Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Marred Opinions

Insight into the partiality of Andrew Marr, political mouthpiece of the BBC

The BBC constantly boasts of the honesty and integrity of their 'impartial' news and analysis. But, as David Edwards reveals, the appointment of Andrew Marr as the BBC's new Chief Political Editor stretches credulity. Can a man who insists "The World Trade Organisation is on the side of the angels. It is what the world's poor need most…" be deemed a credibly impartial political editor?

August 2000

While it is often recognised that the reporting of the right-wing 'Tory press' is hopelessly distorted, there is often a naive faith in the 'neutral' output of newspapers such as The Guardian, Observer and Independent, and even the BBC. An individual who has been at the heart of this 'liberal' media establishment for some time is Andrew Marr, one-time editor of the Independent and Observer columnist, who has recently been appointed as political editor of the BBC.

Noises have been made about Marr's favoured status among New Labour elites. Writing in The Observer, Kamal Ahmed noted that "Marr… is close to senior officials in Downing Street and makes no secret of his New Labour credentials. He is well-liked by the Prime Minister and his official spokesman, Alastair Campbell." ('BBC risks row over key TV post'. Observer, 14/5/00)

This will surprise no one who recalls Marr's performance during last year's bombing of Serbia. In The Observer, Marr wrote a series of adulatory articles with titles like, "Brave, bold, visionary. Whatever became of Blair the ultra-cautious cynic?" (4/4/99), and "Hail to the chief. Sorry, Bill, but this time we're talking about Tony" (16/5/99). Marr declared himself in awe of Blair's "moral courage" and wrote: "I am constantly impressed, but also mildly alarmed, by his utter lack of cynicism."

In a debate, Marr repeated Blair's call for a ground war: "I want to put the Macbeth option: which is that we're so steeped in blood we should go further. If we really believe Milosevic is this bad, dangerous and destabilising figure we must ratchet this up much further. We should now be saying that we intend to put in ground troops. I don't believe this stuff about the Serbian army being an undefeatable, extraordinary, superhuman group." ('Do We Give war a chance?'. Observer, 18/4/99)

A week later, as thousands continued to be killed and wounded under NATO's ferocious high-level bombing, Marr's war fever reached boiling point: "We have become feminised, at least a bit. And - here's the odd thing - it is Nato that has done the feminising… For nearly half a century, it was fighting the peaceful war, during which accumulating arsenals and ever-deadlier, cleverer technologies on both sides engaged a kind of silent, static economic confrontation." ('War is hell - but not being ready to go to war is undignified and embarrassing'. Observer, 25/4/99)

The frozen idleness of the Cold War, then, had left us ill prepared to kill, or die, for what we believed in: "After the permafrost, the beasts. We are not well-prepared for this. The idea that our people should go and die in large numbers appals us. Killing our enemies appals us too. The war-hardened people of Serbia, far more callous, seemingly readier to die, are like an alien race. So, for that matter, are the KLA."

The "beasts" - the "war-hardened people of Serbia", notice, not merely the Milosevic regime - assuredly were far more callous than we feminised Westerners as they died so readily under our high explosive and cluster bombs.

Marr's conclusions could have come from the pen of Blair's speechwriter. Rarely, in fact, has the basic understanding that the corporate media and state power equals, 'us', been stated more openly: "If we wish to be world policemen, confronting ethnic cleansing, coming between tribes at war, prising nasty bastards out of their presidential offices, then we have to rethink our general queasiness about violence. Why are we limiting it to an air bombardment, despite the terrible consequences, now obvious, of refusing to threaten Serbia on the ground? Because we have, like late Romans, decided that risk is for others."

Beasts, tribes and nasty bastards - it is indeed a Roman view of the world. And as Harold Pinter has asked very simply, "Who is this 'we' exactly"? [See 'Unthinkable Thoughts', an interview with Harold Pinter on SQUALL's features page]. Recall that The Observer is at the 'liberal' end of the media spectrum.

BBC newscaster, Nicholas Witchell, described how the Indonesian armed forces "have failed to protect the people of East Timor". Much as the SS "failed to protect" the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto one presumes.

