BUAFS banner in Trafalgar Square on May Day 2015
A comrade from Bristol Ukraine Anti Fascist Solidarity (BUAFS) was invited to speak at a recent public meeting in London organised by Solidarity with the Antifascist Resistance in the Ukraine (SARU). We reproduce his remarks below.
We are talking today specifically about the way that the imperialist media serve a vital propaganda role in selling us their agenda of war and austerity. Other speakers have given many telling examples of this manipulation of public opinion.
In Bristol, we try to expose this manipulation by mounting a weekly picket of the BBC in Whiteladies Road. We do this to draw attention to the lies the corporation tells about the conflict in the Ukraine and Donbass, and to point out how this conflicts with the vaunted status of the BBC as a paragon of ‘objective’ and ‘balanced’ journalism. It lays claim to that status, so it’s right that we should demand that it be held to account for failing to live up to it.
However, in reality, we should not be so surprised about the BBC’s behaviour. Its journalists are just doing their job, serving as part of the propaganda machine for the imperialist ruling class. When push comes to shove, that is the basic purpose of every organ of mass media in imperialist society. How could it be other? The capitalist media are bought and paid for, and capitalism gets what it pays for. In that sense, we have nothing to complain about.
But if the real function of the BBC and the rest is not too hard to grasp, what have we to say about the role of some of those in ‘left’, ‘anti-war’ and trade-union circles who help to grease the wheels for war by going along with the reactionary propaganda? I’m thinking about those who in words ‘opposed’ the bombing of Libya, yet rowed in with all the vilification of Muammar Gaddafi by which imperialism sought to justify that bombing.
Or those who went along with the hate campaign against Bashar al-Assad and the progressive leadership of Syria – a hate campaign that acted as a smokescreen for the West’s proxy war of subversion against
an independent Arab state whose secular and progressive character posed a threat to imperialist dominance in the Middle East.
What do we make of those who peer down from a great height upon the inhabitants of the Donbass fighting for their lives against Kiev’s stormtroopers, only to pronounce them to be ‘Putin’s useful idiots’?
In my innocence, I had hoped to come here tonight in a cloud of glory, bearing glad tidings that Bristol Trades Council had decided to cough up £50 and affiliate to SARU. The Bristol branch of Community Unite earlier this year passed a resolution to affiliate, and went on to propose to the trades council that it follow suit.
Sadly, this initiative was ambushed by some very vocal delegates to the trades council, who ‘explained’ that the fascist coup that removed the democratically-elected Yanukovych government was in fact a “popular uprising”, that the subsequent elevation of Poroshenko to the presidency was “legitimate”, that his government was not fascist, that the Donbass resistance were no more than stooges for Putin and that the conflict in the Ukraine was not about anti-fascist resistance but was essentially a turf war between rival oligarchs.
To make this unashamed rehearsal of the standard BBC/Fox News Big Lie more palatable to a trade-union forum, matters were given a workerist twist, appealing for “solidarity with workers throughout the whole of the Ukraine”, carefully ignoring the fact that the fascist aggression dished out by the Kiev junta’s forces is actually the military wing of the IMF-imposed austerity being imposed on all Ukrainian workers.
This stunt recalls the dishonest ‘neither green nor orange’ pose that was assumed in the 1970s and 80s by those who sought to justify their enmity towards the Irish national struggle by making spurious appeals to the “unity of all workers” (all workers, that is, in ‘Northern Ireland’ – ie, the colonised six counties).
Regrettably, these lies about what is really going on in the Ukraine were enough to stampede the trades council away from supporting the resolution, which was formally remitted (kicked into the long grass). Fifty pounds here or there will not break our campaign, but this setback usefully illustrates just how crucial is the role of social democracy in making workers vulnerable to capitalist war propaganda, softening up our resistance.
It is important to challenge the media lies. But it is at least as important to challenge those on the social-democratic ‘left’ who help to give those lies currency in the working class. We can’t get rid of media lies, but we can make a start on challenging the social-democratic politics that rob workers of any ideological defence against those lies.
