Where Journalism Collides with State 'Security': The BBC News, MI5, and the Mantra of 'Keeping the People Safe'
by David Cromwell - Media Lens
In our May 13 media alert we highlighted how the state, and a compliant media, relentlessly raise fears of the 'shadows and threats' that supposedly assail us. We make no apology for again citing the American writer H. L. Mencken:
'The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.'
In that alert, we pointed to an edition of BBC Newsnight that was devoted to UK 'defence' spending and policy. The BBC's Gavin Esler introduced and presented the programme from the perspective of government; namely, that:
'National security is the first duty of government. We will remain a first-rate military power.'
Reflecting, and indeed boosting, state priorities is the default mode of BBC News. Last Tuesday, the flagship News at Ten on BBC1 demonstrated this perfectly when celebrity news presenter Fiona Bruce, who also has The Queen's Palaces and The Antiques Roadshow on her CV, began with the ominous words:
'A warning from MI5: Britain's security is threatened on more fronts, in more ways than ever before.'
'recent leaks about the extent of Briton's global surveillance is damaging efforts to stop attacks on the UK. Despite MI5's warnings, some critics say the public has a right to know if it's being spied on.'
Bruce then introduced BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera who was standing besuited outside MI5 headquarters, ready to repeat the secret service's key messages in a simulacrum of journalistic authority. He began on the approved note:
'Yes, the job of people here at MI5 is to keep the country safe from national security threats, particularly terrorist attacks.'
As ever, the professed upholding of BBC 'impartiality' translates in practice to providing the propaganda version of reality. After all, as Mencken observed, a major state function is to convince the public that the government is protecting it from threats. It would not be responsible BBC journalism to recognise that government policies put British people at risk by, for instance, launching illegal wars of aggression likely to lead to blowback – a genuine risk well understood by the state and, indeed, with the kind of horrific consequences seen in the London 7/7 bombings in 2005. As John Pilger noted recently:
'British governments are repeatedly warned, not least by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, that foreign adventures beckon retaliation at home.'
Corera then went on to convey the propaganda message from Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5, the UK's domestic counterintelligence and security agency. Parker had given a Whitehall speech to a 'closed audience' on how the '[security] threats had changed and how the organisation was trying to cope with them.' While neither Edward Snowden nor WikiLeaks were mentioned by name, they were implicitly the target of Parker's criticisms that revelations about surveillance were 'potentially a gift to terrorists allowing it to make it easier for them to strike at Britain.' No responsible journalist would let this pass without challenge.
Corera continued his BBC report along the state-approved line:
'This year has made clear in just how many places threats can suddenly appear, with attacks in January on oil workers in Algeria; with concern that jihadists in Syria are gaining recruits and territory; warnings over the summer of Al-Qaeda threats to attack embassies in Yemen; and, most recently, with the killings at the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi.'
Corera then quoted Parker directly:
'Our task is getting harder. The threats are more diverse and diffuse. And we face increasing challenges caused by the speed of technological change.'
Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ, was presented in support of Parker's spin:
'If you want the state to have the capability to keep us safe from terrorists and serious criminals, then you have to give the state the capability to find their communications. You then have to make sure that it's being properly used.'
By now deep into the sinkhole of state assertions, some semblance of BBC balance had to be presented to the audience. This was provided by a brief and anodyne quote from Shami Chakrabarti CBE, director of civil liberties group Liberty:
'I would prefer for these debates to be conducted in the political space, and to be the subject of democratic mandate, rather than live in a country where the spooks come out occasionally to campaign for more powers and then go back into their closets, saying: "You mustn't look at us too closely."'
That uncontentious remark was apparently as far in the direction of dangerous truth as the BBC was willing to go.
Corera concluded his lengthy piece of power-friendly stenography:
'the strength of [Parker's] views will not prevent critics questioning whether the powers the state wants are necessary and proportionate to the threats we face.'
Ironically, the BBC was not willing to grant those critics the opportunity to seriously challenge MI5 propaganda. Nor did the BBC give any attention to the fundamental issue that it benefits the state and the military-security industry to keep us constantly fearful of hyped 'threats'. But Corera's short closing comment helped to provide the necessary illusion that BBC balance and scrutiny had been duly served to the public.
