June 23, 2024


Advocacy. Mediation. Success.

War in Ukraine: the many faces of BBC misinformation and state propaganda

Whether you’re Soaraway Sun 

Or BBC One

Misinformation is a weapon of 

Of mass destruct[ion]

With so much at stake now for the world even beyond the immediate theatre of war in Ukraine, the need for reliable and trusted information could not be greater.  

Yet with continuing suffering and all the accumulating dangers of military escalation, public understanding and responses to the crisis are being formed by political forces with a war narrative to sell, and a media all too willing to package and present it.  

And, lamentably, the BBC stands at the forefront of that daily enterprise in war propaganda.        

The selective and loaded reporting of news and images

Despite mass expansion of the media landscape, most people still get their immediate news, information and primary impressions from ‘mainstream’ sources. 

And with large swathes of the public still consuming news and current affairs in brief, attenuated forms, the power of ‘long-cherished’ institutions like the BBC in shaping popular opinion and public sensibilities cannot be underestimated. 

The sheer volume of news coverage on Ukraine, in stark contrast to the little or absent reporting of major conflicts and crises elsewhere, has helped build an almost unassailable consensus in support of the US/Western/NATO war agenda. 

And the BBC’s role as state media has been crucial in projecting that view. 

Live and continuous reporting of fleeing refugees and bombed cities have helped entrench support for Ukraine in the public mind. 

For most, it’s a powerfully emotional message to digest, and, generated by a ‘trusted’ BBC, an even harder one for many to question.

But what the BBC is really being ‘trusted’ to generate here, by the state forces it serves, is compliant approval of the war message.     

This isn’t to dispute the BBC’s right to report such events, or doubt the authenticity of public empathy for war-afflicted people. That’s all to be expected and commended.  

Rather, it’s to ask why the BBC offers such a pre-framed view of that suffering, and to think about how it’s filtered, received and accepted as an essentially ‘good-guys-bad-guys’ conflict. 

It’s also to question why the BBC has given such precedence to covering Ukraine, rather than places like Yemen, where the UK itself is deeply engaged in an illegal and brutal war, and to ask how that, in turn, helps frame notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims. 

377,000 lives have been lost in Yemen’s seven-year conflict. Imagine the public impact if the BBC were doing daily/nightly live news reports of the killing and devastation there, showing Britain as a lead aggressor. 

In contrast to what the British public see in Ukraine, it’s remarkable that almost half don’t even know there’s a war raging in Yemen, and that Britain is directly involved, in active support of a despotic Saudi regime.

While hushed on that dark alliance, consider, in contrast, the BBC’s effusive case for assisting Ukraine in its war. 

And this all comes with the ’embedded’ and unconstrained support of its war correspondents.  

BBC presenters, from those inside Ukraine, like Quentin Somerville, to those reporting from Russia, like Steve Rosenberg, will co
mmonly vent their own thinly-veiled pro-Ukraine sentiments and antipathies towards Putin. 

In one such report on the funeral of a Russian soldier, Rosenberg concludes“Yet it was Russia’s army that attacked Ukraine, on the orders of President Putin. To restore Russian power, and to force Ukraine into Russia’s orbit.”

Perhaps. Or maybe Russia’s war aims are more protectionist than imperialist in intent. Whatever the case, what licence does an ‘impartial’ BBC journalist have to imprint his own loaded view on the matter?  

Another harrowing report shows Somerville following Ukrainian troops around the carnage of Kharkiv, including disturbing footage of him walking with scant regard past Russian soldiers lying dead in the snow. He goes on to denounce the ‘familiar’ “Russian attack playbook”, apparently used in Syria and now in Ukraine. 

Terrible as the scenes of Russian devastation are, could one imagine Somerville walking through the carnage of US/UK bombed Fallujah, Libya, or the obliterated streets of Sanaa, pronouncing ‘this is the West’s attack playbook’?

The BBC’s diplomatic editor Paul Adams also lavished praise on Ukrainian president Zelensky in his speeches to international parliaments calling for intensified military backing. 

Replete with adulatory platitudes on Zelensky from militarist-siding bodies RUSI and Chatham House, it offers not the slightest contrary voice to the message that Britain and the West must give increased and urgent weaponry to Ukraine. 

No space is offered in his report to figures warning of the dire consequences of deepening Western militarism, Zelensky’s requested ‘no-fly zone’, or the potential for nuclear conflict arising from such a scenario. No critical insights are offered on Zelensky himself. 

It is straight stenography.

With similar purpose, the BBC’s World Service has just been awarded an extra £4.1 million to help ‘counter Russian propaganda.’

Again, it’s an illustration of the prevailing war hysteria that this goes virtually unnoticed as an act of brazen UK state propaganda.

It’s as though the BBC has been placed again on a 1940s-type war footing, running Pathe-style news and ‘unifying’ information. 

The power of the BBC here as state media lies in its ability to generate awareness and support for a particular state ’cause’, while limiting awareness and understanding of the UK’s own wars and criminality elsewhere.

All the public need to know is that there’s an ‘us’ side’ and there’s a ‘them’ side in this conflict. And that the ‘side of goodness’, the ‘free and civilised’ West, must, at all costs, prevail. 

Absence of contextual background to the Ukraine conflict

The BBC offers, in these regards, almost no serious background explanation on the root causes of the war in Ukraine. 

Given the immense implications for the world at large, the absence of key historical context is a wilful abrogation of the BBC’s supposed ‘duty to inform’. 

Key issues requiring open discussion – the Cold War fallouts and the West’s “not one inch eastward” pledge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, the broken promises and subsequent NATO expansion, the 2014 US-promoted Maidan coup, Ukraine’s own military offensive in the Donbas, and consequent Russian security concerns/responses – have all been, effectively, rendered ‘off-topic’ across the BBC.

The conflict, instead, has been simplified and packaged as a straight case of Russian aggression. We see maps of advancing forces and drone footage of wasted cities, but little or no serious consideration of wh
y Russia has resorted to such drastic action.   

Those seeking deeper understanding are required to search beyond the ‘mainstream’. 

In one outstanding piece, Scott Horton lays out an entire chronological history of how successive US administrations, from the Gorbachev era onwards, brought the world to this critical confrontation.  

And, as Horton concludes: 

“It never had to be this way. Putin and his men obviously are responsible for the decisions that they have made and the blood on their hands. But the fact remains that it is the U.S.A. which has picked this fight so far from our shores.”

Whether one accepts this assessment or not, the point is that it isn’t actually being made available by the BBC for public consideration.  

That Russia’s invasion is an illegal aggression is not in doubt. But so are the many more disastrous aggressions, invasions, coups and war crimes carried out by the US/UK/NATO all across the globe. 

While the BBC is all too eager to pronounce repeatedly on Russia’s criminality, it remains dutifully silent on the West’s.  

Also, beyond what should be an acknowledgement of all such crimes, the BBC shows no readiness to consider any deeper distinction in what may be driving these respective forces: namely, that Russia may be primarily interested in protecting its sphere of influence, while the US is primarily interested in expanding its sphere of power.

Amid the hyper-demonisation of Putin and Russia, it’s abundantly clear that this particular framing will not be raised, examined or discussed by the BBC 

Instead, we are assailed daily about the fear of an ‘insane Putin’ and what he might yet unleash. Yet no serious consideration is given to the truly insane system of US-led political-corporate militarism that, as Horton and rational others so ably show, has brought about this and other such crises.

Nowhere on any BBC platform will you find serious probing of these primary questions and causal issues. 

Again, it’s a clear abrogation of the BBC’s ‘pledge’ to offer impartial, balanced and expansive information. 

Selective choice of analysts, commentators and organisations 

BBC presentation of the conflict in Ukraine is, instead, heavily framed through selective UK/Western-sided commentary. 

Every BBC platform, from its main news bulletins, to its ‘flagship’ Newsnight programme is replete with figures giving their unchallenged views on backing Ukraine, the need for military aid and how best to break Putin. 