When the manufactured paranoia about Russia has been so eagerly embraced by many on the ‘left’, for example, it will take no more than one or two well-orchestrated false-flag operations for war fever to sweep the board.
What is the antidote to this war fever? The short answer is: to build an anti-war movement in the working class; a movement that identifies imperialist crisis as the driver of war, which supports all those engaged in resistance against imperialism and which leads a campaign of active non-cooperation with the war effort.
Do we possess such a movement now? Sadly not. The Stop the War Coalition, in the name of ‘broadening the appeal’ of the movement, withheld its support from the Afghan resistance and the Iraqi resistance. It likewise withheld support from the progressive governments of Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria. Now it opposes the Russian bombing campaign against Islamic State in Syria.
And, of course, it withholds support from the Donbass resistance – always in the name of ‘broadening the movement’. Yet, far from ‘broadening’ the anti-war movement into the mass of the working class, this approach has narrowed the movement to a dwindling support base consisting mostly of a pacifist-minded middle class.
Our task must be to break down the social-democratic walls that separate workers in Britain from all their oppressed brothers and sisters who are fighting against imperialism – be it in Palestine, Syria, the Donbass or wherever.
The imperialist ruling class that plunges one country after another into war is the self-same imperialist ruling class that imposes austerity at home. By recognising that imperialism is our common enemy and linking arms with those engaged in resistance against imperialist meddling, we can unite in an anti-war movement that stands on solid anti-imperialist foundations.
I believe that this can be done in Britain, and that our support for the struggles of the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk could be a step in the right direction.
It is in that spirit that we continue our solidarity work in Bristol. Let me take this opportunity to invite comrades to come and visit our picket outside the BBC in Whiteladies Road, every Monday from 5.00pm to 6.30pm.
Also, let me remind you about the public meeting we are holding on Saturday 24 October in the Terrace Room of Barton Hill Community Settlement, 43 Ducie Road, Bristol (BS5 0AX), from 2.00pm to 5.00pm, on the subject of imperialist crisis and the drive to war in Europe.
Margaret Thatcher and the Wicked Witch
So the first fruits of the Leveson Inquiry’s push for press censorship turn out to be a BBC ban on playing ‘Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead’.
How successful this belated attempt to starve Judy Garland of the oxygen of publicity will be in suppressing unseemly public glee at the passing of Baroness Thatcher is doubtful.
But if Sunday’s unlikely victim of nervous self-censorship is just a musical theatre child prodigy from the thirties, we can be sure that future victims will include those with the ‘bad taste’ to speak out against the criminal wars and domestic repression engineered by our ‘democratic’ rulers.
With the NUJ busy patting Leveson on the back and the BBC jumping into self-censorship without waiting to be pushed, only journalists of unusual courage can be expected to resist the big freeze that’s coming.
Who can doubt now the urgent need to build a movement of collective non-cooperation with the war plans of our masters, at home as well as abroad?
'Kiringul', which translates as 'Kirin's lair', is one of the sites associated with King Tongmyŏng, the founder of Koguryŏ, an ancient Korean kingdom.
Did anyone see the feeble little piss-take Ian Hislop and co did last week on Have I Got News For You about gullible north Koreans supposedly believing in unicorns?
The real story turns out to be that archaeologists from the DPRK have found some interesting evidence that an important ancient city that features in folk legends might have been situated close to the present day Pyongyang.
Legend has it that in ancient times a famous king founded the city. The ‘unicorn’ just comes into it as a mistranslation of a Korean word denoting a mythical beast on which the king was supposed to ride.
Turning this straightforward story about an archaeological dig into a slander about thick Koreans swallowing commie lies may pass for cutting edge satire at the BBC but will only fool the terminally credulous.
Are thick Brits now to be pilloried for believing in giants (who else would inhabit the Giants’ Causeway?), in dragons (what else did St George fight?), or in (most far-fetched yet) the honesty and objectivity of the BBC lie machine?
