Sameh Habeeb: British Media coverage of foreign conflicts almost “identical” to UK foreign policy
Journalist Sameh Habeeb noted that British Media War reporting is often close to UK Government positions.
Sameh Habeeb writes, “There are different views about BBC independency from British Government. Some suggest that it has the same discourse of the government while others affirm that the outlet is very independent. Other group perceive BBC as the image and reputation of Britain or the post-colonial face of the country in the world. BBC has its own regulatory body known as BBC Trust which observes and monitors the performance of BBC and looks at complaints raised against it. Many argue that the BBC refused to adopt the British government’s position in the Falklands War and the War on Iraq (Guy Starkey 2007). However others, like the Glasgow University Media Group studies concerning the Falklands war and the contributors to Tell Me Lies in the case of Iraq, argue the opposite. Historically, the government intervened a few times at the BBC to change its coverage of the Suez War and H Bomb.
In a recent seminar, Seumas Milne, (2012), editor and journalist at Guardian stated that British media including (BBC and Print Media) adopt British government foreign policy in addressing many international issues. He puts forward the Burma case as an example where the media discourse changed in the last three years as the American and British foreign policy has changed towards the government there. The coverage used to be negative but now is friendly. He also point out there is a subtle shifts on the emphasis on atrocities committed by Alqaeda or the opposition in Syria within these media outlets. He supports his claims by the fact that journalists are briefed by British embassies when they visit a certain country, they are advised on what issues to focus on. Milne thus concludes, that such a relation endanger the soundness of news reporting and make it a serious problem for people who want accurate reporting.
Habeeb added that In 2003, the BBC Board of Governors (replaced by BBC Trust in 2007) assembled to discuss Alistair Campbell’s complaints about BBC coverage of the Iraq War. The meeting was based on a report prepared by Andrew Gilligan. They refused Campbell’s claim that the BBC had an agenda against the war and claimed impartiality (Lord Hutton 2004). Lord Hutton’s report poses key questions about BBC performance where he found there was a failure at the BBC to exercise proper editorial control over Gilligan’s show “Today programme” on 29 May. He further found that the BBC failed to investigate the government’s complaints that the report was false. His other key points question a failure of the BBC management to inform the BBC governors of the extent of editorial concern about Gilligan’s report. He also held the Governors responsible for failing to investigate the government’s complaints in fear of BBC independence from government interference. Judgments of the Hutton committee represent a real challenge for BBC independence. At that time the governors of BBC, charged with governing the network, were being brought to account via government intervention. The report, according to many observers was a ‘whitewash’ for the government. This was mainly due to board of governors being replaced by the Trust.
Ken Bloomfield, (2008) points out that the historical role of the governors has been to shield the BBC from government intervention and that governors should have rejected any attempt at intervention. However some scholars and writers suggest that governors intentionally assisted government in pressuring the BBC. He expresses his astonishment over the advice of Hutton to the governors in light of the relationship with the BBC staff. The governors investigation into Alistair Campbell’s claims that BBC had an anti-war agenda, concluded that although theToday report presented by Gilligan followed the BBC's Producer Guidelines, the program should have asked the No. 10 Press Office for a response prior to broadcasting the story. Such a suggestion represents a sound request that BBC should listen to the other side of the story, that of the British government. This is an important part of balance where the two sides of the story should be presented. It was argued that BBC was biased against their government. In this instance, they ignored and excluded the governmental position in this programme.
Sameh habeeb suggested that BBC as a news outlet has the right to cover news and run exclusives the way it deems fit, yet it would appear it was navigating in a turbulent environment where the government agenda was sensitive to media coverage that opposes its polices. Tony Blair’s government was in the process of launching the first war on Iraq and needed to prepare the public. The BBC revealed secret information that the government was lying and exaggerating the WMD threat, calling into question the motivation of a war on Iraq. Such revelations about War’s real reasons are demonstrated by Rodney Stich (2005) who describes Blair "Bush's Mouthpiece in Britain.” Blair, according to Stich was enlarging Bush's statements saying that Iraq could mount an attack using WMD within 45 minutes. Ken Bloomfield, (2008, p136) states of the Hutton Report, "The almost total exculpation of Government, coupled with the criticism directed at the BBC, came as a bombshell to those leading the corporation”.
Sameh suggested that BBC critics argue that the organisation was part of the propaganda machine run by the government as Justin Lewis and Rod Brookes state, “BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, caught up in the moment of triumph when US forces took control of Baghdad, suggested that the Prime Minister had been ‘proved right’”, quoted in (David Miller, 2004, p 143) . They further conclude through their study of British media coverage of the Iraq war that many media outlets were not mindful regarding their use of rhetoric. Many journalists used phrases such as “we’re getting reports that…” such phrases suggest that the reports they get are reliable thus no interrogation was made; they found that Sky News, BBC and ITV were less careful in that context than Channel 4.
Despite being exposed to harsh criticism from the government, the BBC held on to their ethics. The Board of Governors stated that broadcasting Mr Gilligan's story was of public interest, given the information which was available to BBC News at the time. Additionally, they stressed the fact that it was not in the interest of the public to suppress stories in News night and Today programme. Some argue that the Hutton report may have paved the way for a governmental intervention to oversee the work of the BBC but since that time there has been no incident as such and the BBC continue to remain independent.
As for the British Press, most of them historically tend toward support British wars with less neutrality and balance. Ekaterina Balabanova, (2007), found out that 83 editorial articles published in the British press spoke on the matter of launching an air campaign against the former Yugoslavia. Of these, 53 articles supported the war, 19 articles were critical and 11 neutral. Balabanova also noted that there is a pro-war tendency was in the press in general, not only in the editorials. Support of the war, according to Balabanova, appeared in the Conservative newspapers such as The Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail meanwhile the liberal Guardian supported the war for humanitarian reasons and values.
Sameh Habeeb is UK based journalists and communication consultant. He is also director of International Center For Relations and Diplomacy and co founder for Newswire Now, a london based press release distribution service.