The BBC is probably the best media channel available in the Western world, perhaps in the entire world…
By what standard do you mean “best”? The best at appearing to be objective and not a tool of the British government? The group, Media Lens (the British counterpart to FAIR) constantly exposes the parroting of BBC. Their conception of being critical or reporting news is not much different than the New York Times or Washington Post.
Look back at the pre-war coverage of the War on Iraq. Just like the NYT, and indeed most big news companies, the BBC relied heavily on “official” sources and gave little room to dissenting voices. And, now after the war, the BBCs concept of criticism of the War is just like the NYT (or the alleged anti-war representative, John Murtha): we are making mistakes, were not winning, were not doing it properly. They are not saying: we should not have done this, it was wrong, it was illegal, Bush and Blair lied, etc. No, on nearly every issue the BBC acts like our big news companies: a parrot for the government. If the “best” news sources are heavily reliant on “officials” as their sources, while leaving little room for dissidents, and shaping criticism of our use of state violence by not challenging whether it was right or wrong to do, but whether we are succeeding at it then thats a lousy concept of “best.”
Folks like David Edwards of Media Lens, Norman Solomon of FAIR, Ed Herman, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Ben Bagdikian, etc are important gadflys to pay attention to when discussing the media.
Daniel Mermet: When a leading journalist or TV news presenter is asked whether they are subject to pressure or censorship, they say they are completely free to express their own opinions. So how does thought control work in a democratic society? We know how it works in dictatorships.
Noam Chomsky: As you say, journalists immediately reply: “No one has been exerting any pressure on me. I write what I want.” And it’s true. But if they defended positions contrary to the dominant norm, someone else would soon be writing editorials in their place. Obviously it is not a hard-and-fast rule: the US press sometimes publishes even my work, and the US is not a totalitarian country. But anyone who fails to fulfill certain minimum requirements does not stand a chance of becoming an established commentator.
It is one of the big differences between the propaganda system of a totalitarian state and the way democratic societies go about things. Exaggerating slightly, in totalitarian countries the state decides the official line and everyone must then comply. Democratic societies operate differently. The line is never presented as such, merely implied. This involves brainwashing people who are still at liberty. Even the passionate debates in the main media stay within the bounds of commonly accepted, implicit rules, which sideline a large number of contrary views. The system of control in democratic societies is extremely effective. We do not notice the line any more than we notice the air we breathe. We sometimes even imagine we are seeing a lively debate. The system of control is much more powerful than in totalitarian systems.
Look at Germany in the early 1930s. We tend to forget that it was the most advanced country in Europe, taking the lead in art, science, technology, literature and philosophy. Then, in no time at all, it suffered a complete reversal of fortune and became the most barbaric, murderous state in human history. All that was achieved by using fear: fear of the Bolsheviks, the Jews, the Americans, the Gypsies - everyone who, according to the Nazis, was threatening the core values of European culture and the direct descendants of Greek civilisation (as the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in 1935). However, most of the German media who inundated the population with these messages were using marketing techniques developed by US advertising agents.
The same method is always used to impose an ideology. Violence is not enough to dominate people: some other justification is required. When one person wields power over another - whether they are a dictator, a colonist, a bureaucrat, a spouse or a boss - they need an ideology justifying their action. And it is always the same: their domination is exerted for the good of the underdog. Those in power always present themselves as being altruistic, disinterested and generous.
In the 1930s the rules for Nazi propaganda involved using simple words and repeating them in association with emotions and phobia. When Hitler invaded the Sudetenland in 1938 he cited the noblest, most charitable motives: the need for a humanitarian intervention to prevent the ethnic cleansing of German speakers. Henceforward everyone would be living under Germany’s protective wing, with the support of the world’s most artistically and culturally advanced country.
When it comes to propaganda (though in a sense nothing has changed since the days of Athens) there have been some minor improvements. The instruments available now are much more refined, in particular - surprising as it may seem - in the countries with the greatest civil liberties, Britain and the US. The contemporary public relations industry was born there in the 1920s, an activity we may also refer to as opinion forming or propaganda.
Both countries had made such progress in democratic rights (women’s suffrage, freedom of speech) that state violence was no longer sufficient to contain the desire for liberty. So those in power sought other ways of manufacturing consent. The PR industry produces, in the true sense of the term, concept, acceptance and submission. It controls people’s minds and ideas. It is a major advance on totalitarian rule, as it is much more agreeable to be subjected to advertising than to torture.
In the US, freedom of speech is protected to an extent that I think is unheard of in any other country. This is quite a recent change. Since the 1960s the Supreme Court has set very high standards for freedom of speech, in keeping with a basic principle established by the 18th century Enlightenment. The court upholds the principle of free speech, the only limitation being participation in a criminal act. If I walk into a shop to commit a robbery with an accomplice holding a gun and I say “Shoot”, my words are not protected by the constitution. Otherwise there has to be a really serious motive to call into question freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has even upheld this principle for the benefit of members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In France and Britain, and I believe the rest of Europe, the definition of freedom of speech is more restrictive. In my view the essential point is whether the state is entitled to determine historical truth and to punish those who contest such truth. If we allow the state to exert such powers we are accepting Stalinist methods. French intellectuals have difficulty admitting that they are inclined to do just that. Yet when we refuse such behaviour there should be no exceptions. The state should have no means of punishing anyone who claims that the sun rotates around the earth. There is a very elementary side to the principle of freedom of speech: either we defend it in the case of opinions we find hateful, or we do not defend it at all. Even Hitler and Stalin acknowledged the right to freedom of speech of those who were defending their point of view.
I find it distressing to have to discuss such issues two centuries after Voltaire who, as we all know, said: “I shall defend my opinions till I die, but I will give up my life so that you may defend yours.” It would be a great disservice to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt one of the basic doctrines of their murderers.