Members of the BBC pensions scheme called an urgent meeting of the scheme’s trustees on Tuesday night (14 September) in order to call them to account for not doing or saying anything about the BBC’s plans to dismantle the final salary pension scheme. (More on the BBC’s proposals here.)
It’s clear from the BBC’s approach that ’solving the deficit’ is not its aim. Transferring the risk to pension scheme members and lowering the BBC’s pensions bill are the priorities. Along with helping the government by getting one major public-sector pension slashed before the main assault on all the others begins. There’s also a clear drive to get all current defined benefit schemes closed to new members before the BBC starts recruiting lots of new staff in Salford at the end of the year.
The meeting was dominated by a lot of hand-wringing from the Trustees, particularly Jeremy Peat, the Chair, who went on about how they’d been bypassed and couldn’t legally do anything about it. Yes, in retrospect, he said, maybe they could have been more vocal in defence of the scheme. Mark Thompson was aware they weren’t happy, he said, but there wasn’t anything they could do, since their legal advice was that the BBC was within its rights and there are precedents for this sort of underhand action.
One speaker from the floor pointed out that with the new proposed definition of ‘basic’ salary, BBC employees in the future could end up with a ’salary supplement’ several times bigger than their ‘basic’ (ie, pensionsable) salary. Several people pointed out that Trustees are supposed to work in the best interests of the members and asked why hadn’t they done something - at the very least, a public statement condemning the move might have had a significant impact on the atmosphere surrounding the debate in the press.
The elected union-backed trustees had very little to say for themselves either. One talked about feeling ‘personally offended’ by the proposals, whilst the other merely ‘recognised’ that there really is an ‘enormous deficit’ about which ’something’ would need to be done, etc. Much applause was received for the point that the defecit could be got rid of by staking BBC Worldwide (the commercial arm) and Television Centre as assets against the pensions scheme.
One very vocal campaigner made good points about the outrageous and underhand way the BBC is changing its definition of basic pay and asked the Trustees why they hadn’t taken a public position against that.
A Bectu branch rep pointed out that, in 2008, the BBC had signed an agreement with the Trustees (the Statement of Funding Principles, which remains in force) saying that if there was a deficit they would pay it off through increased contributions. This agreement is now being comprehensively broken. The Pension Trustees’ lawyer said that BBC management’s behaviour was not illegal. The Pension Trustees’ actuary and chairman refused to express an opinion when asked more than once whether BBC management’s behaviour was reasonable or ethical.
An NUJ rep gave an excellent speech based on detailed analysis of pensions regulation, in which he called on the Trustees to ‘fail to agree’ to the new ‘concession’ being offered by Mark Thompson in the hope of staving off a strike, which is a very poor Career Average proposal, but which, unlike the other changes being proposed, would have to be approved by the Trustees in order to be offered at all.
Before the debate closed, another Bectu branch rep made the following points:
- All the emphasis on the lack of legal avenues is just aimed at demoralising us.
- It’s not surprising that we are legally powerless, since it’s been clear for some time now that the courts are colluding with the government and employers in enforcing a concerted attack on pensions across the board.
- The BBC’s is not the first pension scheme to be attacked in this way, but we have found ourselves in the front line as far as the public sector is concerned.
- So the real question for the Trustees is: Are you going to help the employers/government to decimate the BBC scheme?? Will you need pensions yourselves one day? Do you think it’s ok for us to be denied ours?
- We don’t need you to be having a ’strong word’ with Mark Thompson over a cup of tea or a glass of sherry; we need a public expression of support from you, denouncing the BBC’s attack and coming out strongly in our defence. (Much applause for this point!)
- You’ve complained about being ‘bypassed’ by the BBC; but it seems to us that you’ve LET YOURSELVES be bypassed. It’s not too late to do something; are you going to continue in the same way?
- No matter what the legal advice is, no matter what the BBC management says, WE are going to be fighting in defence of EVERYONE’S pensions; in defence of the right to a dignified old age.
- When we do that, the media will try to demonise us. They’ll ask the public to forget about £850bn to the banks and try to brand us as ‘greedy’ for upholding our right to a pension we can actually live off.
