Where Truth Lies–How the Tories Get Away with Incompetence and Worse with Unwitting Aid from BBC News

EDITORIAL, 8 Jun 2020

#642 | Prof. Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

When journalists uncover an important truth, they should report it – guided by the professional ethic boiled down in a famous quote from the war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn:

“Limit yourself to what you see and hear. Do not invent and do not suppress”.

Only the truth is “filtered”, to use the word of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their equally famous Propaganda Model for tracing influences on news content, by factors including the “symbiotic relationship [between media and] powerful sources of information”. So it often goes unreported, at least until later. The pattern is repeated, over and over, in the history of journalism and its relations with power; often with detrimental effects. It was evident, for instance, in the Chinese authorities “controlling information” coming out of Wuhan, which prevented earlier and wider apprehension of the threat posed by coronavirus.

But it also applies in Britain to BBC News. On March 23rd, the UK government belatedly ordered a lockdown of the population with a three-line slogan that became widely known: “Stay home. Protect the N[ational] H[ealth] S[ervice]. Save lives”. It applied to everyone: Britons were, ministers declared, “all in this together”. Imagine the discomfiture in Downing Street, then, when a joint investigation by two newspapers, the Guardian and Mirror, revealed that one of the government’s most senior figures, Dominic Cummings – the Svengali attributed with decisive influence on the successful campaign to Vote Leave at the EU referendum of 2016 – had broken the rules. Suspecting that his wife was infected, he should have gone into ‘self-isolation’ at his London home for 14 days. Instead, he drove his family 260 miles to County Durham, to stay in a “spare cottage” at his parents’ farm. On April 12th, they drove to the small town of Barnard Castle, took a 20-minute walk, then drove back. Again, this flouted lockdown rules. It was not until four days later that driving somewhere to take exercise was allowed – and then only if the exercise itself was longer than the drive, not as in this case.

Cummings – usually confined to a role behind the scenes – made a rare public appearance in front of the media, where he confirmed his movements, claiming they were “legal and responsible”, especially as the couple have a four-year-old son, who could be cared for in Durham by his nieces. These developments were summarised on air by Emily Maitlis, main presenter of the BBC’s late-night discussion programme, Newsnight, including the statements:

“Dominic Cummings broke the rules – the country can see that and it’s shocked the government cannot… He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can flout them”.

The next day, however, came a rap over the knuckles from the corporation’s management. A review of the introduction to the programme found it “did not meet our standards of due impartiality”. The latter phrase refers to one of the two main public goods the BBC is duty bound to deliver, as per its Editorial Guidelines (which are based on its Royal Charter). Managers are always keen to interpret complaints as pertaining to this requirement. However, what was surely at stake here was the other public good, of accuracy in reporting. Emily Maitlis reported the truth in her introduction. Cummings HAD broken the rules – and indeed the law. She could see and hear it for herself. It was confirmed the following day after an initial inquiry by Durham Police. That members of the government, from Prime Minister Boris Johnson downwards, falsely maintained he had not, should not be allowed to intimidate journalism into invention or suppression. The propagandistic role of commercial media, Herman and Chomsky write, contains a “moral division of labor”, in which “officials have and give the facts” while “reporters merely get them”. News in public service media, if it is to have any value, must differ.

Reporting of the Cummings affair, and the spineless response of BBC management, met with an online petition supporting Maitlis that quickly reached six figures, and touched off a storm of anger that has built up through the coronavirus crisis. Behind it was a persistent and growing sense that Johnson’s Tory government is getting off lightly for its negligence and incompetence.

The lockdown was imposed a week later than expert advice said it should have been, allowing day after deadly day to tick by, with the virus spreading exponentially in the population at large. Elderly patients were shunted indiscriminately into care homes without even being tested for the disease, in the name of freeing up hospital beds. As a result, the sector has seen over 20,000 excess deaths.

The restrictions on people’s movement were widely and faithfully observed. But the space and opportunity thus afforded, to get on top of the pandemic, was largely squandered. Britons have started to return to work, and send their children to school, with arrangements to trace and isolate the contacts of positive cases – supposedly an essential condition for re-opening the economy – still weeks away from being fully operational.

Many of these shortcomings are, moreover, attributable to signature Tory policies, pursued relentlessly over several decades. Few states have wanted to emulate Britain’s long-running experiment with the outsourcing of public services, for instance – and the national network of 50 drive-in coronavirus test centres is being run not by health officials but by Deloitte, one of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms, which – an official competition review found – should be broken up to avoid conflicts of interest. Following a hiatus when the Johnson government unaccountably abandoned its TTI programme, in early March, the sheer numbers tested have belatedly caught up with those in France and Italy – though remain some way short of Germany – but there have been persistent reports of results being communicated too late to be of any practical use.

