Sam May (Originally published as Tangible Truth)
Republished as part of our ‘Best Of’ series, revisiting some of OffG’s Pre-Covid editorials – either because they help remind us of important realities easily overlooked nowadays, or because they take on added significance in a ‘post-covid’ world.
Sam says: “This is one of my only contributions ATL, whipped into shape with the editorial savvy of my esteemed colleagues. My included list of indie media voices, which I point out Whewell didn’t consult, hasn’t dated too well post-covid but, nevertheless, it serves as an illustrative snapshot along the road to NOW, demonstrating just how blatant and cartoonish the propaganda has been for so long and what a pivotal role the BBC plays at shaping consensus amongst the comfortable middle classes”
* * *
Recently, while having an animated discussion with my housemate about the properties of tomatoes, I had reason to refer to a program I’d listened to on BBC Radio 4 some years ago, about cold-stored fruit. I recalled a snippet of information about certain compounds in the tomato fruit which, damaged by low temperatures, severely affect a tomato’s flavour. It was probably on Gardener’s Question Time or the like. To which my housemate replied “Well, you can usually trust Radio 4”.
And then it occurred to me, this pretty much sums up what millions of people think about BBC Radio 4 across the British Isles and globally.
Radio 4 is the only aspirational talk-radio station on British airwaves and the second most popular radio station in the UK. Many who disavow and distrust the BBC TV news are inclined to view R4 in a more forgiving light, as essentially benign. In fact, as an ever-increasing number of people switch off BBC News programs, Radio 4 audience size is actually increasing.
Its millions of listeners are invited to tune-in and zone out to the reassuring sounds of a BBC of yesteryear. Harking back to that mythical Golden Age of British values, its self-styled image as a smart, erudite, discerning, well-informed network caters to its listeners’ vanity. With a troop of well-spoken, well-educated, knowledgable-sounding presenters, it is an ideal breeding ground for complacency. Well-spoken, plummy voices through sonorous ribbon microphones, Nicholas Parsons, the Archers’ theme – ready and waiting to trigger the dotage of our critical mind.
With its famous output of light entertainment, quizzes and magazine shows, it’s easy to forget Radio 4 is very much a “news” channel – with hourly bulletins and extensive current events programming. And whatever its facade of fusty comfort might be, it has a very definite agenda. As Bob Shennan, Director of BBC Radio and Music, says about R4’s Today program:
In an era of fake news, echo chambers and significant shifts in global politics, the role of Radio 4’s Today as the trusted guide to the world around us is more important than ever.
How reassuring. But before we settle back into cosy slumber, secure in the knowledge Radio 4 is keeping us safe, let’s examine just one small example of our trusted guide’s prodigious output.
In February 2017, on a program called Feedback, presenter Roger Bolton plays us a recorded message from an alleged listener, she says:
The BBC report on Russia with an underlying assumption that Russia is the enemy and must be responsible for almost everything we don’t like”.
“Not always” answers Bolton (his tacit acknowledgement of the woman’s point – that most R4 output is anti-Russian – is interesting to note) “this week audiences welcome a different perspective”.
On Tuesday evening… a broader range of perspectives on Russia and its President was presented in a program called The Pull Of Putin. BBC Journalist Tim Whewell travelled from Moscow across Europe to Washington to talk to people who had a common message, Russia is NOT the Soviet Union”.
Note this carefully. The Pull of Putin is BBC Radio 4’s idea of a “different” and, by inference, sympathetic perspective on Russia. It’s presumably the best example Feedback could find to counter the listener’s objection of anti-Russian bias.
Here is a screenshot from the show’s page at the Beeb page:
Looks promising doesn’t it?
The show itself begins with the sound of a bell… Tim Whewell, the presenter, speaks….
“…On Red Square in Moscow the bells of the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower strike the hour, echoing over the cobbles…. cold, harsh, slightly sinister. Quite unlike the chummy bells of Big Ben……”
For those in doubt, this is a metaphor.
“...Everyone remembers that [the Kremlin] was the centre of, what Ronald Reagan called, ‘That evil empire’ and, under that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, the Russian State has become, in many people’s eyes, pretty evil again. Prince Charles, no less, is reported to have compared Putin to Hitler.”
