Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1082/30616
Fight back against the corona propaganda war
"The BBC must be for the government," said its founder Lord Reith during the 1926 general strike. That has certainly been the case during the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, the BBC might as well have rebranded itself the 'Boris Broadcasting Corporation'. For the most part, is has simply amplified the ever-receding Tory guarantees on tests, ventilators, income and so on, without question.
Propaganda - in the sense of distorting public information to defend power - is not just about blunt lies or diversions. In a propaganda war, as in a real war, sometimes it is necessary to make a tactical retreat. So propaganda can also be about delaying the spread of an inevitable truth, to attempt to release it in a safer way for the ruling class - 'flattening the curve' of public anger.
Information is sometimes omitted outright. More often it's late, or structured to minimise the most damaging news, 'burying the lead'. And the BBC's trademark sobriety of tone masks the dishonesty of its arguments.
Of course, there hasn't been a total suppression of the facts. That would risk undermining the BBC's authority with mass audiences. Newsnight, for example, has excoriated ministers at times during the crisis over problems like lack of PPE and testing.
However, Newsnight caters to a small core of political viewers. Axed rival Victoria Derbyshire gave figures of 297,000 for an episode of Newsnight before the crisis. BBC News at Six was pulling in around 15 times that, to say nothing of the website and social media.
For mass consumption, however, we have little criticism of the government, medical staff reduced to tears on the news, and bed-ridden patients gasping for breath - all saying: stay at home.
The Socialist Party supports social distancing and other measures to control the outbreak, although the government's own planning requires over five million workers to continue going to their physical workplaces. But the capitalist media emphasis attempts to shift all responsibility onto the individual - as a deflection from the bigger issues.
It is lack of PPE, mass testing, full-income support, unprofitable preparation, and decisive early action that is leading to unnecessary deaths of patients and frontline workers. It is the consequence of a government and a system that put profit above health.
Naturally, anxiety for information during an emergency plus forced time at home is swelling media consumption. There's now more peak-hours viewing than there was over Christmas, according to the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board.
News is the main beneficiary. In the third week of March, BBC1's News at Six pulled in 7.8 million viewers, a 74% increase on 2019.
For now, the growing distrust of the media under crisis-ridden capitalism seems to have gone into temporary reverse. Furloughed workers are isolated from collective discussion in their workplace, subjected to individual bombardment by the mass media.
It is completely wrong, therefore, that some trade unions have suspended meetings or declared 'partnership' with the employers and the state. Workplace organising and electronic union meetings must go ahead to cut across the government propaganda, and to organise against the attacks on workers' health, safety and income.
The Socialist has continued production to counter the lack of information and misinformation. We have explained from day one that cuts and privatisation had left Britain unprepared, and the Tories' emergency measures are caught between defending public health or private profit. We give the other side - the truth of what's happening on the ground, and socialist proposals to resolve it.
Only democratic working-class control of the state and the mass media could create the conditions for a genuine exchange of information and ideas. To build towards that, the workers' movement must maintain and extend its own independent organisations and media.
Fake news 'fact-checking' exposed
The government has announced a crackdown on fake news. Damaging misinformation should be challenged. But who decides what's fake? The Tory party? Big business? Their unelected friends at the top of state institutions?
Facebook censored a broadcast by the Committee for a Workers' International, the world socialist organisation which includes the Socialist Party, which criticised capitalism's response to the pandemic. But the 'neutral' BBC can peddle government fabrications to millions without hindrance.
Let's take an example. The BBC's authoritative-sounding 'Reality Check' web article on coronavirus testing is silently rewritten as the situation develops, rather than producing a new article for the record each time. 'Reality' is malleable, it would seem.
On 19 March, hollow government promises about testing were the lead. Under them were red-herring pronouncements about finite resources and prioritisation, meant to neutralise expert comments (included for 'balance') warning that more testing was necessary.
Then, buried right at the end, the fact that South Korea was testing more than twice as many by the time it had the same number of confirmed cases. But "it is very hard to know how much of that is a genuinely larger outbreak, and how much is down to more cases being picked up through testing."
Clearly, more testing would have found more infections! The UK response was therefore substantially behind the curve. This implicit condemnation was present in the 'Reality Check' article during the early hours of 19 March. By 2.11pm the same day, it had been edited out.
On 30 March, questionable pledges to ramp up testing were still the lead. But the article finally had to acknowledge that "the UK is lagging behind comparable countries like Italy, Germany and South Korea." This was days after growing sections of the private capitalist press had begun criticising the government.
Coincidentally, these very mild BBC criticisms appeared the day before senior minister Michael Gove admitted that testing was insufficient. The BBC also belatedly whispered some criticisms of the Tories' atrocious treatment of the self-employed just before the official position changed.
This is a case study, but the approach is general. Even after the government acknowledges a blunder, the BBC still takes some days to present the full force of criticisms which have existed for days or weeks.
Indeed, the whole notion of supposedly 'neutral' fact-checking is being exposed as nonsense. All media has to make value judgements of one sort or another, and does so according to definite interests.
Self-declared arbiters, more often than not, are just concealed defenders of the capitalist establishment. Support the open defenders of the working class: subscribe to the Socialist!
- What is the role of the capitalist state broadcaster? 'Is the BBC worth saving?' in Socialism Today
- BBC management has suspended its attacks on jobs - for now. How can they be saved in the long term? 'Fight the cuts - and the capitalist media'
In The Socialist 15 April 2020:
What we think
Lessons from history