The company entrusted with the supply of personal protection equipment – masks, gloves and aprons – turned out to have been sold during the pandemic from one multinational to another, with the predictable result of persistent complaints that NHS and other frontline workers have gone short of potentially life-saving kit.

Serco, the outsourcing company handed the main testing and tracing contract, achieved notoriety when caught out claiming government payments for tagging prisoners who did not exist. For its latest venture, it is recruiting ‘customer service’ operatives on the national minimum wage to cold-call members of the public and read them ‘scripts’, after one hour’s online training. Another substantial contract in the testing regime – awarded, like the rest, without any process of tendering – has gone to Randox, a Northern Ireland chemical company where Tory MP Owen Paterson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary, is a paid director.

And care homes themselves are largely privatised, run by low-paid staff and, in some cases, struggling to generate corporate profits for hedge fund owners based in tax havens. The eventual (and inevitable) public inquiry will, no doubt, seek to apportion responsibility for the carnage among care home residents, but will surely criticise the lack of coordination with the public sector, which has been likened to oil mixing with water.

One particularly telling comparison at the time of writing was that Britain sustained more deaths from Covid-19 on Wednesday, June 3rd than the 27 member states of the European Union combined (359 to 324). Of course, the neoliberal hollowing-out of the state has made far fewer inroads in many of those countries, and labour markets have been protected by the Maastricht Treaty’s Social Chapter – loathed by the Tories, and initially opted-out of by John Major, who presented it as a diplomatic triumph. As the virus took hold, Britain enacted the next stage of Brexit by adopting a new law abolishing freedom of movement to and from the EU, leaving many industries – the care home sector prominent among them – scratching their heads over how to source willing workers.

A small survey, carried out for this column, of BBC output over a specimen week (May 11-15 inclusive) found that two of its biggest news audiences were being presented, by contrast, with a picture of Panglossian optimism. Viewing figures for the News at Ten O’clock, on BBC1, were said to have put on 50% as a population turned in shock to a trustworthy source of information. The agenda-setting morning Today programme, on BBC Radio 4, had likewise grown its listenership.

This was the week when people began getting their hair cut in Prague, visiting shops in Vienna, eating out (on pavement tables) in Lisbon, and working out in the gym in Athens. All directly attributable to the prompt and effective responses from authorities in their respective countries, which limited the spread of the virus and therefore permitted re-opening in safety. But such connections and comparisons appeared taboo on the BBC. A sole brief item on the resumption of professional football matches in Germany omitted the statement by Christian Seifert, CEO of the German Football Federation:

“The fact that we are even able to think about resuming games underlines the performance of the German authorities”.

Neither did any expert appear to give any independent analysis of the UK government’s performance, until two interviews on Friday’s edition of Today, with Harvard Professor Mark Lipsett, on conditions for the safe lifting of a lockdown, and David Nabarro of the World Health Organisation, who did make comparisons with the responses in other countries, including Germany. The television audience was entirely deprived of such content throughout that week.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones, reporting on the Maitlis affair, disclosed a leaked internal memo from BBC Editorial Director Kamal Ahmed, expressing concern that for the corporation’s news to be either “too soft or too condemnatory” of the UK government’s handling of coronavirus could “have an impact on our impartiality and trust scores”. Instead, he continued, “that delicate middle ground is where we need to be”.

Between them, the content of coverage revealed in the survey, and this statement, show why and how BBC News is unwittingly co-opting itself as a propaganda weapon. If audiences are deprived of the means to make salient comparisons with claims by ministers and officials, and to link cause with effect on matters affecting their own safety as they emerge from lockdown into the shambolic regime of testing and tracing put in place by the Johnson government, then they can make no meaningful assessment as to whether its handling of the virus is being represented in an overly soft – or indeed overly condemnatory – fashion. The middle ground is now shifting, as people can see and hear for themselves what’s gone wrong. But that is despite the preponderance of BBC coverage – with Newsnight as an honourable exception – not because of it.

[Online Leverhulme Public Lecture on Wed June 10 at 7.30pm BST, where Jake Lynch will speak further about the same and related issues. Free registration at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-cracked-mirror-tickets-105931636376]


Jake Lynch is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Coventry University for 2019-20, after which he will return to the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. His work in this field was recognised with the award of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, having organised its biennial global conference in Sydney, in 2010. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a 17-year career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, for Sky News, and the Sydney Correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as an on-screen presenter for BBC World Television News. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick, Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism, which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Jun 2020.

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