In one such example, Kirsty Wark’s ‘varied’ Newsnight guest list comprised Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, Vadym Pristaiko, ex-UK Ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall [sic], and Vice Chair of European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Zeljana Zovko.

This was followed by Wark’s interview with ‘renowned’ academic Francis Fukuyama, in which he expounds on the ‘new potential’ for liberal democracies, and ‘forecasts’ a winning outcome for Ukrainian forces in the current war (another ‘end of history’ moment, one must assume).

In all, hardly a ‘balanced’ assembly of viewpoints offering diverse or challenging illumination of the conflict. 

Likewise, in a BBC Question Time programme, four members of the ‘wide-ranging’ panel – war historian, Max Hastings, Tory MP, Suella Braverman, ‘New Labourite’ MP, Wes Streeting, and the Reverend Richard Coles – all offered ‘humbling’ platitudes on being in the presence of the other studio guest, Ukrainian MP Leisa Vasylenko, as she made the case for more Western weaponry. 

Beyond token misgivings, none equivocated over her case for further UK/Western military involvement, or dared de
nounce her more dangerously irresponsible appeal for a ‘close the skies’, ‘no-fly zone’, an action that would initiate WWIII and provoke a likely nuclear confrontation. Alarmingly, much of the audience itself seemed highly primed for this very escalation.

Again, in its choice of guests and normalisation of liberal militarist voices, the BBC acts as an essential amplifier of state war-speak.

Another particular BBC outlet of note here has been Radio Scotland’s Lunchtime Live, which is awash, daily, with ‘expert’ guests from  RUSI, Chatham House, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and multiple other military-minded bodies. 

In one such case (22 March 2022), Philip Ingram MBE, ex-military officer/NATO planner and now ‘security consultant’, was given free and uncontested space to reiterate his warnings of ‘imminent’ chemical weapons attacks by Putin.

As in this ‘interview’, no attempt is made by BBC presenters to preface the right-wing/militarist leanings of such figures. Nor is any effort made to question their claims and perspectives. 

As with Ingram, such ‘exchanges’ have a simple unanimity of purpose in exploring every possible way to support Ukraine and break Putin. 

This comes with an almost total absence of anti-war figures and organisations. Not even in 2003, in the wake of ‘9/11’ and approach to the invasion of Iraq, has the denial of such opposition voices been so pronounced as it is today over Ukraine. 

That’s a remarkable feat of compliance and ‘unlearned lessons’ for a BBC so heavily invested in selling and defending Britain’s leading part in that historic crime.     

Speaking as ‘one’: the BBC’s use of partial pronouns

Given its charter-defined commitments to ‘impartiality’ and ‘balance’, it’s remarkable how readily the BBC uses subjectively-identifying language to validate UK state actions.

BBC presenters will, thus, routinely ask: ‘can we’ do more militarily?; or ‘why can’t we’ send more heavy weaponry?; or, they will talk about ‘our role’ and ‘our responsibilities’ in the conflict. 

In similar vein, BBC reports will use terminology like ‘the Russian state’, or, ‘the Russians say’, but rarely ‘the British state’, or ‘the British say’. 

Again, this is much more than incidental semantics. The language consistently deployed is that of an assumed equivalence of purpose between the British state and the British public, and the BBC’s assumed right to speak on ‘our’ behalf. 

Further variations of BBC ‘one-speak’ may include lines like: ‘Johnson doesn’t believe Putin’, rather than ‘Johnson says he doesn’t believe Putin’; or, ‘Biden believes Putin may use chemical weapons, rather than ‘Biden claims to believe that Putin may use chemical weapons’.  

This language and tone is routinely adopted in open and subtextual form across all BBC formats, serving to validate the words of ‘our’ state/leaders over the words of ‘their’ state/leaders.  

It’s the default ‘us’ voice of the BBC, accepting what ‘our side’ say as taken, and assuming to speak on ‘our’ behalf, a subtly effective form of propaganda, eliciting the notion that, whatever differences of public opinion may prevail, ‘we’ still speak and act as ‘one’ entity. 