“….the person who is now the most powerful in the world, is immune to all that talk. In his openness to Russia President Trump is threatening to turn American Foreign Policy on its head. And some European politicians now also want warmer relations with Moscow – certainly those on the far right. But others too. In France, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. They can’t all be Kremlin agents or dupes of Russian propaganda. So what, for them, is the pull of Putin? In this program I’m going to listen to those who reject conventional wisdom about Russia because they’re not quite such a small minority as they were…...”
Having very quickly established that “many people” and “conventional wisdom” think Russia is bad, Whewell proceeds to spend the next 38 minutes, as advertised on Feedback, traveling “from Moscow across Europe to Washington” interviewing representatives from this “not quite [so] small minority”, who allegedly offer a “different” view.
But who are the people he chooses to talk to? Do they represent a diverse and informed spectrum of all those currently questioning the West’s policy of confrontation with the RF?
1) Interviewee: Dave Curry:
To kick off we get Dave Curry, a “large, bearded, jovial young American” who likes immersing himself in freezing water for religious reasons, and also likes Russia because it “defends family values”, and has undergone a “resurgence of Christianity”. Dave says he likes living there and probably won’t be going back to the USA.
2) Interviewee: Jack Hanick:
Next up Whewell interviews Jack Hanick, ex Fox News employee, now consultant to a, in Whewell’s words, “small, stridently nationalist and conservative Russian channel – Tsargrad”. Hanick is another religious type who enthuses over Putin’s visit to some shrine in Greece.
3) Interviewee: Brian Brown:
Another American, Brian Brown is next – he is President of the US organisation the “World Congress of Families” which lobbies internationally for traditional family values, who supported Russia’s recent “gay anti-propaganda law”, and who is accused of “exporting hate.”
4) Interviewees (multiple):various Pro-Life campaigners:
We discover Tim next in Washington DC, where he finds that most people at a Pro-Life rally dont like Putin, and then tells us that almost everyone on the Hill doesn’t like him either – especially the Dems, “whose party was hacked by Russians.”
5) Interviewee: Dana Rohrabache:
Then he introduces us to Republican Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, whom Whewell calls the “only” Congressman in Washington “who consistently speaks up for Russia.”
And what does “speaking up for Russia” mean in this context?
Well, Rohrbacher says Putin is a “bad guy” and Russia is “not up to our standards of the way they deal with people”, but the US should try to work with them anyway.
It’s useful here to restate that this program is presented by the BBC as an ‘alternative’ view on Russia. So far it seems more like an excuse to reiterate a lot of tabloid prejudices under the guise of interviewing a few obscure and “eccentric” people. Perhaps all the fresh insights await us in the second half of the program?
6) interviewee: Richard Sakwa:
Indeed, at this point Whewell does make some slightly approving comments about Russia’s tolerance of religious diversity, and even alleges that there are more “extreme nationalists in jail in Russia than there are liberal opponents of the regime” – whatever that is supposed to mean. He interviews a Professor Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent, perhaps now the new perspectives are really going to kick in? Sakwa observes:
When we have national interests, that’s good, but when Russia tries to defend its national interests, that is illegitimate… and dangerous for the rest of the world
A good point, maybe things are looking up. But alas – within fifty seconds Whewell is reminding us about Russia’s “aggression” in Crimea and “military incursion” into Ukraine, and dismissing Sakwa’s reading of the situation as non-“standard” and – by implication – wrong. The “standard” version, Whewell reminds us is that Russia is set on “extending its borders”, and that any attempt at rapprochement by the West would be viewed by the Ruskies as “weakness.”
He cites not a single source for this view.
7) interviewee: Pat Buchanan:
His next interviewee is Pat Buchanan, an old school Republican “realist” who points out that Estonia can’t help but be in Russia’s “sphere of influence” any more than Mexico can escape the same with regard to the US. Whewell doesn’t attempt to refute this, but does point out to his audience that Buchanan’s views are “derided by many” (he doesn’t say who the “many” are), and that Buchanan also thought “Britain was wrong to go to war with Nazi Germany!”
8) interviewee: Maria Schmidt:
At one point in their short exchange Maria Schmidt – Director of the Terror House Museum in Budapest, becomes mildly critical toward the West. She says:
[Hungary has] a common language with those countries who had to go through similar experiences [during the Soviet era]…. History was very cruel but it helped us a lot not to believe in the nice words of the Western world. In 1956 there were a lot of promises but no one came to help us, so we were left alone.”