- So the real question is, are the Trustees going to help us in that fight or not? (More applause)
Overall, the feeling of the meeting was extremely clear, reflected in the unanimous vote calling on the Trustees to oppose BBC management’s proposals. Some of the Trustees (including the chairman) expressed their personal opposition to the proposals, and it’s at least possible that they may now be more forthright in expressing that opposition either publicly or privately – they have a meeting with Mark Thompson in the near future.
For reasons that are totally unclear, the members present were refused the right even to discuss an alternative/supplementary (and much more militant) resolution that over 100 members had signed in the days before the meeting. The Trustees claimed it was against the rules of the meeting to discuss it without prior notice (of some unspecified period). But in fact the rules of the meeting say nothing about this at all.
The motion that was passed at the meeting was as follows:
This meeting of members of the BBC Pension Scheme calls on the Trustees to perform their duties to protect the benefits of the members. Specifically, we call on them to oppose the BBC’s plan to reduce the eventual value of contributions already made to the Scheme.
But the tenor of the meeting overall was far stronger and the Trustees went away in no doubt as to how the members felt about their performance thus far.
By Muhanmad Idrees Ahmad
The BBC cannot be neutral in the struggle between truth and untruth, justice and injustice, freedom and slavery, compassion and cruelty, tolerance and intolerance.
Thus read a 1972 internal document called Principles and Practice in News and Current Affairs laying out the guidelines for the BBC’s coverage of conflicts. It appears to affirm that in cases of oppression and injustice to be neutral is to be complicit, because neutrality reinforces the status quo. This partiality to truth, justice, freedom, compassion and tolerance it deems ‘within the consensus about basic moral values’. It is this consensus that the BBC spurned when it refused to broadcast the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC)’s video appeal to help the people of Gaza.
The presumption that underlies the decision is that the BBC has always been impartial when it comes to Israel-Palestine. An exhaustive 2004 study by the Glasgow University Media Group – Bad News from Israel – shows that the BBC’s coverage is systematically biased in favour of Israel. It excludes context and history to focus on day-to-day events; it invariably inverts reality to frame these as Palestinian ‘provocation’ against Israeli ‘retaliation’. The context is always Israeli ’security’, and in interviews the Israeli perspective predominates. There is also a marked difference in the language used to describe casualties on either side; and despite the far more numerous Palestinian victims, Israeli casualties receive more air time.
Many of these findings were subsequently confirmed in a 2006 independent review commissioned by the BBC’s board of governors which found its coverage of the conflict ‘incomplete’ and ‘misleading’. The review highlighted in particular the BBC’s selective use of the word ‘terrorism’ and its failure ‘to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation’.
These biases were once more evident in the corporation’s coverage of the recent assault on Gaza. A false sense of balance was sustained by erasing from the narrative the root cause of the conflict: instead of occupier and occupied, we had a ‘war’ or a ‘battle’ – as if between equals. In most stories the word occupation was not mentioned once. On the other hand the false Israeli claim that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 was frequently repeated, even though access to the strip’s land, sea and airspace remain under Israeli control, and the United Nations still recognizes Israel as the occupying authority. In accepting the spurious claims of one side over the judgment of the world’s pre-eminent multilateral institution, the BBC has already forfeited its impartiality.
The BBC presented the assault as an Israeli war of self defence, a narrative that could only be sustained by effacing the 1,250 Palestinians (including 222 children) killed by the Israeli military between 2005 and 2008. It downplayed the siege which denies Gazans access to fuel, food, water, and medicine. It presented Hamas’s ineffectual rockets as the cause of the conflict when it was Israel’s breech of the six-month truce on November 4 which triggered hostilities. It described the massacre of refugees in an UNRWA compound in the context of Israel’s ‘objectives’ and ’security’. The security needs of the Palestinians received scant attention. Selective indices were used to create an illusion of balance: instead of comparing Palestinian casualties to those suffered by Israel (more than 1300 to 13) the BBC chose to match them with the number of rockets fired by Hamas. No similar figures were produced for the tonnage of ordnance dropped on the Palestinians.