And at times of war and heightened conflict, such language takes on even more vital resonance.

Selective omission in BBC reporting 

BBC state media, like other ‘mainstream’ platforms, have also gone remarkably quiet over aspects of the Ukrainian situation that may serve to undermine the UK/Western war narrative.

In February 2014, BBC Newsnight’s Gabriele Gatehouse ran an impressive film piece on Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, the Right Sector, and other elements of neo-N
azism within the Ukrainian state. 

It was shown following the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in the 2014 US- backed Maidan coup, though that key terminology goes unmentioned. 

The film interviews a number of neo-Nazi factions, discusses their central role in the Maidan events, and how neo-Nazi elements are now deeply-embedded within the state apparatus, holding, as Gatehouse worryingly concludes, powerful sway over a number of ministries. 

As events unfold in Ukraine, with an even stronger Azov force leading the fighting, and much of those elements now even more politically entrenched, their role in the current conflict would, one might assume, merit serious re-visiting. 

Yet you will look in vain now for any in-depth BBC investigations of such matters. 

If Newsnight thought it important enough to run such stories on prevalent neo-Nazism back then, why isn’t it just as, or more, important to investigate the military, political and cultural standing of such elements now? 

The BBC’s Ros Atkins, increasingly tasked as its ‘go-to fact-checker’, sought to dismiss the extent of neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine in a short piece of ‘analysis’. 

Conveniently, it omitted any mention of the 2014 Maidan as a US-backed coup, denied the actual growth of neo-Nazi politics in the country, ignored US engagement of it, and gave voice only to academics who questioned the current extent of neo-Nazism in Ukraine.  

Consider, in contrast, this academic analysis by Professor Stephen Cohen: 

“The significance of neo-Nazism in Ukraine and the at least tacit official U.S support or tolerance for it should be clearly understood:

This did not begin under President Trump but under President George W. Bush, when then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s “Orange Revolution” began rehabilitating Ukraine’s wartime killers of Jews, and it grew under President Obama, who, along with Vice President Joseph Biden, were deeply complicit in the Maidan coup and what followed. Then too the American mainstream media scarcely noticed. Still worse, when a founder of a neo-Nazi party and now repackaged speaker of the Ukrainian parliament [Andriy Parubiy] visited Washington in 2017, he was widely feted by leading American politicians, including Senator John McCain and Representative Paul Ryan. Imagine the message this sent back to Ukraine—and elsewhere.

Fascist or neo-Nazi revivalism is underway today in many countries, from Europe to the United States, but the Ukrainian version is of special importance and a particular danger. A large, growing, well-armed fascist movement has reappeared in a large European country that is the political epicenter of the new Cold War between the United States and Russia—indeed a movement that not so much denies the Holocaust as glorifies it.” (Emphasis added.)

This is not to suggest, even for Cohen, that most Ukrainians, or all parts of the Ukraine state, are neo-Nazi. 

But Cohen, like many others, most certainly does allege that Ukraine harbours very particular and dangerous forms of neo-Nazism. 

Where amid all the BBC focus on Ukraine is the information that the adulation of infamous Ukrainian Nazi associate Stepan Bandera and other such figures still runs deep within the Ukrainian polity

How much of the BBC-relying public will be told of the Azov’s leading role in cutting off and attacking the Donbas, or of its principal part in a massacre of Russian-identifying demonstrators in Odessa?

And how many will understand that Zelensky’s own mandated efforts to end the war in Donbas was largely scuppered by a ‘No Capitulation’ response from Right Sector, Azov and other right-wing forces? 

Zelensky not only duly capitulated, but went on to commend such figures with Ukraine’s highest military award. 

Might BBC audiences, likewise, be surprised to learn that, perversely, these same far-right militias are also now being ‘rehabilitated’ by leading parts of the pro-Israel lobby?

And are the BBC ever likely to inform its viewers that UK military equipment is going directly to these very same Azov forces? 

In all, even a public that considers itself ‘reasonably well-informed’ remains largely unaware of such matters. 