The BBC, of course, has a proud tradition of objectivity and neutrality, as it never tires of reminding us. A BBC self-promotional advert recently declared: "Honesty, integrity - it's what the BBC stands for." (Advertising spot, BBC2. 15/2/00)

This makes Marr well suited to join the likes of Matt Frei, a BBC correspondent who reported the rape of East Timor from Jakarta last year. Discussing the Western failure to react to the atrocity until 70 per cent of all public buildings and private residences in East Timor had been destroyed, and 75 per cent of the population had been herded across the border into militia-controlled camps, where hostage taking, killings and sexual assault were, and remain, a daily occurrence, Frei said: "This is a moral crusade by the West, like Kosovo... but a moral crusade without teeth." (BBC1 6 O'Clock News, 10/10/99)

The destruction of Serbia truly was a moral crusade, then, according to the neutral BBC. Clearly the West has the moral Midas touch: whether we subject defenceless people to massive bombing or do nothing at all, we are engaged in moral actions. Compare Frei's version with that of Mary Robinson, the UN commissioner for human rights, just two weeks later:

"The awful abuses committed in East Timor have shocked the world. It is hard to conceive of a more blatant assault on the rights of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. For a time it seemed the world would turn away altogether from the people of East Timor, turn away from the plain evidence of the brutality, killings and rapes. Action, when it came, was painfully slow; thousands paid with their lives for the world's slow response. It was the tide of public anger that stirred world leaders to intervene, however belatedly, on behalf of the East Timorese." (Guardian. 23/10/99)

This response, for which "thousands paid with their lives", was another state-led "moral crusade", like Kosovo, according to Frei and the BBC.

Long after the truth emerged with great clarity to Mary Robinson and most other people, the BBC seemed to find it excruciatingly difficult to admit that our Indonesian allies really were behind the killings. As late as October 12, newscaster Nicholas Witchell described how the Indonesian armed forces "have failed to protect the people of East Timor". (BBC 8:50 News, 12/10/99) Much as the SS "failed to protect" the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto.

The BBC's Ben Brown once referred to Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister, as "Iraq's chief spin doctor". Can you imagine the BBC referring to Madeleine Albright as "the United States' chief spin doctor", or Robin Cook as "Britain's chief spin doctor"?

Frei gave several reasons for the lack of teeth this time around: there was no stomach for bombing or putting troops in harms way after the attack on Serbia, and Western leaders feared that intervention in Indonesia might cause this huge, fragile country to collapse, heralding an even worse tragedy. Frei made no mention of the fact that the military regime which runs the country is a major business partner and ally of the west, and that we have long supported Indonesian terror in East Timor for reasons which have nothing to do with protecting the stability of the fragile invading force. These facts are not, perhaps never can be, reported as news by the BBC: news ceases to be news when it seriously damages establishment interests.

Not much of this is conscious deception. John Pilger has talked of "the subliminal pressures applied by organisations like the BBC, whose news is often selected on the basis of a spurious establishment 'credibility'." (Knightley, p.xiii)

Sometimes the BBC's pro-establishment bias is so subliminal that it becomes almost funny. Ben Brown once referred to Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister, as "Iraq's chief spin doctor". (BBC 6 O'Clock news, 14/11/97) Nothing odd in this, we might think, until we try to imagine Brown referring to Madeleine Albright as "The United States' chief spin doctor", or Robin Cook as "Britain's chief spin doctor". Technically, there is no reason why Brown could not refer to Albright and Cook in this way - the BBC is supposed to be independent - but we know that it could never happen: they are 'us', Aziz is very much 'them'. (To be fair, we should note that ITN are guilty of much the same bias. ITN reporter James Mates once assured us that while Saddam met the Sheikh of Qatar, he was "playing his favourite role of defender of the Arab people". [ ITN, 10 O'Clock News, 16/2/98]. ITN has yet to be heard describing Clinton as "playing his favourite role of defender of the free world".)

Following the Serbian war, John Simpson of the BBC defended journalists against accusations that they had not been sufficiently supportive of the war: "Why did British, American, German, and French public opinion stay rock-solid for the bombing, in spite of NATO's mistakes? Because they knew the war was right. Who gave them the information? The media." (Quoted Charles Glass, Znet Commentaries, 1/8/99)

This from a correspondent who once dismissed Martin Bell's argument that journalists should not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, aggressor and victim, but should take a stand: "Martin Bell is talking nonsense and he knows it. He was one of the most objective journalists." Simpson added, apparently with a straight face, "You don't watch the BBC for polemic." (Quoted, The Guardian, 5/8/97). My dictionary describes 'polemic' as, "a verbal or written attack, esp. on a political opponent" - of the kind that was continually directed by the BBC against Serbia, for example.

After the war in Kosovo, the BBC's defence correspondent, Mark Laity, accepted the post of press secretary to Nato Secretary General, George Robertson. An impartial promotion no doubt.

Robert Fisk pointed out in the Independent (17/1/00) that when NATO bombed an Albanian refugee convoy, BBC defence correspondent Mark Laity stated: "They [NATO] are very confident that they attacked a military convoy". Fisk stressed that Laity did not say that NATO "say" they are confident, rather they "are" confident, as would be said by someone formally employed by NATO as a propagandist. Marr will not be joining Laity, who, after the Kosovo war, admitted he, like the press generally, had once again fallen for the military's talk of 'smart bombs' zapping any number of enemy tanks and guns. During the war, NATO claimed to have destroyed more than a quarter of the Yugoslav army's 300 tanks and a third of its 500 guns. The Serbs admitted to 13 tanks destroyed. "I made the judgement that battle damage assessment was more accurate this time", said Laity. "I was wrong. I mean, I just got it wrong." (Quoted, Philip Knightley, 'The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo', Prion Books, 2000, p.514)

'Wrong' is a value judgement of course - Laity has since accepted the post of press secretary to the NATO Secretary General, George Robertson. It might therefore be deemed that he just got it 'right' by the cynics of media reporting, who surely abound.

Frei's arguments on the reluctance to deploy British troops in East Timor were virtually of a piece with those of British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who initially claimed that Britain did not have sufficient troops to deal with both the Balkans and East Timor. Hugo Young also repeated the approved Government position in The Guardian, where Marr would also fit nicely: "too far away, not enough troops. The Blair doctrine of crusading humanitarianism has its practical limits". (Guardian, 9/9/99)

Like one big happy family then, Marr of the 'liberal' Observer, 'Frei of the 'neutral' BBC, and Young of the 'liberal' Guardian all agreed that the demolition of Serbia was the product of a moral motivation. We will search in vain for more honest, establishment-neutral and rational arguments than these in the mainstream. Once again we find that there is plenty of choice in a corporate capitalist society - we can choose from hundreds of different chocolate bars - but when the issues at hand powerfully affect elite interests, options narrow somewhat: then the choice is limited to two or three papers, two or three parties, or two or three TV stations, all business-friendly, establishment-friendly and power-friendly.

Marr has mastered the fine art of appearing to write neutral, challenging, even subversive, political commentary while actually steering well clear of facts, issues and statements liable to offend powerful interests.

Marr's faith in Blair apparently survived the latter's subsequent (and indeed earlier) cynical performance over East Timor. Having made endless speeches and written many articles on the need for a "moral crusade" to ensure "a world where dictators are no longer able to visit horrific punishments on their own peoples in order to stay in power" (Quoted Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism - Lessons from Kosovo, Common Courage Press, 1999, p.3), Blair fell suddenly silent when Indonesian troops and their militias began slaughtering the East Timorese.

