leftist. It was only enough for them to be urban, young, cosmopolitan, educated, diverse and “liberal”. For the rising xenophobic-Right this new mix was an anathema. Minorities we becoming well represented at the BBC so it was now accused of not representing white people.
With the coming of John Birt to the BBC in the mid-1980s, news reporting was turned inside out to reflect new Thatcherite values. Labour & Industry reporting was gutted in favour of a vast expansion on reporting upon the activities of the City of London. Suddenly the trading of stock and shares was to become newsworthy. Thus it was that the financialisation of Britain’s economy became complete when it was promoted through the BBC as the only thing going on in the economy. The public would be taught to love this new big brother. Unfortunately this attempt at re-education proved hard. By 2006 a survey by Ofcom found that the British public simply weren’t interested. No amount of brain-washing could convince them that they wanted Business programming. This was despite the belief, on behalf of the new generation of Business editors, that they were broadcasting in the public interest. Regardless of this lack of interest the BBC news became dominated by Business stories that
“…was the result of explicitly pro-business initiatives by the neoliberal leadership of the BBC.”
Subsequent heightened interest by the public in the activities of the financial markets after 2008 only came as a result of the job-insecurity that resulted from the financial crash of that year. The population lived off the crumbs from the high table of the corporate elite. There not participating in it, they were victims of it. This was not the vision of a share-owing democracy that Margaret thatcher once promoted.
In conclusion Mills looks back to the late 1960s as the
“…high water mark for democracy in Britain. Three decades later, neoliberalism had thoroughly transformed British society and, far from democratising culture and public life as had been claimed, in public proclamations at least, it had hollowed out the social democratic state, concentrating power ever more among a financial and corporate elite.”
These changes were mirrored at the BBC
“Power became centralised, professional decision making became more marketised and working conditions were made more precarious. Meanwhile, as most found, their freedom curtailed by neoliberal bureaucracy, a largely Oxbridge educated elite retained its decision-making powers and the salaries of those at the top sky-rocketed.”
Mills goes on
“…the contemporary BBC is no more free from powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today. The current BBC is not just part of the Establishment, as it always has been, it is part of the neoliberal, business-dominated Establishment, a central institution of Britain’s post-democratic settlement.”
The BBC is not a victim of power. It is power. It has been carefully shaped and fashioned for this special state propaganda role. It is a willing participant and its senior management revels in this – its special place in the Establishment. The only hope for us, contests Mills, is to rip the BBC out of the clutches of the state and corporate sectors and put it “firmly in the sphere of ‘civil society’ “.
As much as we can wish for such an outcome it is not going to happen without a revolution in thinking. Such a revolution cannot, ironically, happen with the BBC being the main organ of received truth in our culture. It will never be able to plead for its own re-invention if this does not serve the needs of those who would have the population vote against their own self-interest. The BBC remains a tool of revolution only for the use of the rich and powerful. It is a carefully crafted control-mechanism for democracy. The people must be told how to vote and what to believe in. This is the job of the BBC and it does it so very well.
No wonder Hitler was so in awe of what British propaganda could achieve.