In an eye-opening Newsnight interview the previous week, Glenn Greenwald had pointedly reminded the BBC's Kirsty Wark about the proper role of journalism, namely:
'to serve as a check on those in power [...] about shining light on what those people who are in power are doing that they try and hide from the public.'
'I would hope that we've learned the lesson after the Iraq war that government claims are not tantamount to the truth.'
Wark put to Greenwald the government, and MI5, claim that leaks about the NSA surveillance programme have aided terrorists. Greenwald categorically rejected this:
'The only thing we've informed people of is that the spying system is aimed at them [i.e. the public].'
'The way that human beings reason, and journalists make decisions, is that you weigh all the competing evidence as rationally as you can. And we know that the evidence that we are disclosing to the world is not about spying on terrorists that they don't already know about, but spying on innocent human beings. And I would like to find a journalist or a human being who says, "I would rather remain ignorant about what my government is doing in a democracy." That is not how a healthy democracy functions.'
The BBC's Gravity-Defying 'Balance'
An article on the BBC News website by Frank Gardner, another BBC security correspondent, was even more blatantly unbalanced than Gordon Corera's piece for BBC News at Ten. It consisted almost entirely of uncritical repetitions of key points from Andrew Parker's Whitehall speech to his private audience.
Gardner blithely relayed Parker's claim that:
'there are several thousand Islamist extremists here who see the British public as a legitimate target.'
The threat is even worse from overseas. Parker:
'named al-Qaeda and its affiliates in south Asia and the Arabian peninsula as presenting "the most direct and immediate threats to the UK".'
The BBC correspondent continued to reel off MI5's claims without challenge:
'extremist Sunni groups in Syria were aspiring to attack Western countries. This has long been a concern of Western governments – that British-based jihadists will one day return from the killing fields of Syria and turn their new-found skills on the population back home.'
Gardner then said that intelligence officials in both the US and Britain 'have been absolutely dismayed at the wealth of secret data taken by the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden when he fled to Russia.' The data includes files from GCHQ, 'whose intelligence [...] had played a vital role in stopping many UK terrorist plots over the past decade.' Gardner quoted Parker saying that 'it causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques.' This, claimed the MI5 head, 'had handed the advantage to the terrorists.'
As we saw above, critics such as Glenn Greenwald utterly reject such propaganda claims.
Disgracefully, Frank Gardner provided no scrutiny of the MI5 head's assertions, no balancing perspectives or quotes, no journalistic probing. We asked Gardner (email, October 9, 2013) why the BBC News audience should be satisfied with his performance. We have had no response. Readers may recall that Gardner has form as a safe pair of BBC hands.
Collusion With Terrorism To Promote Foreign Policy Objectives
It is clear that the public is not being properly informed of a range of views, in contravention of BBC guidelines on 'editorial values' and 'impartiality'. A major omission here is the kind of perspective supplied by historian Mark Curtis. In his 2010 book, 'Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion With Radical Islam', Curtis notes that:
'British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have, in pursuing the so-called "national interest" abroad, colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organisations. They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. Governments have done so in often desperate attempts to maintain Britain's global power in the face of increasing weakness in key regions of the world, being unable to unilaterally impose their will and lacking other local allies. Thus the story is intimately related to that of Britain's imperial decline and the attempt to maintain influence in the world.'
'With some of these radical Islamic forces, Britain has been in a permanent, strategic alliance to secure fundamental, long-term foreign policy goals; with others, it has been a temporary marriage of convenience to achieve specific short-term outcomes.' (pp. x-xi)
As an example, Curtis points to the 'dirty secret at the heart of 7/7', the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005:
'The bombings were, to a large extent, a product of British foreign policy, not mainly since they were perpetrated by opponents of the war in Iraq, but because they derived from a terrorism infrastructure established by a Pakistani state long backed by Whitehall and involving Pakistani terrorist groups which had benefited from past British covert action.' (p. 285)
There are many other examples, underpinned by a considerable body of supporting evidence, much of it from previously classified British state documents that Curtis has closely studied over many years. These vital and critical insights are completely lacking in BBC News.
Instead, BBC 'security' correspondents routinely broadcast propaganda that supports the aims and realpolitik of dangerous - in fact, terrorist - state power.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Gordon Corera, BBC security correspondent
Write to Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent