Book Review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, April – May 2017 | Issue 2604 – 2605

Historically there has been a general consensus across British politics and among British political commentators that the BBC is, by and large, an independent, left-leaning institution that serves the public interest. But, as readers of PN will know, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, this is a myth.

Since its inception, the BBC has overwhelmingly served the interests of the government and elite sectors in society, a fact backed up by virtually every significant scholarly study on the matter.

In this incisive new book, Tom Mills has compiled extensive historical data (from archival research, interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources) to reinforce this analysis.

Mills starts with the 1926 General Strike, when the BBC infamously sided with the government against workers. Thereafter, he explains, the BBC was indeed ‘afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent’. However, this was only ‘on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government’. As the founding director-general Lord Reith put it, the government ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.

Into the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills shows how the BBC willingly subordinated itself as an instrument of government propaganda, banning not just fascists and communists from its broadcasts, but also conscientious objectors. During this period the BBC became a ‘fully effective instrument of war’, as Reith’s successor Frederick Ogilvie stated. It was also during this period that senior BBC staff allowed MI5 to politically vet its employees (a practice that astonishingly continued until 1985). In the post-war years, Mills shows how the BBC not only distributed Cold War propaganda in ‘close cooperation’ with the government, but domestically it served to marginalise peace movements and critics of war, cancelling programmes due to government pressure and generally promoting a line favourable to established interests. The Suez Crisis, Falklands War and Gulf Wars are all explored as examples. On issues of economics, the BBC’s neoliberal shift during the 1980s is particularly interesting. Mills outlines how, following the arrival of deputy director-general John Birt in 1987, a ‘small coterie’ of radical Thatcherite reformers helped restructure the organisation, leading to a ‘remarkable growth in business and economics journalism’ and a decline in the representation of workers and their interests.

This ‘neoliberal, pro-business, right-wing’ turn, as Mills describes it, was accelerated into the 1990s and 2000s, and was plain to see in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis when elite, pro-business sources dominated reporting. Indeed, the historical record explored by Mills leads him to conclude that the BBC is ‘no more free from the powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today’. It’s a conclusion hard to disagree with after reading this book, especially given the way the BBC has reported on the anti-war, left-wing socialist who is currently leader of the opposition. The contemporary relevance of this book cannot be overstated. A must-read for anyone interested in British politics.

Verso, 2016; 272pp; £16.99

‘Opposites Attract’: Britain and the Bad Guys

This article was published in the Morning Star on 8th April 2017. See here.

With Theresa May away pandering to Middle Eastern dictators this week, it’s worth recalling that the British Establishment has always courted deplorable people – from Fascists in the 1930s to Trump in 2017. As long as they serve the commercial interests of British business then they have a place at the table.

Like all Prime Ministers, May presents herself in public as a person of integrity and principle – she claims to uphold ‘British values‘, to be a feminist, a champion of working people and equal opportunity, a proponent of freedom and democracy, she’s apparently against unnecessary wars, repression, torture and injustice (unless it’s for ‘defence’ purposes, of course).

Donald Trump, however, seems a world away – he is a public showman, a billionaire, an obvious misogynist who’s bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, he has repressive, warmongering and authoritarian tendencies, and he has shamelessly harnessed racism, xenophobia and division to win the presidency of the United States, among other reprehensible things.

So when asked about how she’ll manage the differences between herself and Trump, what might we expect May to say? ‘He’s a despicable man’, ‘I intend to avoid him at all costs’, ‘Britain will refuse to do business with him because we are a nation of principle’? No, of course not. When asked this very question in January 2017 she responded: ‘Haven’t you ever noticed, sometimes opposites attract?’

Opposites most certainly do attract, especially when it’s in the commercial interests of Britain for them to do so. In fact, Britain’s commercial interests have always trumped its principles. This is why May and her predecessors have supported the royal family of Saudi Arabia, a repressive, authoritarian, human rights abusing regime of billionaires who permit the beheading of criminals, the stoning of women and the funding of Islamic terrorism around the globe.

They’re also engaged in a campaign of terror in Yemen right now that’s killed over 10,000 civilians, a campaign that May’s government supports and has continued to provide weapons for. How are ‘British values’ being upheld here? Or how are they being upheld when May visits Turkey and brokers a £100m arms deal with its authoritarianhuman rights abusing, free speech supressingmisogynistic, ISIS sympathising president Erdoğan? And then there’s British support for Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt under Sisi (and previously Mubarak) – all are repressive, authoritarian human rights abusers who the British government happily trades with (particular commodities include oil and weapons).

Or lest we forget Britain’s collusion with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi under Tony Blair, which helped broker a £550m deal for Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell to explore for gas in Libya. Or Britain’s support for Saddam Hussein under Margaret Thatcher, who continued selling him arms despite knowing he’d used chemical weapons against Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88 and had committed genocide against the Kurds in 1988.

Or Thatcher’s faithful support for the brutal and murderous Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who she affectionately described as Britain’s ‘true friend’.

Then there was her support for General Suharto of Indonesia, whose dictatorship has been described as ‘one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century’. After coming to power in a military coup in 1965 his regime tortured and killed around 500,000 people and in his subsequent invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975 he killed around 250,000 more. Thatcher described him as ‘One of our very best and most valuable friends‘, while Elizabeth Windsor received him on a State Visit in 1979.

Or further still, how about Thatcher’s problematic stance on apartheid South Africa, in which she opposed sanctions and condemned Mandela’s African National Congress as a ‘typical terrorist organisation’?

Oh, and then there was Britain’s support for the Shah of Iran from 1953 to 1979. The Shah, another brutal dictator, came to power after the British, under Winston Churchill, helped the US overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh because he wanted to nationalise its oil industry. Where were the so-called ‘British values’ of freedom, justice and democracy then?

Indeed, it’s important to understand, in the light of May’s kowtowing to Trump and the Queen inviting him on a State Visit, that the British Establishment has always pandered to, and supported, the most despicable people when it has suited the interests of British business.

A most outrageous example of this, which has been tactfully erased from most British history books, came in the 1930s when a large portion of the British Establishment, by way of finance, weapons and diplomacy, supported fascism at home and in Germany and Italy. From the Royal Family to Churchill, fascism was of little concern until it directly threatened British interests. As the renowned British historian AJP Taylor wrote:

‘Every politician extolled the virtues of democracy, especially at the expense of Soviet Russia. Despite this rhetoric […] Ramsay MacDonald wrote friendly personal letters to the Fascist dictator Mussolini; Austen Chamberlain exchanged photographs with him and joined him in family holidays; Churchill sang his praises in newspaper articles’.

Or take Lord Reith, the founding director-general of the BBC. He openly admired both Hitler and Mussolini. As early as 1933 he declared that ‘I am certain that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again […] They are being ruthless and most determined’. Dare we even remind ourselves of the following footage of a seven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor giving a nazi salute with her mother, sister and uncle in 1933. It’s certainly a powerful, if controversial, illustration of just how normalised and accepted fascism was among the British establishment during that period – that is, before it threatened our own national interests.

Political Subversion: Business as Usual

So this week Al Jazeera’s investigative unit revealed, in an extraordinary exposé, how the Israel lobby have been actively trying to influence British politics. In the first episode of a four-part documentary (watch here) it’s revealed how Israel have been ‘influencing student, activist and parliamentary groups in the UK [and] offering financial and strategic assistance in order to gather support among young organisers and shape British politics’ in favour of Israeli interests. As footage from the same investigation revealed earlier this week, the Israeli diplomat Shai Masot (who oddly wasn’t even on the Foreign Office’s Diplomat List) hoped to ‘take down’ the British Deputy Foreign Minister, Sir Alan Duncan, and suggested that ‘a little scandal’ might be the way to do it.

This is, of course, ‘an outrageous interference in British politics’, as the Conservative journalist Peter Oborne said. Yet who in the British Government cares about this? Certainly not the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, who, after refusing to open an investigation into it, declared he didn’t think it would be ‘helpful to discuss [the matter] further’. And certainly not the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (who Masot called an ‘idiot’); his Foreign Office said the ‘matter is closed’. Quite remarkable.

Of course, if it were Russia, not Israel, undertaking such interference in British politics then you can bet your bottom pound the reaction would have been huge. Indeed, when the US Government and intelligence agencies recently claimed (and continue to claim), without presenting ANY verifiable evidence, that Russia influenced the US election, the reaction from Obama was sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and a threat of covert retaliation. There was also a media campaign of ‘fake and deceitful news’ to vilify Putin and all things Russian. Anti-Russian sentiment is now rife among the US and British political and media establishments, and the unwarranted fear-mongering – which will serve only to stir up jingoism and xenophobia towards Russians – looks set to continue. Israel, however, receive no such treatment.

But then even if Russia did play a part in influencing the US election, and even if Israel continue to try and influence British politics (as they will), any outrage from Britain and the US is hypocritical in the face of one fact: the US and Britain have been subverting and overthrowing democracies for decades. Consider the Iranian coup of 1953, undertaken by the US and Britain, and the overthrow of the elected government of British Guiana in the same year, undertaken by Britain alone. Oh, and then there is THIS LIST, compiled by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, of 45 countries whose democracies the US has interfered with since WWII.

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Why Establishment Media are Biased Against Corbyn

The UK Establishment news media are highly centralised and dominated by elites who, when it really matters, serve the status quo and detest democracy.

The standard conception about the role of the media in a liberal democracy is that it acts as a guardian: independently, truthfully and objectively holding power to account and exposing injustices. While it can do this on occasion, a more accurate and enduring conception is that the media, when it really counts, preserve the interests of the Establishment, both state and private. This is best revealed when a truly anti-establishment figure comes to town – cue Jeremy Corbyn.

Take the BBC, which is often regarded as the UK’s most trust-worthy news source, it is formally committed to ‘serving the public interest’ and giving true, accurate, fair and impartial news. Its Editorial Guidelines state that ‘impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences’. However, as many readers will know, research by the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London, recently found ‘clear and consistent’ bias in the BBC’s reporting of Jeremy Corbyn between 27th June and 6th July 2016 – the 10 day period between the first Labour shadow cabinet resignations and the release of the Chilcot report into the Iraq war.

Researchers analysed 465 online news items from 8 outlets and 40 primetime television news bulletins from both the BBC and ITV. It found that while ITV were relatively balanced, BBC evening news bulletins ‘gave nearly twice as much unchallenged airtime to sources critical of Corbyn compared to those that supported him’. Furthermore, there was a ‘Strong tendency within BBC main evening news for reporters to use pejorative language when describing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters’. As the researchers emphasised, there was a ‘clear and consistent bias in favour of critics of Jeremy Corbyn’.

This research followed a more extensive study undertaken by media and communications scholars at LSE who analysed 8 British newspapers between 1st September and 1st November 2015 – the period during which Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. The study found that 75% of the coverage misrepresented Corbyn’s views and concluded that:

Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy [emphasis added]. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK.

As both of these studies show, it is not just the right-wing media who have been biased against Corbyn, but the supposed left-leaning liberal media, such as the BBC and the Guardian, too. This unanimity of hostility with which the British establishment media have been reporting on Corbyn is uncharacteristic of a fair and balanced news media. In fact, such a consensus, one might think, is more characteristic of a totalitarian society, whereby dissenting voices are simply silenced by threat or force. In a fair and balanced media such analyses simply would not garner such conclusions. How might this be happening, then?

Centralisation

For one thing, regarding newspapers, there are just three companies that control 70% of the UK national market: News UK, Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), and Trinity Mirror. By democratic standards, we have a highly concentrated press, the majority of which are, and have traditionally been, to the right of the political spectrum. As George Orwell acknowledged in his 1945 essay Freedom of the Press, the British press is ‘extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics’.

Unlike in 1945, however, it is not so much wealthy men who own it today, but multi-national corporations with annual turnovers in the billions or trillions. As ex-Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook observes, the personnel who control these corporations ‘are not only fabulously wealthy but have diverse business interests that will be affected by how our societies are run, what laws apply or don’t, and how foreign policy is made’. Furthermore, and more worryingly, they ‘often have additional interests in military and defence corporations’ that profit directly from war.

Take the biggest and perhaps most obvious example of Rupert Murdoch. He is chief proprietor of News UK, which possesses a third of the entire UK market share in newspapers (including the Sun, the Sun on Sunday, the Times and the Sunday Times). He also has the controlling stake in Sky News. He is currently the 96th richest person in the world, regarded as one of its most powerful people and has financial interests in not only media and publishing but also American shale gas and Middle Eastern oil.

Murdoch’s networks with the wealthy and powerful are extensive and he has been pally with every British Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. Often referred to as ‘Britain’s permanent Cabinet member’, his former editor at the Sunday Times, Andrew Neil (now prominent at the BBC), said of him that he ‘expects his papers to stand broadly for what he believes: a combination of right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain’. He thus employs editors – who themselves employ staff – that broadly fall in line with his ideological views. Accordingly, in 2003, all of Murdoch’s 175 newspapers worldwide and their editors supported the invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, as Alastair Campbell, former Director of Communications for Tony Blair, has revealed, Murdoch used his influence in an ‘over-crude’ way to try to encourage Blair to go to war, just as he previously tried to influence John Major on European policy.

Indeed, given that Corbyn resolutely opposes policies that Murdoch profits from, such as war and corporate dominance over society, it is easy to see why the Murdoch press would be against him. This ideological opposition naturally explains the bias of other right-leaning outlets against him, too (such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express). Less easy to explain, however, or perhaps just less easy to see, is why the supposed left-leaning liberal news media like the BBC and the Guardian, which are regarded by many as being more fair and balanced sources, are also found to be bias against Corbyn. The following might help explain.

Media Elite

Government research in 2014 revealed that a third of BBC executives (33%) graduated from Oxbridge; a quarter (26%) attended private schools; and over half (62%) attended Russell Group universities. In addition, around half of national newspaper columnists (47%) graduated from Oxbridge, while only slightly fewer (43%) attended private schools. Overall, of the elite individuals regarded as the ‘top 100 media professionals’ in the UK (comprising editors, columnists and broadcasters), nearly half (45%) graduated from Oxbridge and over half (53%) attended private schools.

These final two statistics are scandalous because only a mere 0.8% of the population are actually educated at Oxbridge, while just 7% attend private schools. This means that the majority of the most powerful and influential professionals in UK media (including many at the BBC and the Guardian) come from a tiny pool of private schools and two highly elite universities. The research extended right across the British establishment, revealing how the top jobs in politics, law, business and the military are also overwhelmingly dominated by the privileged. The chairman of the research, Rt Hon. Alan Milburn, said:

Our research shows it is entirely possible for politicians to rely on advisors to advise, civil servants to devise policy solutions and journalists to report on their actions having all studied the same courses at the same universities, having read the same books, heard the same lectures and even being taught by the same tutors.

After similar research was published in 2012, Milburn commented that journalism specifically had ‘shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession’, a point reinforced by research this year showing that over half of the UK’s leading journalists (55%) have been educated at Oxbridge and still over half (51%) have attended private schools. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) retorted: journalism remains ‘the preserve of the privileged’.

These statistics simply do not reflect a fair and balanced Establishment media; they reflect a media dominated by privileged professionals with elite educations. This is, of course, entirely unrepresentative of the majority of the population, and as Milburn further stated:

Where institutions rely on too narrow a range of people from too narrow a range of backgrounds with too narrow a range of experiences they risk behaving in ways and focussing on issues that are of salience only to a minority but not the majority in society.

This goes a long way to explaining the Establishment consensus against Corbyn, who himself is ideologically opposed to such inequality and elite domination in society. Consider the affinity between the heads of the BBC and the Guardian: James Harding, Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC, went to Cambridge and formally worked for Murdoch as editor at the Times; Rona Fairhead, Chair of the BBC Trust, also went to Cambridge, is friends with George Osborne and is a board member for PepsiCo and HSBC; Katherine Vines, Editor-in-Chief at the Guardian, went to Oxford and previously worked for Murdoch’s Sunday Times; while her predecessor, Alan Rusbridger, went to Cambridge and is now the principle of an Oxford college currently facing accusations of getting ‘jobs for the boys’ among the ‘liberal intelligentsia’.

Indeed, private schooling and an Oxbridge education are well known for maintaining what have traditionally been called the ‘incestuous links of privilege and power’ within the British establishment. As this remains largely true, it is easy to see how a close-knit Establishment elite would stand united against an anti-establishment individual who opposes – and genuinely wants to eradicate – the kind of privilege and inequality they represent. In traditional terms this would be called class conflict.

But the important question here is: how can highly educated professionals (‘experts’) who regard themselves (and are so regarded by others) as liberal, left-leaning and serving a public good, not be aware of their own Establishment bias? Well, while some of them likely are aware, physicist Jeff Schmidt has an interesting theory for the ones who are not.

Disciplined Conservative Liberal Elites

In his book Disciplined Minds (2000), Schmidt contends that professionals of all kinds, which including editors, journalists and broadcasters, are conditioned to serve the agenda of established power by subordinating themselves to working ‘within an assigned political and ideological framework’. They thus end up being a more conservative force in society. Interestingly, this subordination and conservatism comes from education. Children are curious about all things, but must gradually learn to assign their curiosity to specific tasks set by teachers. This continues right up to graduate and professional training. It amounts to a process of selection, training and qualification for obedience; what Schmidt calls ‘ideological discipline’ and what sociologists would call socialisation.

Take essays, for example; a professor assigns essay topics and the student must choose one to write about. Disciplined students do not even consider writing about topics that are not assigned. In fact, the most disciplined go out of their way to figure out how to please the professor; they check out his/her ‘attitudes and beliefs so they can mimic them’ and ‘the ones who eagerly adopt the [professor’s] outlook, no matter what it happens to be-in-general, the ones who subordinate their own beliefs to an assigned ideology’ are the most “successful”. As Schmidt explains, the willingness and ability to do this, to assign one’s curiosity and exercise ‘ideological discipline’, is a prerequisite in professional work where any serious questioning of the ideology (such as the morality or politics built into the work) might prove disruptive. Any such disruptive attitudes are thus necessarily weeded out along the way. This is especially true when it comes to the top jobs.

The process produces not just discipline and subordination in professionals, but also conservatism. Schmidt notes how the common assumption is that professionals, particularly of a good education, are more liberal on social issues (for example, civil liberties, personal morality and cultural issues) and are thus regarded as being a more progressive force in society than non-professionals without degrees. This is false, Schmidt argues, because while educated professionals may be more progressive on ‘distant social issues’ that do not affect them in or outside of their work, they tend to be more conservative on the long-standing, more significant issues that really might affect them personally. Democracy is a prime example. As Schmidt writes:

Discuss politics with a liberal professional and you will not hear a word in favour of a more democratic distribution of power in society perhaps because in the professional’s view ignorant nonprofessionals make up the large majority of the population.

This point wonderfully illustrates the trepidation of so-called left-leaning Establishment liberals in the run-up to Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and their subsequent efforts to undermine, overrule and prevent the democratic decision of the membership base that voted for him. Their contempt for democracy in this instance indeed betrays a remarkable level of conservatism that any serious liberal ought to find appalling. Another example of the professional’s view of the ‘ignorant nonprofessional’ came with the scornful reactions of so-called ‘metropolitan elites’ to Brexit voters. The failure of these educated ‘liberal’ professionals to understand, anticipate or even address the deep cultural and class divide that lay behind the Brexit votes exemplifies exactly the kind of confined ideological thinking that Schmidt outlines.

Additionally, while professionals may be liberal outside of their work, inside of their work they may be very much conservative, and for good reason. The day labourer, for example, who believes politicians are corrupt or that Tony Blair is a war criminal will freely proclaim such an opinion because it has no affect on him in his workplace. The professor, judge or journalist, however, will refrain from saying such things for fear of ruffling feathers or being quoted on record, despite the fact that few in broader society would find it shocking. As Orwell noted in Freedom of the Press, the ‘sinister fact’ about censorship amongst the English intelligentsia is that ‘it is largely voluntary’:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark […] not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

Indeed, this kind of censorship (or ‘ideological discipline’), whether voluntary or unconscious, exemplifies what Schmidt calls a ‘political and intellectual timidity’ among our ‘most highly educated employees’. The net result is that they constitute a more conservative force in society and thus end up serving the ‘interests of those who have power’ and help to ‘maintain the social and economic status quo’.

To summarise here, the point is that a good education and professional training tends to produce employees that can be trusted to theorise, experiment, innovate and create only within the assigned political and ideological framework of established power, and as employees internalise the ideology of the Establishment, their ability to see a class interest or bias in their work diminishes. In this context it is easy to see how a so-called ‘liberal’ Establishment media, under the hegemony of privileged professionals with elite educations, are so opposed to Corbyn. Indeed, for them he is just too anti-establishment and too far from the status quo.

It is worth noting here that Schmidt’s aim is not to lambast or condemn professionals – it is merely to build an understanding of the role of professionals in society. He empathises with the many professionals who start off hoping to ‘make a difference’, but soon find they have been pushed to ‘accept a role in which they do not make a significant difference, a politically subordinate role’. When this happens, he says, professionals tend to seek money and status as compensations for subordinating their ideals (for anyone interested, he gives advice on techniques for resistance and maintaining independent thought within the professions).

In Conclusion

Schmidt’s insight, together with an understanding of who owns and works for our news organisations, helps explain why our Establishment media, on both the left and right of the political spectrum, has been so opposed to Corbyn. While there are certainly other factors that contribute to their bias (for example, the role of advertising and sourcing, which I have not covered here), an undoubtedly pivotal element is the centralisation of the UK press within the hands of just a few multi-national corporations. Naturally, the personnel working for these corporations have every motive (because of the nature of the corporation and their professional commitments) to maintain an established order conducive to corporate interests. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the so-called left-leaning ‘liberal’ media (e.g. the BBC and the Guardian) is itself dominated by privileged professionals with elite educations whom, whether they know it or not, have a vested ideological interest in preventing an anti-establishment figure like Corbyn from coming to power. This is NOT to suggest that good independent journalists do not exist within the Establishment media, nor that the Establishment media never do good work and challenge power, because they do (for example, the Snowden revelations and the MP’s expenses scandal); it is to say that when a fundamental challenge to the established order comes to town, then, by and large, the they fall in line to conserve Establishment interests, because they are the Establishment.

It was the American philosopher John Dewey who, in the 1920s, when advocating greater democracy, observed that if big business were to maintain a disproportionate influence over politics, then politics will remain just ‘the shadow cast on society by big business’. A not too dissimilar version of this would be that if a privileged Establishment elite were to maintain a disproportionate influence over the news media, then the news media will continue to reflect the interests of a privileged elite. Indeed, it is no secret that Corbyn himself supports measures to reform UK media – to make it fairer, more democratically inclusive and thus more representative of the population. In fact, his political intentions have always been to increase the democratic participation of the citizenry; that is, to enable greater ‘democratic determination of policy’ throughout society, as he puts it. However, as we observed above, this likely constitutes one of the primary reasons the Establishment is so opposed to him, and precisely one of the reasons they will continue to oppose him.

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Cultural Diplomacy and Propaganda are NOT Mutually Exclusive

Cultural diplomacy has been defined as ‘the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding’ (Cummings, 2003, p. 1). Indeed, while it has been recognised as having ‘a vital role to play in international relations’ (Bound et al. 2007, p. 11), it is often viewed with suspicion due to its ‘connotations with colonialism, imperialism, and propaganda’ (Nisbett, 2012, p. 2). Despite this, attempts have been made to distinguish cultural diplomacy from such unfavourable overtones. Mulcahy (1999, p. 8), for example, argues that cultural diplomacy ought to be ‘distinguished from propaganda’ because, unlike propaganda, it does not contain ‘explicit, immediate political content’. He continues:

Cultural diplomacy rests on the premise that allowing […] cultural activities and cultural leaders to speak for themselves abroad is the best advertising for the virtues of a free society (ibid).

There are two points to be challenged here: (i) cultural diplomacy being distinguishable from propaganda and (ii) cultural leaders speaking for themselves. They are both interlinked and will be addressed here, respectively.

Cultural Diplomacy Being Distinguishable from Propaganda?

When Reginald Leeper founded the British Council in 1934, he openly referred to its work as the dissemination of ‘cultural propaganda’ (Smiles, 2007, p. 167). He was also in no doubt about its role as a political instrument. In a 1935 letter to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Robert Vansittart, he wrote:

I am convinced that our aim should be political rather than commercial and that the Foreign Office should have the major say in the policy of the Council […] we could use our cultural work as a very definite political instrument. This work should go hand in hand with our foreign policy and quite definitely the Foreign Office should be the advisors to the Council (quoted in ibid).

He would later write, in 1943, that ‘the object [of the Council] was not culture for culture’s sake, but culture for policy’s sake’ (Atherton, 1994, p. 27). In 1941 the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, also wrote of the Council’s role:

The supposition is that the British Council exists only for cultural, and not for political propaganda, but this at the best of times was mere camouflage since no country would be justified in spending public money on cultural propaganda unless it had also a political or commercial significance (quoted in ibid).

Evidently, these early twentieth century elites had no qualms about referring to the Council’s work as ‘political’ and/or ‘cultural propaganda’. And as Louise Atherton (1994, p. 26-27), a scholar of Diplomacy in the 1930s at the University of East Anglia has written, ‘Although publicly presented as an independent body’ the Council ‘was, from its creation, guided by the foreign office’. Interestingly, nowhere today can such sentiments be found on the Council’s website, not even on the History page. Indeed, the Council now refers to its work as ‘cultural relations’ (British Council, n.d.b), stating that:

the British Council builds links between UK people and institutions and those around the world, helping to create trust and lay foundations for prosperity and security around the world (ibid).

In considering this new description of the Council’s work, we may recall that the UK Government once had a Secretary of State for ‘War’, who is nowadays called the Secretary of State for ‘Defense’. Furthermore, when observing the preference to refer to the Council’s work as ‘cultural relations’ we may also recall that after the Second World War the term ‘public relations’ was chosen as a euphemism to replace the term ‘propaganda’, which had acquired negative connotations due to its use by Nazi forces (Bernays, 2005[1928], pp. 13-16). It would be hasty, then, to not question further the role of the Council, or indeed any organisation in the business of ‘cultural relations’ as a potential tool for ‘political’ and/or ‘cultural propaganda’.

The Oxford English dictionary defines propaganda as ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view’. Therefore, to show that an organisation is not functioning as a propaganda tool it would be necessary to show that the organisation operates impartially and not in the interests of a ‘political cause or point of view’. While a detailed study is beyond the scope of this article, the following observations may prove useful.

Cultural Leaders Speaking for Themselves?

As observed above, Mulcahy’s (1998, p.8) distinguishing of cultural diplomacy from propaganda rests on its independence from ‘explicit, immediate political content’ and that ‘cultural activities and cultural leaders speak for themselves’. However, such conditions do not in fact eliminate the possibility of propaganda, as we will now observe.

In 2007, the UK Government granted six leading cultural organisations – British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, Royal Botanical Gardens, Tate and Victoria & Albert Museum – £3 million to undertake a variety of cultural activities in Africa, the Middle East, India, and China (Nisbett, 2012, p. 3). The venture was called the World Collections Programme (WCP). Remarkably, when discussing it in Parliament, all three parties – Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem – agreed that if money was to be granted then the cultural organisations ought not to be used as political instruments (ibid). This not only seemed to oppose the views of the old elites who saw ‘cultural work as a very definite political instrument’, but it also opposed much of the existing literature on cultural diplomacy, which, as Nisbett (ibid) points out, tends to be critical of such cultural investments for being used to push government agendas (see e.g. Vestheim, 1994, p. 65). Jenkins (2009) calls this the ‘propagandist agenda’. Indeed, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) selected the locations for the organisations to undertake their work, Nisbett (2012), in her proclaimed ‘empirical’ study of the WCP, claims that:

Beyond the priority countries being outlined, there is no further [Government] direction or prescription (ibid, p. 4).

Concluding from data gathered from interviewing various stakeholders, she also writes:

There is no evidence of propaganda or indeed any other detrimental impact (p. 15).

Finally, she adds that her data:

dispels the accusations [e.g. from Jenkins, 2009] of ‘political diktat’, ‘agitprop’, political ‘naivety’ and organisational ‘subservience’ (ibid).

Certainly, while it is agreeable from the data presented that political diktat did not occur beyond the ‘priority countries outlined’; no legitimate claim can be made for the absence of propaganda, agitprop, political naivety and/or organisational subservience. This is because no enquiry was made into the potential existence of political bias in the actual cultural content produced, exhibited and/or exchanged by the organisations funded. Indeed, the data from interviewees is insufficient to support her claims because, even if the interviewees were aware of having done so, they would be unlikely to admit to serving a ‘propagandist agenda’ or being subservient to organisational demands. As Ellul (1965, pp. 58-9) explains:

The propagandist naturally cannot reveal the true intentions of the principal for whom he acts […] That would be to submit the projects to public discussion, to the scrutiny of public opinion, and thus to prevent their success […] Propaganda must serve instead as a veil for such projects, masking true intention.

More importantly, propaganda can occur more subtly and can even go unrecognised. Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988]) demonstrate this with their ‘propaganda model’, which they use to show how systematic bias occurs in the US mass media (do watch here for a very useful illustration of the process). The model comprises elements of a filtering system that enables ‘the government and dominant private interests to get their message across to the public’ without the means of force or coercion (ibid, p. 2). The filtering process ‘occurs so naturally’, they write, that media personnel, ‘frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill’, are convinced of their objectivity and independence from external forces (ibid). We may apply this filtering system (propaganda model) to the six cultural organisations involved with the WCP. For example, in defending the management of the British Museum, Director Neil MacGregor explains earnestly that, through a system of ‘extraordinary ingenuity and brilliance’, the museum is owned and controlled ‘not as a department of state, but by trustees’ who are ‘not allowed by law merely to follow government orders’ (MacGregor, 2004). However, he fails to acknowledge that, as is the case with all six organisations, the trustees are recommended and appointed (and reappointed) by either UK Government Ministers (often the Prime Minister) and/or existing trustees (see DCMS, 2015). Such a system naturally facilitates a reinforcing feedback-loop of like-minded individuals whom generally share similar views and are thus unlikely to hold views that conflict with established interests. As Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988], p. xii) write, most bias arises from:

the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power.

As we see, then, the possibility of bias towards a political agenda is in fact very prevalent. Nisbett (2012, p. 15) even acknowledges in her conclusions that ‘Government […] policies generally “reflect” the work of the cultural organisations, thus validating their status and power’. Might it not equally be said that the work of the cultural organisations reflects the policies of the Government, thus essentially making them mouthpieces for the Government? This point goes unacknowledged.

Further contributing to systematic bias are processes of funding. As Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988], p. 16) explain, the people that ‘buy and pay’ for the content ‘are the patrons that provide the […] subsidy [and whose] requirements and demands the media must accommodate if they are to succeed’. Indeed, when speaking of their increasing dependence on corporate sponsors, the British Museum’s head of corporate relations Jennifer Suggitt has expressed worry at how criticism of such sponsors could ‘really affect how much arts organisations are funded in future’ (Spence, 2014). With regards to the UK Government’s funding of these organisations, Nisbett (2012, p. 10) also highlights the importance of cultural managers ‘remembering the funders’ and their priorities because ‘funding streams are expected to echo political objectives’. Again, this creates an obvious potential for propaganda that goes unacknowledged in her ‘empirical’ study.

Despite her conclusion, then, that there was ‘no evidence of propaganda’ in the WCP organisations, it has been shown here that there was in fact a lot of potential for propaganda and organisational subservience to the Government. The problem was that no analysis was undertaken of the cultural content promoted by the organisations. Furthermore, we have seen that Mulcahy’s (1999, p. 8) premise of allowing cultural leaders to ‘speak for themselves’ independent of political interests does not eliminate the possibility of propaganda, especially when those leaders are preselected by UK Government Ministers and other preselected ‘right-thinking people’ with potentially ‘internalized preconceptions’. As Orwell (1972) wrote of self-censorship in the British press and intelligentsia:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark […] not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

It is entirely possible that such self-censorship is at play within our cultural organisations and that, as Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988], p. xii) conclude of the US mass media, they predominantly serve to ‘mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity’. It is certainly interesting to consider whether our cultural organisations would possess the autonomy to openly promote the historical facts outlined here. Indeed, considering the issue, we ought not to forget that the locations selected by the UK Government for the six cultural organisations to undertake their work – Africa, the Middle East, India, and China – have all been subject to British colonial and imperial activity and all are of significant economic interest to the West.

C

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