The BBC–Can it be Trusted?

This seems to be the question on everybody’s lips this week. When I turn on the radio, it’s all I hear, no matter the channel.

But let’s get one thing straight: it is trivial that we should be skeptical of information delivered by large corporations of any kind, including large news corporations. We ought to regard with skepticism important and significant claims of any kind, from any source. Our basic attitude should be: If that’s true, then prove it.

We can learn from what Descartes wrote the Discourse on Method in regards to the prevailing dogmas of his day and how to react to them:

It is by custom and example that we are persuaded, much more than by any certain knowledge; at the same time, a majority of votes is worthless as a proof, in regards to truths that are even a little difficult of discovery . . . . Accordingly, I could choose nobody whose opinions I thought preferable to other men’s; and I was as it were forced to become my own guide.

To say “we trust you” to the BBC to deliver reliable information is to abdicate our own capacity for thought, skepticism, and resign ourselves to dogma and orthodoxy. It is, rather, to say “you can do our thinking for us.” Instead, we should be telling the BBC and other major news organizations: we’ll be thinking for ourselves, thank you, and we’ll regard anything you say with healthy skepticism. You just tell us your information, supply evidence for your claims, and we’ll evaluate them to our own standards. If you have no evidence, or your claims are baseless and illogical, than you don’t deserve to be reporting them.

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In the case of the BBC in particular, the notion of “trusting them” is particularly galling. Clearly, the BBC should not be trusted, based on its own record.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, to take only the most flagrant example of recent times, the BBC was perfectly happy to report baseless state propaganda about WMD in Iraq as if it were truth. The BBC clearly has little independence from the state-business concentration of power, and serves as its mouthpiece.

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What is called “the news” is a biased selection of facts, chosen for their importance to the elite perspective on the world, and presented within a basic framework of preconceptions.

Fox News offers  a particularly egregious and self-satirizing vision of what one finds in all major world news outlets, from the New York Times to the BBC. A frustrated George Gallaway used to call it “the Bush and Blair Corporation,” so biased, his opinion, was the presentation of the Iraq war.

As I listen to the BBC every morning, I am impressed, on a daily basis, by the staggering inconsistency with which the BBC covers foreign policy. This morning, for example, it described Greece’s growing Golden Dawn party as a frustrated group of people become exceedingly-nationalistic, xenophobic, and homophobic. Yet one would never hear them describe the US Tea Party in the same honest and plain terms. Nor would the BBC dare to challenge an Israeli or a US politician with the same hostile, intensely skeptical questioning with which it regularly berates Pakistani political figures.

The BBC’s coverage of Julian Assange is yet another recent example. While interviewing Assange supporters on television, the journalists permitted themselves an exceedingly hostile, combative, and accusatory style of questioning, practically accusing him of criminal behavior even though he has not even been charged with a single crime.

This would be perfectly fine if it were the approach applied consistently to all interviewees. On the contrary, however, when interviewing Assange detractors, especially those who accused the Wikileaks founder of sexual misconduct (rather baselessly, given the total absence of public evidence), they were hardly challenged at all.

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And so it goes with the rest of the BBC’s coverage of important topics in the national debate. Official state enemies are interviewed with extreme bias and skepticism by the BBC, while official state allies–and statespersons themselves–are given ample space to air their opinions uncontested, or at least subjected to very little skepticism or antagonistic questioning.

It is also worth pointing out that the BBC is reacting to two incidents of journalistic misconduct as if these are the crimes of the century.

In proportion to other instances of extremely biased coverage and general lack of journalistic integrity, including those discussed above, these current issues are only minor.

Biased coverage of war, of state policy, and of state crimes are far more grievous and trust-killing than misreporting the claim of a sex violence victim or under-reporting the crimes of a sexual predator. While these are indeed important issues, deserving comment, they pale in comparison to acting as a state propagandist for war, or consistently delivering the UK state perspective as the baseline for understanding the world.

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