The BBC’s consistent omission of key information and investigation of such issues amounts, in itself, to a vast exercise in state media propaganda. 

Denying the agency of other state media

On 18 March, 22 days into the war, Ofcom, the UK media regulator, announced it was removing RT’s broadcasting licence and banning it from Britain’s airwaves. 

The decision came alongside sweeping purges by Silicon Valley big-tech companies on ‘pro-Russian’ platforms across social media. 

In an ‘explanatory’ piece for the BBC, Amol Rajan sought to specify the ‘distinction’ between RT and the BBC, claiming, in essence, that:

RT is a ‘state broadcaster’, which is funded by and serves the state, while the BBC is a ‘public broadcaster’, funded by and serving the public. 

RT is run by a TV organisation which is funded by the Kremlin, while the BBC is funded by the licence payer. 

Ofcom have decreed that RT cannot broadcast because, while it can be funded by the state, it cannot be controlled by a political body. 

The BBC is not controlled by a political body, and is, therefore, unlike RT, a legitimate broadcaster. 

A seemingly robust account from the ‘ever-reliable’ Rajan. Yet the purported ‘distinction’ is fatuous on each count: 

The BBC is funded through a state-legislated levy – the licence fee – making it still, essentially, a state-funded body.

The BBC’s proclaimed ‘status’ as a ‘public-serving’, rather than ‘state-serving’, body is nothing more than institutionalised ideology. RT, or any state media, could just as easily proclaim the same ‘public service’ mission.

And if Russian state media is run on a one-party line, British state media can be said to be run on a similarly approved two-party line.

What’s so telling here is the BBC’s own state-serving role in trying to peddle this ‘distinction’. 

Are the public, which the BBC supposedly serves, to be told by an ‘impartial’ broadcaster – and so-called ‘independent’ regulator handing out licences – what kind of media they should be accessing?

And why, only now, have RT been barred from holding a broadcast licence? 

This decision illustrates the combined capacities of the BBC, Ofcom and the establishment at large, in using this crisis moment to purge an official enemy, and in serving to control what can count as ‘public information’.

Seeking to project itself as a ‘true and trusted’ ‘public’ service, while intensifying its ‘protective warning’ in this insidious way, takes the BBC to a new level of Orwellian deception. 

In helping to ‘other’ Russ
ian state media, the BBC reveals its own dutiful function as an arm of state propaganda.

Populist cultivation of the UK/Western war agenda

The BBC has played a vital role in crafting cultural support for the UK/Western narrative on Ukraine, by concentrating public attention on refugees and charitable endeavours. 

Again, all seemingly laudable. Yet authentic public concern for suffering and displaced people is being weaponised to advance a much darker war agenda. 

And the focus on selective refugees, to the exclusion of others, has been used to attach a ‘higher’ Western/European ‘morality’ to that message.      

Any distinction between ‘standing with Ukrainians’ and ‘standing with Ukraine’ is being irretrievably lost in the hubris of war-talk, displacing public willingness to question how this conflict actually happened, and, crucially, how, beyond the ‘militarist solutions’ so feverishly advanced, real political and life-saving alternatives might be pursued.  

With unprecedented levels of infantilised liberal hysteria and the ‘othering’ of Russians, some might look to the BBC here for some greater sense of rationality. 

But the Corporation’s populist war-speak is every bit as irrational and loaded. Indeed, in many cases, more so.

An ‘impartial’ BBC has allowed ‘open-season’ on the vilification of Russia. It has also given open encouragement to citizen mercenaries going to Ukraine, an unimaginable reportage in the case of anyone seeking to resist oppressive forces elsewhere, such as Israel’s crimes in Gaza.

The BBC’s Jeremy Vine has now assumed the unfettered role of a US-styled ‘shock-jock’, with his obsequious jingoism and shared empathy with war-demanding callers – as well as his more disturbing call for death to Russian soldiers. 