A parade of Israeli officials – uniformed and otherwise – were always at hand to explain away Israeli war-crimes. The only Palestinians quoted were from the Palestinian Authority – a faction even the BBC’s own Jeremy Paxman identified as collaborators – even though the assault was described invariably as an ‘Israel-Hamas’ conflict, much as the 2006 Israeli invasion was framed as an ‘Israel-Hizbullah’ war. This despite the fact that Israel made no attempts to discriminate between the groups it was claiming to target and the wider population. As one Israeli military official bragged, Israel was ‘trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel’. Indeed, given the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths, it would have been far more accurate to describe the assaults as ‘IDF-Lebanon’, and ‘IDF-Palestine’ conflicts.
To be sure, Palestinian civilian deaths were mentioned, but only in terms of their ‘cost’ to Israel’s image. Where Israeli crimes were particularly atrocious, the BBC retreated to condemning ‘both sides’. Israeli civilian deaths were elevated to headlines; Palestinians relegated to the bottom. The aforementioned massacre of Palestinian refugees received the same amount of coverage as the funeral of a single Israeli soldier. A hole in an Israeli roof from a Palestinian rocket often received the same attention as the destruction of a whole Gazan neighbourhood. There was also no investigation of Israel’s widely reported use of White Phosphorus, and of the equally illegal Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) munitions. The coverage of the unprecedented worldwide protests was also minimal. Critical voices were by and large excluded.
If there were no occupier and occupied in the conflict; no oppressor and oppressed, no state and stateless; then clearly assisting victims on one side would compromise ‘impartiality’. This view posits the Palestinian population as a whole as an adversary to the Israeli war machine. The BBC’s decision not to acknowledge the victims of the conflict is a function of its biased coverage. When it spent three weeks providing a completely distorted image of the slaughter carried out by one of the world’s mightiest militaries against a defenceless civilian population, it is unsurprising that it should fear viewers questioning how such a ‘balanced’ conflict could produce so many victims. And if the Israelis are able to look after their own, why should the Palestinians need British assistance?
When there is no mention of the violent dispossession of the Palestinians, or of the occupation; no mention of the crippling siege, or of the daily torments of the oppressed, viewers would naturally find it hard to comprehend the reality. For if these truths were to be revealed, the policy of the British government would appear even less reasonable. As a state chartered body, however, the BBC is no more likely to antagonize the government as a politician in the government is to antagonize the Israel lobby. Indeed, the BBC’s director general Mark Thompson can hardly be described as a disinterested party: in 2005 he made a trip to Jerusalem where he met with Ariel Sharon in what was seen in Israel as an attempt to ‘build bridges’ and ‘a “softening” to the corporation’s unofficial editorial line on the Middle East’. Thompson, ‘a deeply religious man’, is ‘a Catholic, but his wife is Jewish, and he has a far greater regard for the Israeli cause than some of his predecessors’ sources at the corporation told The Independent. Shortly afterwards Orla Guerin, an exceptionally courageous and honest journalist responsible for most of the corporation’s rare probing and hard hitting reports, was sacked as the BBC’s Middle East correspondent and transferred to Africa in response to complaints from the Israeli government.
But this decision to refuse a charity appeal has consequences that go far beyond any of the BBC’s earlier failings: as the respected British MP Tony Benn put it, ‘people will die because of the BBC decision’. It is so blatantly unjust that the only question the BBC management might want to mull over is just how irreparable the damage from this controversy might be to its reputation. The organization that only days earlier was reporting with glee a letter by Chinese intellectuals boycotting their state media is today itself the subject of boycotts across Britain, not just by intellectuals, but by artists, scholars, citizens and even the IAEA. Much like Pravda and Izvestia during the Cold War, today it is the BBC that has emerged as the most apposite metaphor for state propaganda.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a member of Spinwatch.org, and the co-editor of Pulsemedia.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org