Not only at the BBC. As state and mainstream media become increasingly discredited, so too do their efforts to censor independent media increase.
Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at www.jonathan-cook.net
First published by Middle East Eye
To much fanfare last week, the BBC rolled out its latest public service: BBC Verify. The British state broadcaster promised that a team of dedicated reporters would work on behalf of viewers to counter “the growing threat of disinformation”.
On the plus side, the BBC claims it will subject its own journalism to more rigorous fact-checking and data analysis “in the pursuit of truth”. But a far less neutral agenda appears to be concealed beneath this lofty aspiration.
Introducing the new service on the BBC Breakfast morning show, “disinformation and social media correspondent” Marianna Spring gave a flavour of what was in store. The BBC’s own, all-too-visible failings appeared far from her thoughts.
She drew digital arrows on a screen, creating a sinister network of ties between “far-right figures” with “foreign links” on one side, and a “UK conspiracy movement” and “alternative media” on the other.
If anyone assumed Verify would be scrutinising the long track record of the BBC and the rest of the UK’s establishment media in misleading audiences, they look set to be sorely disappointed. Even Spring’s job title connects disinformation specifically to social media rather than to the so-called “legacy media” to which she belongs.
Spring airily dismissed as “trolling” those on social media who pointed out that the BBC had itself peddled plenty of disinformation: from echoing the deceptions about WMD that justified Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 to amplifying the evidence-free and highly politicised claims of antisemitism in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn that turned its socialist leader into a pariah.
For that reason if no other, there are good grounds to believe that BBC Verify will soon become central to the very disinformation problem it claims to be seeking to stamp out.
‘Ministry of Truth’
It is worth remembering that it was the BBC’s all-too-real Ministry of Information, where George Orwell worked during World War Two, that became the model for the fictional “Ministry of Truth” in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Ministry of Truth’s slogan ran: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
A state broadcaster telling the public that it has special insights into truth – and anyone who disagrees is dangerously promoting “disinformation” – has a long and ugly pedigree.
Far from prioritising “independence” as it proclaims, the BBC was originally set up as a vehicle for promoting British establishment interests, as its founder confided in a diary entry in 1926 concerning that year’s General Strike. Lord Reith wrote of the British government: “They know they can trust us not to be really impartial.”
In 2009, a former director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, suggested nothing had changed eight decades on. He argued that BBC news coverage was part of a Westminster “conspiracy” designed to keep a failing British political system from being subjected to “radical change” – a characterisation that was even harder to dismiss after Corbyn became Labour leader six years later.
The BBC also appears to have secretly colluded with the British government in its information warfare campaigns abroad.
A batch of leaked documents, published by the Grayzone website in 2021, showed that the BBC had joined efforts, in the words of the Foreign Office, to “weaken the Russian state’s influence on its near neighbours”. How does that square with BBC claims of impartiality in covering the subsequent war in Ukraine?
As journalist Glenn Greenwald observed, the very idea of bestowing the title of “disinformation expert” on a journalist is “a fraud, a scam” meant to falsely impart a scientific basis to their highly partisan role. Greenwald added: “If you can convince the public that this is a real expertise, then you can justify censorship.”
In the wake of 9/11, the BBC, like the rest of the establishment media, embraced a rash of pundits, often with hidden government or security industry ties, who branded themselves “counterterrorism experts”.
Invariably their job was to explain why the West should invade foreign countries in the oil-rich Middle East and North Africa, from Iraq to Libya and Syria. The claim was that the West would be welcomed by the region’s oppressed peoples, that there was a “humanitarian duty” to intervene, and that such invasions would snuff out a “terrorism threat”. These so-called experts were consistently proved wrong.
Now the 2020s looks set to be the decade when the BBC cuts out the middleman and subjects us to a parade of its own employees posturing as “counter-disinformation experts”.
Their job will be to explain why some people must be denied a platform, to protect the public from “thoughtcrimes”. It will be essentially the same counterterrorism agenda, with similar goals but dressed in new garb.
Question the legality of the West firing missiles at a sovereign Middle Eastern state like Syria without United Nations’ authorisation – the supreme crime of “aggression” in international law – and you are denounced as an “Assad apologist”.
Prioritise peace talks to end the Ukraine war rather than promote a bloodbath, as well as arms industry profits, by flooding the battlefield with weapons to “weaken” Russia and you are outed as a “Kremlin asset”, one echoing “Putin talking points”.
The agenda always neatly fits the interests of western establishments: obscuring the crimes committed by the West and its allies, and justifying the West’s crimes to weaken supposed enemies.
Skeletons in the closet
Why the BBC is launching its Verify service is all too clear. Trust in the establishment media, and the BBC in particular, has hit an all-time low. That itself poses a threat to the broadcaster’s Reithian purpose: to impress a national consensus on the public mind that serves the British state.
A December 2019 poll showed that only 44 percent of Britons believed that BBC journalists were honest and impartial.
That loss of faith has been accelerating as audiences are exposed to other sources of information, chiefly on social media – what BBC Verify dismissively terms “alternative” and “conspiracy-minded” media.
Last year, according to a report in the British media’s house journal Press Gazette, an annual survey showed trust in the BBC had dropped 20 percentage points in four years.
In March, viewers reported finding the BBC’s news coverage less reliable than that of ITV, its main commercial, advertising-driven rival.
And that was before the latest scandal concerning the BBC’s recently departed chairman, Richard Sharp, a key donor to the ruling Conservative party. He was forced out in April over revelations that his appointment in early 2021 followed hot on the heels of his efforts to help the then-prime minister, Boris Johnson, secure a loan.
The problem with the new “counter-disinformation” industry the BBC is helping to bolster is that it intentionally frames disinformation in elite-serving ways. Establishment media can deflect from the skeletons in its own closet by indiscriminately labelling independent media as “fake news”.
Not only that, but it can smear independent journalists trying to present a different perspective on critically important world events as malicious or traitorous actors. It can easily fuel the online swarms that denounce Nato critics as “Putin assets” or “stooges of China”.
This development is so dangerous because BBC journalists have no special skillset that makes them better arbiters of truth than the rest of us. What they have is power – the power that comes from having the largest news platform and the British state behind them.
No news service is neutral or agenda-free, whether it is corporate, commercial media owned by a billionaire like Rupert Murdoch or a broadcaster like the BBC that is heavily dependent on funding and backing from the state.
And maybe more to the point, the BBC and Murdoch-owned media share far more in common than either would care to admit.
That should be all the more obvious given that nowadays the interests of the largest multinational corporations – from the arms industry to fossil fuel giants – are deeply entwined with the interests of British policymakers.
The dividing line between corporate interests and “national interests” has never been finer. Public policy disagreements platformed by the media are largely confined to either marginal issues or policy areas where the British establishment is internally divided, as highlighted by the years-long row over Brexit.
For audiences to have a chance of arriving at a more reliable truth, they must be exposed to the messy, rough-and-tumble world of free speech – something the disinformation tsars abhor. Only that way are agendas and vested interests, as well as facts, exposed to the harsh light of scrutiny.
The assumption that a corporate media, one funded by corporate advertisers and embedded in a world of corporate interests, is capable of divining truth – a truth that would expose its war profiteering, its resource theft, and its ecologically unsustainable goals – is patently absurd.
But what is equally preposterous is the belief that the BBC, Verified or not, will serve as an attack dog on those interests when its master is a state already in bed with those very same corporations.
Getting closer to the truth on issues in which states are deeply invested requires a genuinely free marketplace of information, one where different sources can contest the relevance of facts, their interpretation and context.
Did Russian President Vladimir Putin invade neighbouring Ukraine because he is a madman bent on imperial conquest, as maintained by the BBC and the British government, or because the West ignored repeated warnings from Moscow that it viewed Nato’s covert expansion into Ukraine as an act of aggression?
Audiences have to weigh the evidence, relying on relevant yardsticks. How partisan is a news outlet? Where does its funding come from? Is it being transparent? How plausible is the case it makes? And is its position consistent with other known facts?
The battlefield on which this struggle plays out is already far from level. The BBC is a leviathan, while its most serious critics – mainly independent journalists and academics – are minnows.
My latest: The Twitter Files have lifted the lid on a secret alliance between Silicon Valley, intelligence agencies and the political establishment to undermine democracy https://t.co/keVQ242pI8
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) February 20, 2023
Social media’s initial commitment to free speech was jettisoned long ago under pressure from governments. Now platforms have refined their algorithms to promote “authoritative sources” like the BBC and New York Times while marginalising and silencing dissent, which is being increasingly treated as “disinformation”, “misinformation” and the new “malinformation”.
