During a debate on the coverage of the miners' strike at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the BBC's industrial editor at the time, Martin Adeney, described trucks bringing coal to a steelworks as having made a "successful run". As Ken Loach pointed out, it was a successful run only if you were on the side of the government, not if you were a striking miner.
The assumption in Adeney's statement runs deep throughout liberal journalism, of which the BBC is the standard-bearer. It is currently expressed in the reporting of the firefighters, whose modest pay demand is represented as a percentage, not a decent living wage and invariably set against the public risk. This is "impartiality", a sacred word in the lexicon of British broadcasting, which has long lost its dictionary meaning and is a euphemism for the consensual view of established authority. Indeed, it was John Reith, the BBC's founder, who understood the power of establishment myths about "impartiality" and "balance".
To Reith, impartiality was a "principle" that could be suspended whenever the established authority was threatened. He demonstrated this during the General Strike in 1926 by writing much of Prime Minister Baldwin's propaganda, and broadcasting it on the BBC. The same "principle" has since applied to every major social upheaval, notably national strikes and popular opposition to war. From the General Strike to the 1980s miners' strikes, from the colonial wars to the present-day devastation of Iraq, "impartiality" has held sway over truth.
Until recently, television journalism enjoyed more credibility in Britain than in other countries. This is probably because in many countries the bias of the state is crude and clearly understood, if not always acknowledged. In totalitarian states, the bias is universally regarded as implicit in all media, and a conscious or unconscious adjustment is made by the viewing, and reading, public. "In one respect, we are luckier than you in the free west," the Czech dissident writer Zdenek Urbanek told me in the 1970s, "because we have learnt to read between the lines, and you believe you have no need; but you do."
This adjustment, this reading between the lines, is now happening in Britain, as more and more people recognise the depth and subtlety of the bias of the state in the "impartial" broadcast media. So embedded are journalistic myths of a neutral, non-political centre - the "fine fulcrum of balance", as Raymond Williams called it ironically - that few broadcasters seem aware of the shift in public regard for mainstream news, especially among the young. Last month, a study for the Independent Television Commission, co-written by Ian Hargreaves, former head of BBC News (and a former editor of the New Statesman), acknowledged the depth of this disenchantment. To stem the decline in audiences, the report recommended that the rules on impartiality should be relaxed and that news channels be allowed to follow a clearly defined agenda.
What struck me about this was the assumption that impartiality actually existed: not that news channels were already following a political agenda based on a convergent parliamentary system and a market liberalism that has moved so far to the right that it accommodates and consumes "official" conservatism. Listen to British broadcasting's drumbeat on Iraq: the channelling and echoing of black propaganda dressed up as news. Take, for example, the strange speech by Tony Blair, "warning the nation of the grim threat in our midst". BBC television news faithfully echoed word for word this propaganda designed to soften up the public for Blair's attack on Iraq - an attack to which the great majority are opposed.
Where is the evidence of these "daily threats we face"? And if a terrorist attack is coming, surely an unprovoked assault on a Muslim country will create the very terrorists Blair says we should fear? Therefore, isn't the British government endangering its own people with its incessant belligerence?
These are vital questions that independent journalism ought to raise. Leading the pack, the BBC has allowed the outrageous bribery and manipulation of the members of the United Nations Security Council, and the red herring of weapons inspections, to dominate the news while all but ignoring the true reasons for the American obsession with Iraq. "These media blitzes," wrote Gore Vidal, "resemble the magician's classic gesture of distraction: as you watch the rippling bright colours of his silk handkerchief in one hand, he is planting the rabbit in your pocket with the other."
This has happened every time the war drums have been beaten, from the great slaughter of 1914-18 to the Afghanistan bombing. Time and again, the real reason for killing innocent people is obfuscated, made to vanish from the news. Who speaks of the depleted uranium that the Americans will use against Iraq, a country already suffering an epidemic of cancer as a result of the last use of this weapon of mass destruction by America and Britain in 19#91? Who recalls the truth in the Medical Education Trust report that a quarter of a million Iraqis died during and in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Gulf war? Who knows about the nation of infants who, as Unicef has reported, have perished as a result of a medieval blockade run from Washington and Whitehall?
We depend now - those of us who know where to look - on samizdat. This is the Russian word given to the underground press during that country's totalitarian era. Today, most samizdat is found on the worldwide web. In America, ZNet is one of the best (www.zmag.org), and displays the work of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Eduardo Galeano, Boris Kagarlitsky and others rarely seen in the mainstream.
In this country, MediaLens is becoming indispensable (www.medialens.org). Its editors, David Edwards and David Cromwell, consistently challenge the assumptions and benign suppressions of "the amply rewarded, influential journalists and commentators [who] often write and speak with great confidence, skill and erudition, but always within well-policed boundaries that do not seriously challenge established power".
Politely, they ask them, and invite the public to ask them, why they recycle myths (such as Iraq "throwing out" the weapons inspectors in 1998); why the human cost of western actions is relegated or ignored; why double standards and lies are accepted. What they are saying is that it is not enough for journalists to act as mere messengers without illuminating the hidden agendas of the message.
It was Orwell, they remind us, who said: "To be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country."