Friday, 22 October 2010

The BBC's 'DNA' - bloggers, genes, censorship and vandalism

First they ridicule you, then they patronise you, then they censor you, then they break your placards.

And that's not to mention all the evasive responses and hierarchical dismissals in between.

Who might we be speaking of here? School bullies? Smug politicians? High court judges? Thug police? Think, rather, the BBC.

First up, on the ridicule variant, the BBC's Andrew Marr on bloggers:

"A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people."

One might reasonably assume that 'professional' journalists would be a little more diligent in their remarks. After all, Marr is, supposedly, one of the BBC's most 'respected' interviewers, renowned for his 'forensic, analytical skills'.

Besides his biased output, such ill-informed stereotyping of the blogosphere says much about the practice of lazy journalism within the mainstream media itself.

As the BBC's interviewer of choice over Blair's recent book launch, such comments illustrate Marr's true establishment loyalties and journalistic capabilities.

Marr will, of course, be ever-identified with this grand homage to Blair as Baghdad fell:

“I don't think anybody after this is going to be able to say of Tony Blair that he’s somebody who is driven by the drift of public opinion, or focus groups, or opinion polls. He took all of those on. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)

Next, as if to reassure us of the BBC's authority as a fount of reliable reporting - unlike the 'seedy' blogosphere - we have Director of News, Helen Boaden, dispensing some patronising homilies about BBC objectivity and a correction to those who believe otherwise.

"Impartiality is in the BBC genes", Boaden instructs us:

"I always think that impartiality is in our DNA - it's part of the BBC's genetic make-up.

Anyone who thinks differently doesn't really understand how the organisation works and how seriously we take issues around balance and impartiality.

That's why, for example, we've planned our coverage of the spending cuts so carefully - to make the choices facing the government clear to our audiences and ensuring we cover the "whys and wherefores" of the spending review. It's how we always approach our reporting - whatever the subject.

The licence fee is the public's money so people are clearly fully entitled to their opinion on our coverage. And if they want to criticise it, of course they can and indeed will do so."

Well, that should all be clear to us lowly licence-paying, cuts-affected citizens. Perhaps Boaden will do a Horizon special to help us lay-persons better understand the BBC's place in the great Genome Map.

In truth, the BBC have slavishly followed the elite agenda on who is to blame for the economic crisis and what public service areas should be presented for cuts.

There's no inclusion in any of the BBC poll options asking if bankers and their neoliberal practices are to blame. Nor, for example, in BBC Scotland's options listing 'preferred' areas for cuts is there one specifically asking the wealthy to pay.

That's the carefully-limited extent of the BBC's 'genetically impartial' coverage of such issues.

Next up, the increasing resort to outright censoring of those public opinions.*

The BBC Online Editor, Steve Herrmann, has, apparently, been courting views about the new BBC guidelines on external website links. It's all part of that noble 'consultation' thing the BBC prides itself on upholding.

Except when it gets down to actually allowing real criticism on the BBC Editors blog, or the prospect of featuring serious external sites, like Media Lens, that really do take the BBC apart.

Again, complementing Boaden's wordy outpourings on fairness, this mock consultation and purging of dissent on BBC blogs points to the BBC's growing fear of rational criticism.

Finally, when all else fails, there's always the option of just smashing-up the props of those annoying dissenters. Thus, the BBC's chief political editor Nick Robinson has revealed what he truly thinks of open political argument by seizing and destroying the placard of a demonstrator holding up an anti-war message during his live piece to camera.

Robinson later expressed "regret" over his actions. But not without rebuking such protesters for invading the BBC's apparently inviolable space:

"I am a great believer in free speech but I also care passionately about being able to do my job reporting and analysing one of the most important political stories for years."

Again, all very noble. Yet, here's Robinson, on another crucial story, defending those all-important reporting duties:

"In the run-up to the conflict, I and many of my colleagues, were bombarded with complaints that we were acting as mouthpieces for Mr Blair. Why, the complainants demanded to know, did we report without question his warning that Saddam was a threat? Hadn't we read what Scott Ritter had said or Hans Blix? I always replied in the same way. It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do. We are not investigative reporters."

An apologetic admission of just what's expected of the 'responsible' BBC journalist.

In practice, from Marr to Robinson, Boaden to Herrmann, BBC journalists and editors display a remarkably similar tendency towards intolerance and control over serious public dissent.

Maybe there is something 'double-helix-like' in the BBC's establishment make-up, after all.


* Update on further censoring of comments at the BBC Editors blog.

Friday, 15 October 2010


In support of this year's international blog day theme

Wonderful, this primal substance
arbiter of life and death
Affluent planet, parched for poorest
Taps and flows in private hands
Thieves have come, the well is stolen
Freedom's thirst remains unquenched
Egregious nature, flooded pastures
Indifference and damned neglect
Rising oceans, tides approaching
Age of stupid, sinking sense


Right to water

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Media Lens on the Obama cave-in letter

Media Lens have just published a most illuminating Alert on the BBC's and wider media's 'oversight' of the Obama cave-in letter offering Netanyahu a wish-list of 'peace talk' guarantees.

The leaked letter is further confirmation of Washington's 'honest broker' posture and Israel's determination not to relinquish an inch of occupied land.

A short letter on the matter to the BBC's chief Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen:
Dear Jeremy

Beyond your cursory reply to Media Lens, I wonder if you might address more fully the BBC's disturbing failure to report the letter sent by President Obama to Mr Netanyahu detailing his inducements for an extension of the settlement freeze.

Don't you agree that its disclosure paints a damning picture of Washington's carefully-constructed role as "honest broker"?

Doesn't its omission also bring the BBC's own claims to honest and balanced reporting into serious disrepute?

Appropriate BBC coverage of Obama's offers and Netanyahu's outright rejection of them would help call into question the accepted narrative of America and Israel as bona fide peace seekers.

Can you see how proper journalistic illumination of this letter to the viewing public would help contextualise the real power relations and hidden agenda behind the current 'peace talks'?

Why do we have to rely on journalists like Jonathan Cook to convey such crucial details and assessment?

And, please, might you explain why this vital piece of information cannot be covered by the BBC just because you are on another assignment in Lebanon?

Aside from the apparently selective omission of such key evidence, what does this tell us about the BBC's position as a 'leading international news outlet'?


John Hilley

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Brand desire

Those seeking some respite from the standard chat show fare might enjoy Russell Brand being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. From bland to Brand, from branded to candid, it's a rare vacation from the usual vacuousness of celebrity culture.

Beyond Brand's apparent notoriety, publicised and purloined by the same media that 'made' him, it's refreshing to find someone so personally immersed in brand vacuity yet so animatedly willing to dissect his own 'anointed' place within it.

It's also a measure of the BBC's own dumb-down journey that this kind of interview can only get a late-night Newsnight slot.

The interview with Paxman does, of course, provide Brand with an alternative kind of 'anti-fame' platform from which to promote his book and coming docu-film on the cult of celebrity - a new and developing 'non-brand Brand', perhaps. But underlying the comedian's actual motives and hyper-gesticulations lies a series of apparently sincere truths about our obsession with products and the ways in which fame, or the 'promise' of which, spins its cruel illusions.

Brand is, consciously or unwittingly, speaking 'street Chomsky' in his analysis of the omnipresent, media-driven message to consume, 'aspire' and deify celebs; a constant mind-directing narrative intended to keep us all stupefied, diverted, pacified and enslaved to market conformity.

Reminiscent of the same multi-faceted message explored in Starsuckers, Brand rails against the empty gift box of fame:
"We're presented with the attractive spectacle of fame to distract us from the mundanity of our everyday lives."

"It has absolutely no value of itself. It's a spectacle, an illusion, a distraction..."
The consequences of consumer culture and its failure to bring any meaningful form of contentment are huge, Brand believes. No one cares about grand narratives, like religion or communism, anymore, no one cares about big ideas. Instead:
"we've been fed this grey sludge of celebrity, glittered-up and packaged and lacquered and sent directly into our brains by the media that both you [Paxman] and I work for in different degrees."
His conclusion:
"Celebrity in and of itself is utterly, utterly vacuous."
For Brand, fame involves another painful compromise: the loss of privacy and anonymity; a sacrifice that has no worthwhile function, as opposed to being, or wishing to be, say, a great singer, dancer or basket weaver for its own sake.

Beyond that more meaningful quest for satisfaction from one's art, the famous are bound, he believes, to experience massive disappointment and "dissatisfaction".

Yet, beyond our gazing endorsement of mundane market rewards lies a cultural hinterland which, as in Brand's elucidations, can still be moderately educational and entertaining, a pleasing release from the stultifying tedium of celebrity angst.

Brand sees his own still-captive seduction, his own enduring abandonment, to the lie of fame and consumption, yet seeks something more elusive and enlightening from his inner explorations:
"I thing we should try to examine the things that we're using to make us happy, this pursuit of celebrity, of wealth, of status, this consuming of products, this ignorance towards ecological and economical matters, and aspire towards something more beautiful, something more truthful and honest..."
The politics of desire

Brand's articulations on the ultimate consequences of unbridled desire suggests a core truth about human experience and the kind of false expectations we harbour about our personal lives.

But the same might also be said of the mistaken forms of desire we invest in politicians and their political projects.

Recall, for example, the apparently burning desire in 1997 for an end to Tory rule in Britain, the deliverance of which brought us Blair, more neoliberalism, the Iraq debacle and over a million people dead - Brand's parody of the same media "narrative" over whether to choose 'this or that Miliband' suggests a continuation of that false politics of desire.

Then there was Obama, with larges swathes of the liberal world craving a messiah President; the re-making, no less, of brand America. With no appreciable improvements for the poor and an intensification of warmongering in Afghanistan/Pakistan, the gathering disappointment over Obama's performance might be measured in inverse proportion to the hyped media desire invested in his election.

Think, likewise, of the desire for an end to apartheid in South Africa, a 'liberation' which quickly gave way to resigned disappointment as a new elite plundered the wealth and ignored the plight of those still eking a living in the townships. The political arrangement may be better. But is it the desired result of so much struggle?

The paradox of social and political 'arrival' seems, so often, to be new oppression and deep psychological scarring.

Consider Israel. Having fled the murderous ravages of the Nazis, how content are present-day Jews living in a stolen land? The vital illusion peddled of a 'promised land' has not only resulted in the mass removal and subjugation of another people, it has, in the Zionist desire to occupy more land and punish more Palestinians, instilled greater fear, hatred and unhappiness in its own citizens.

Taking that question to its next potential stage, would the realisation of a so-desired Palestinian state provide the anticipated freedoms and progressive liberation craved by the Palestinian people?

The answer is, probably, no. A new Ramallah elite, already forming, sponsored by the corporate West, might well emerge and suffocate that higher social goal, just as happened in South Africa. Even if a Palestinian state is won, the poor will, likely, long remain impoverished in Balata and other refugee camps, just like the black townships.

Yet, the likelihood of new injustice does not invalidate or preclude the actual struggle against occupation and existing injustice. We don't just lie down and accept apartheid oppression because the potential deliverance from it may be underwhelming. Rather, the act of resistance should involve that same educational check on the potentialities of false desire and selfish attainment.

Comprehending the pitfalls of desire is not just about recognising our own illusionary ambitions, indulgences and disappointments. It's also about understanding the possible realities and let-downs of the all-promising political package.

That's where we might more usefully come to craft a more just deliverance based on political compassion rather than the technical constructions of states, borders and constitutions.

All the world, it seems, is now in thrall to the culture of celebrity and the packaging of dreams, most of which, the market ensures, will never be realised. Consumption is that never-ending cycle, the relentless search for an imagined contentment.

The urge to endorse the 'life-improving' capabilities of the political elite is as ideologically-driven as the encouragement to consume any other never-satisfying product. Yet, we remain conditioned to the same consumerist desire, the brand of political and economic hope they call 'liberal capitalist democracy'.

While brands Obama, Cameron/Clegg and Miliband invoke grand dreams of a 'free world', 'deliverance through cuts' and a 'new politics' for a 'new generation', Brand Russell offers in his small burst of whimsical humility, at least, some more realisable insight into the fabricated nature of desire, false consumer promises and the higher potential rewards to be had by mediating one's own delusional cravings.

Which all makes for a happier human outlook and a more moral-minded politics.