Typically, Vine’s daily topics will be formed around contrived Western talking points, such as ‘Putin’s partition of Ukraine’ (28/3/22). Consider, in contrast, the likelihood of such a discussion on ‘Biden’s manipulation of Ukraine’. 

All this highly partial reporting and loaded tone indicates not just overt bias, but a ready incentive to attack those trying to question any escalation of the violence.

It’s saying, in effect, show reactive empathy for those suffering, but don’t let it extend into any kind of proactive concern which asks how the suffering actually came to occur, or tries to do something to prevent any more of it happening. 

Again here, anti-war figures and organisations have never been more intimidated and marginalised.

Standing resolutely against the hysteria, Yanis Varoufakis has made a brave and intelligent effort in questioning the ‘whole sea of yellow and blue hypocrisy’ surrounding the conflict. 

His purpose is not to excuse the invasion, or deny the value of humanitarian support, but to speak clearly about the West’s leading culpability in creating the crisis, and, beyond all the hyped emotionalism, to offer rational assessments on real, achievable ways forward for all concerned.

In offering similar perspectives and resolutions, Horton is, likewise, all too aware of the hysterical reactions and ridicule anti-war voices face:

“Of course in the current political climate any statement or position that contains anything better than the most overly simplistic, “other side”-bashing, fearmongering point of view is spun from on high as not just “pro-Russian,” but also “obviously-secretly-controlled-by-Russia” because what other explanation for someone not believing the hype could there possibly be?”

In this toxic atmosphere, such views are being denied legitimate airing by the BBC. Indeed, the social opprobrium one is likely to experience in even drawing critical attention to that denial of space only deepens the McCarthyite effect, hardening public compliance and escalation of the war narrative. 

Anyone defying the dominant line is likely to be cast as a ‘Putin apologist’, accused of spreading ‘Russian-speak’, or, even in its crude ‘left-liberal’ contrivance, denounced – like Varoufakis – for resorting to ‘Westsplaining’.   

All this is being made possible by a populist media in thrall to power. And, from behind its ‘higher mantle’, the BBC is playing just as zealous a role in spreading groupthink ‘understanding’ of the war. The threat of ‘respondent’ Western violence is, thus, re-framed as ‘noble supportive militarism’. 

As Glenn Greenwald warned, following Biden’s stumbling utterances invoking ‘regime change’ in Russia, the US/UK’s deeply dangerous escalation of words, as well as actions, is leading us closer to a potentially disastrous nuclear miscalculation. 

And the force most responsible for driving this calamity, he asserts, is clear:  

“The U.S. is, by definition, waging a proxy war against Russia, using Ukrainians as their instrument, with the goal of not ending the war but prolonging it.”

But for what purpose, asks Greenwald: 

“Hovering above all of these grave dangers is the question of why? What interests does the U.S. have in Ukraine that are sufficiently vital or substantial to justify trifling with risks of this magnitude? Why did the U.S. not do more to try to diplomatically avert this horrific war, instead seemingly opting for the opposite: namely, discouraging Ukrainian President Zelensky from pursuing such talks on the alleged grounds of futility and rewarding Russian aggression, and not even exploring whether a vow of non-NATO-membership for Ukraine would suffice?”

Again, none of this mendacious agenda, or the momentous dangers emanating from ‘our side’, is being given serious attention by the BBC. 

But, as with the darker interests and aims of such forces, that’s all part of the BBC’s own historical and enduring purpose: to foster ideas of British ‘foreign policy’ as essentially ‘benign’, in the ongoing service of Western militarism.  

Could the BBC ever bring itself to shine a damning light on ‘our‘ state, a state directly responsible for the mass slaughter in Iraq and so much other killing around the world?

Could it ever come to ask what moral right this murderous state has to question another state’s aggressive actions? 

Could it ever ask itself how BBC state media can claim moral superiority over any other state media? 

Could the BBC, in a spirit of atonement, ever consider leading this state, the state it so closely represents, in a day of remembrance for all those crimes against humanity?

Every illustration of how the BBC is running the British state’s propaganda war over Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere suggests that we are a long way from any such independent thought, honest reflection or true public service.