This is the context for understanding the role of BBC Verify. Its “disinformation experts” and fact-checkers will become another weapon – piggybacking on social media’s skewed algorithms – to smear and silence those demurring from a single, authorised “truth”.
These criticisms were put to the BBC, but it responded simply by directing Middle East Eye to a press statement on the launch of its Verify service.
Breach of impartiality
What BBC Verify won’t address are the glaring and often systematic distortions in reporting by the BBC and other establishment media.
Even the BBC’s flagship news programmes, such as Newsnight and Panorama, are far from immune to misleading audiences on issues critical to the British establishment. The BBC has a bad habit of failing to correct the record when its errors are exposed, often by the very people it suggests are peddling disinformation.
That was most evident in the BBC’s coverage of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. I documented for MEE some of the egregious reporting failures in a Panorama special that sought to tar the Labour party as antisemitic under Corbyn.
My latest: With last night's Panorama programme on supposed 'institutional anti-semitism' in Labour, the BBC demonstrated that it has become a media attack dog in the hands of the ruling Conservative party https://t.co/dSDaaLBY0S
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) July 11, 2019
Other, even graver errors in that programme have gradually come to light.
Four years on, the BBC was finally forced to issue a correction in one case, noting that the programme had selectively edited quotes from a witness that created a false impression damaging to Corbyn’s leadership.
The BBC, however, has continued to ignore taped evidence supplied by two Jewish Labour party members accused of antisemitism, who stated that their comments were misrepresented by the programme to make its case against Corbyn. This error could have been avoided by the programme makers with the most cursory of checks.
I have also set out some of the ways that Newsnight selectively undermined Corbyn in clear breach of its impartiality rules.
The BBC’s anti-Corbyn bias more generally was so evident that even a former chair of its trust, Sir Michael Lyons, felt compelled to complain about it.
But “disinformation” is not simply about relaying false facts, or imposing bogus interpretations on those facts, to mislead audiences.
When you dominate the airwaves, it can be done in a host of other, more subtle ways: by slanting terminology to colour the public’s reactions to a story; by stripping out important context that would deepen viewers’ understanding; by omitting facts that might provide an alternative perspective; and by placing the emphasis on minor issues that distract from what should be much larger concerns.
In short, “disinformation” is not just about actively spreading lies. It is about leaving absences of information that the public is rarely in a position to fill for themselves.
In an article misleadingly headlined “Clashes erupt at contested holy site”, the BBC presented an unprovoked police assault on unarmed Muslim worshippers in exactly the terms favoured by the Israeli state.
The BBC uncritically echoed a police statement labelling the worshippers as “agitators” and their seizure in an area under belligerent military occupation as “arrests” – as though this was simply an example of disinterested law enforcement.
Similarly, the BBC all too often unthinkingly repeats a Washington talking point: that the US is entitled to enforce a “global rules-based order” that serves its interests – as an alternative to international law, which should serve humanity’s interests.
Then there are the omissions. The most conspicuous has been the BBC’s collusion – along with the rest of the British corporate media – in all but disappearing Julian Assange from coverage. The WikiLeaks founder has spent years locked out of sight for exposing war crimes by the British and US. He endures conditions described as psychological torture by Nils Melzer, an international law professor and the UN’s former expert on torture.
You would hardly know that from the BBC’s minimal coverage. Melzer has blasted “the BBC’s failure to expose the gross arbitrariness of Assange’s judicial persecution in the UK”, adding that the British media acts as little more than “a public relations department of their government”.
BBC journalists are happy lecturing other states over their attacks on press freedom, while studiously ignoring both a fellow journalist being persecuted a stone’s throw from their London headquarters and the terrifying legal precedents being set in his extradition hearings.
My latest: Sweden did not intend to prosecute Assange because it never had a case, writes UN expert. The aim was to trap him in an interminable process of non-prosecution while confining him in ever-worse conditions while the public was turned against him https://t.co/qGOLynClIO
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) May 5, 2022
Omissions and evasions continue in the BBC’s coverage of Iraq two decades on from its invasion by the UK and the US. As Media Lens, a media watchdog group, noted recently, the state broadcaster still refuses to describe the invasion of Iraq as a “war of aggression” – a label it uses regularly to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The BBC also continues to severely undercount the death toll in Iraq as a consequence of the invasion, ignoring the most authoritative estimates of well over a million fatalities.