To which Whewell responds editorially, “To my astonishment Doctor Schmidt has turned our conversation about Russia into an anti-Western diatribe.”
His partisan sensibilities clearly offended, he then continues on his own diatribe, including Hungary among the ranks of the enemy. He talks about Hungary’s right-wing-leaning government, making hints at their attitude to refugees, declining to mention that one possible reason Hungary felt forced to deport so many was that Germany had closed its own borders, leaving people who had been intending to travel there stranded.
9) interviewee: Stephen Cohen:
Yes, Whewell does give about 40 seconds of air time to veteran Russia expert Stephen Cohen, but his segment has been so trimmed it loses almost all context and meaning. If Cohen voiced any of his usual and stern criticisms of the West’s policy of confrontation with Russia they didn’t survive Whewell’s edit, and Cohen’s truncated segment is quickly followed by Whewell talking about bells again, this time those of the “tiny Kazan cathedral” signalling Russia’s invitation back in to the nasty Right wing past.
And that is pretty much it.
In a 38 minute segment designed to explore “different” views of Russia, Whewell managed to spend less than five minutes exploring anything that could be termed a challenge to western political orthodoxy. The “different” view we were presented with was that maybe viewing Russia as an enemy might not be such a good idea – even though, obviously it is an empire of evil. The language is so biased it backs unwittingly into satire. Whewell talks about countries choosing to “escape” Russian influence, as if the iron curtain were still in place. He invasively edits his interviews to the extent that the original meaning intended by the interviewees might be entirely lost, and adds his own post-production editorial asides as if they were questions the interviewees are answering (we have no idea if they were actually answering these “questions” in the original interview). He characterises anyone whose isn’t rigidly anti-Russian as either deluded or rabidly right wing.
Whewell found time to consult pro-lifers and right-wing religious fundamentalists, but not Jack Matlock, John Pilger, Peter Lavelle, Mark Sleboda, Craig Murray, Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, George Gallloway, Robert Parry, Ray McGovern, or any of the many well-informed and well-respected western commenters who believe the current anti-Russian bias of the west is both unnecessary and catastrophically dangerous. He found no time to explore alternative views of the official narratives he ends up supporting without question. Did Russia really hack the DNC? Does it really encourage Right Wing Nationalism? Did it really commit “incursions” into eastern Ukraine?
But no. The Pull Of Putin’s propaganda is so blatant and unsubtle it would look out of place even on BBC TV News. Radio 4, alleged purveyor of quality, intelligent programming, is actually providing lowest common denominator hate-porn of the kind you expect to see coming out of Radio Free Europe or some other intelligence-run “information” source, and very few listeners seem to have noticed. Is there something about Radio 4’s cosy format which desensitises its audience? Is a form of nostalgia-driven, rose-tinted hypnosis going on that allows the most overt and extreme forms of manipulation in the guise of chummy info-sharing?
And let’s remind ourselves again, this was presented by the BBC as a balance piece. In fact on the Feedback program mentioned above, presenter Roger Bolton interviewed Whewell, congratulating him on the great job he did being “impartial”:
We’re all used in the BBC to making programs in which we have to balance them, one of the things listeners were struck by is that you managed NOT to talk to a lot of critics of Russia, if you like, that you managed to explore people who have this rather different perspective and yet be impartial”.
“Impartial”? Yes, this is the level of detachment from reality being sold to us on R4, beneath the reassuring and tweedy exterior.
We tune in and listen, warm and sedated, to the authoritarian drone. How many of us notice the absence of sourcing or evidence? The sometimes blatant untruths? The misreporting? The non-reporting? Who identifies the global-corporatist agendas sliding by? The endless subliminal approval given to kill-list-wielding, drone striking, war criminals? Are the ‘pips’ of Greenwich Meantime, once such a symbol of accomplishment on our airwaves, now just the final tones of a failing life support machine, signalling the imminent death of our capacity for free, discerning, critical thought…?
However, somewhat hopefully, according to Whewell enough of us are noticing this bias to raise concern. Of course he doesn’t recognise what his own words imply, but still he says it:
“…By what yardstick should we be judging Russia? Obviously we’ve got to really stress, Putin is still seen overwhelmingly negatively, even among Trump supporters, but the number of people is nevertheless going down. And I think that part of that is because of a perception of double standards and, you know, double standards worry people….
and that’s why people go over to alternative media…..”
Gosh, Tim. Ya think?
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