The slaughter, even before the August 30 referendum, far-exceeded the 2000 deaths on all sides in Kosovo in the twelve months prior to the bombing, but was ignored by Blair, and Marr, and just about everyone else. Historian John Taylor estimates a death toll of 5-6000 in East Timor from January to August 30 alone. By contrast, the Serb massacre of 45 people at Racak on January 15 1999, was reported to have been an isolated event by OSCE and NATO monitors. Apart from this atrocity, the UN Inter-Agency Update (December 24 1998) reported the "most serious incidents" prior to the bombing involved an attempt by armed Albanians to cross into Kosovo from Albania leaving 36 armed men dead, and the killing of 6 Serbian teenagers by masked men spraying gunfire into a café in a predominantly Serbian town. (Chomsky, 'In retrospect, A review of NATO's war over Kosovo, Part 1', Z Magazine, April 2000) The last NATO report prior to the bombing (January 16-March 22) cited dozens of incidents, with about half initiated by KLA-UCK and half by Serb security forces. Casualties were mostly military and at similar levels to preceding months.

This, British politicians and media pundits described as "genocidal" violence by the Serbs requiring the aerial bombardment of a sovereign nation for 78 days, killing and wounding 10,000 Serbs, destroying hospitals, schools, churches, embassies, TV stations, bridges, power stations, passenger trains, tractors, and irradiation with depleted uranium shells. Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian wrote of how "either the West could try to halt the greatest campaign of barbarism in Europe since 1945 - or it could do nothing". ( 'The left needs to wake up to the real world. This war is a just one', Guardian, 26/3/99). Or, alternatively, it could dwarf the existing horror with a far greater barbarism of its own, as happened.

"The World Trade Organisation is on the side of the angels. it is what the world's poor need most…"

Marr, like these other mainstream 'liberal' commentators, is successful because he has mastered the fine art - and it is an art - of appearing to write neutral, challenging, even subversive, political commentary while actually steering well clear of facts, issues and statements liable to offend powerful interests.

A good example came in an article by Marr printed below the announcement of his move to the BBC: "In anyone's list of institutions which hold the country together, the BBC must come somewhere near the top. Throughout the post-war period it has seeded our young minds, taught us, infuriated, bored and amused us… Throughout, with occasional lapses, the vast majority of people in a huge organisation have bent over backwards to avoid conscious bias. The Beeb is a target; but that's because it matters so much." ('Goodbye cravat, hello clean shirt', Observer, 14/5/00)

The real message intended for the people who count is that the BBC "holds the country together"; the impression of flat servility is avoided by employing emotive words like "infuriating" - which can be a positive, as in 'the BBC promoted vigorous and impassioned debate' - and "boring", not much of a criticism: everybody finds something boring on TV. Alternatively, we could say that throughout the post-war period the BBC has distorted and omitted many of the most basic and important facts of state and corporate irrationality and brutality; but that, of course, would be to alienate the establishment on which employment depends. Instead Marr talks of "occasional lapses" - well, we're all human!

Lord Tebbit, the former Tory party chairman, said of Marr's appointment: "The BBC is run by the Labour Party and takes its orders from it. So this will make no difference. It is a thoroughly unreliable broadcasting organisation." (Kamal Ahmed. Observer, op., cit)

Marr might irritate some Tories but, like so many of his mainstream colleagues, his basic willingness to follow an establishment-friendly line means he remains acceptable to the powers that be, as suggested by his dismissive comments on the November 1999 anti-globalisation protests in Seattle: "The ragged coalition of protesters at Seattle use the language of socialism but have no agenda of their own. The 'n30' protesters accused the WTO of helping 'the exploitation of our planet and its people by the global capitalist system'. Instead, they demanded 'alternative social and economic structures based on co-operation, ecological sustainability and grassroots democracy', which sounds like the Communist Manifesto rewritten by Christopher Robin... In the end, the WTO is on the side of the angels. It is what the world's poor need most…" ('Friend or foe?'. Observer, 5/12/99)

For those confident that it is possible to understand the thought processes of corporate journalists, there is a nice final addendum. Writing for a very different audience in the environmental magazine Resurgence, Marr subsequently wrote of this same "ragged coalition of protesters with no agenda", that it is "a diffuse, electorally weak but intellectually vigorous movement of protest and reform". There will be "reverses to come", he reassures us, but "the trend is one way". (Resurgence, July/August 2000)

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