And the broadcaster still glosses over the background to the invasion: of western sanctions against Iraq through the 1990s that are estimated to have caused another 1.5 million deaths – a policy UN officials Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck have described as “genocidal”.
Then there is missing context. Another BBC disinformation expert, Ros Atkins, hosted a segment last year implying that any discussion of a neo-nazi problem in Ukraine was little more than a Russian talking point. He was referring to the fact that Putin spoke of “de-nazifying” Ukraine as one of the justifications for Russia’s invasion.
But Atkins could only make his case, presenting Ukraine’s neo-nazis as a marginal phenomenon, by ignoring years of earlier coverage by western media outlets, including the BBC, that painted a very different picture.
What the BBC has been doing is recasting a well-established fact as disinformation only because it is now inconvenient to western policymakers as they press ahead with a proxy war in Ukraine to weaken Russia.
Putin’s “de-nazification” claim may be hyperbolic. But Ukrainian neo-nazis – driven by bigotry towards all things Russian – undoubtedly played a significant role in fuelling the eight-year civil war in the Donbas region that preceded Moscow’s invasion.
There, Ukraine’s ethnic Russian communities faced off against far-right battalions like the Azov Brigade. No journalist can credibly weigh Russia’s justifications for launching its invasion without at least acknowledging the role played by Ukraine’s neo-nazis in the earlier civil war.
And finally, there is the question of priorities. Last week BBC News gave top billing, and acres of coverage, to the death of a popular singer, Tina Turner. Inspirational as Turner’s story was, it was hard to ignore the fact that other, far more vital matters were displaced by the prominence given to her death.
The reality is that a rapidly approaching climate tipping point – when runaway global heating will make life on Earth all but impossible for humans – should be permanently top of the media’s running order, given the failure of British politicians and their counterparts elsewhere to address the crisis.
Turner’s death coincided with new research indicating that a breakdown in the Gulf Stream would “have drastic impacts, including increasing sea levels, altering weather patterns and depriving marine ecosystems of vital nutrients”.
A search of the BBC’s website, however, suggests this story did not even merit a mention.
The holiday industry, fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers, airlines – in fact, the entire global corporate super-structure that dominates the West’s economies and political systems – will have welcomed that omission. They have no interest in seeing research promoted that might damage their bottom lines or justify the jailing of their senior executives.
With the launch of Verify, the BBC is declaring war on an upstart independent media that has proved increasingly successful at using social media platforms to discredit the broadcaster’s role in peddling state propaganda.
The need for a “war on disinformation” – like the earlier need for a “war on terror” – is, in fact, itself a prime piece of propaganda.
In the previous era of a nebulous “terrorism”, the deceptions sold by counterterrorism experts – such as the lie that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was sheltering his arch-enemies of al-Qaeda – helped provide the casus belli against states in the oil-rich Middle East that were disobedient to the West.
Now, with more tangible bogeymen in the shape of Russia and China, the British government has been covertly – and lavishly – funding “counter-disinformation” groups that echo its talking points against these two geostrategic rivals.
The BBC and other media have invariably failed to note, as they platform these organisations, that they are not independent. They are effectively paid mouthpieces of the British state.
BBC Verify, however, appears to mark a turning point, when journalists themselves become the ones hawking the deceptions: the chief one being that only journalists drawing their salaries from billionaires and the British state are immune from becoming Kremlin “assets”.
In truth, journalists in the state and corporate media are being willingly co-opted to serve a national security state that is determined to increase censorship as a way to avoid scrutiny of its activities.
Assange, who did more than anyone else to expose the West’s crimes and the deceptions needed to conceal those crimes, has languished in jail for years, unseen and largely forgotten by fellow journalists. They seem strangely indifferent to his plight, even as the US and Britain seek to redefine his investigative journalism as “espionage”.
An establishment media that has hung Assange out to dry cannot be trusted to defend an independent media that seeks to scrutinise power, especially when that power is exercised not only by western states but by their obliging press corps.
We are likely to see more journalists claiming to be “disinformation experts” like those at BBC Verify. Their aspiration will not be, as it was for generations of journalists, to fearlessly hold the powerful to account. It will be the exact opposite: to join the clamour for greater censorship.