When the BBC did fake news

In its attempts to dissect the global disinformation epidemic, the BBC handily forgets its own history of 'fake news'.

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    Long before 'fake news' had a name, the BBC was a master of fake news, writes Dabashi [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]
    Long before 'fake news' had a name, the BBC was a master of fake news, writes Dabashi [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

    Earlier this month the BBC aired an informed and informative weeklong series on disinformation and fake news, "a global problem," as they rightly put it, "challenging the way we share information and perceive the world around us." 

    What's real? What's distortion? The series teaches us. I watched as many of the episodes in this series as I could, and the rest I followed on the BBC website. In one episode we learn how "Nigerian police say false information and incendiary images on Facebook have contributed to more than a dozen recent killings in Plateau State - an area already torn by ethnic violence."

    In another episode, we learn how in Egypt fake news becomes a weapon of choice to crush dissent. In yet another piece we learn how "smartphones are making it easier for millions of Indians to communicate and share messages on social media. But misinformation is spreading fast and can often turn deadly."

    The series then moved to tell us how "a BBC investigation has found that Russian media and officials presented false claims about a US-funded laboratory in neighbouring Georgia." In another episode, we were told about how "fake news in Turkey is rampant, and targets many, including the BBC. But some are fighting back."  

    While watching these episodes it suddenly occurred to me, as I am sure you too have noticed, something a bit strange about this series? It is all about non-British, and non-European countries - about India, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Turkey and Thailand, which is of course perfectly fine for, no doubt, fake news is a global issue that includes these countries.

    But targeting these non-European countries as the site of fake news par excellence implicitly puts European media and the BBC in particular as the arbiter of truth manifest. Fake news is something that backward black and brown people do, while real news is what the BBC and the rest of white people tell us.

    That got me thinking - as we say in New York. 

    You fake it until you make it

    This deliberate exoticism and exorcism of the fake news as something that happens among the dark people and not among the British sounds a bit, how shall I put it politely, strange to an Iranian pair of ears old enough to know the US-UK military coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, and the function of official propaganda of their news media in that treacherous act. The holier than thou attitude of the US and UK official media, the BBC in this particular case, could use a bit of historical memory. It'll teach them some humility.

    Long before "fake news" had a name, the BBC was a master of fake news, in fact fake news of the most dangerous, the most vicious consequences, casting nations, not just individuals, into direct calamities. 

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    What I have in mind is of course the harmul role of the BBC as the propaganda machine of British imperialism around the globe. As well as in enabling and facilitating the CIA/MI6 coup of 1953 in my homeland in particular, by doing precisely what it now goes around finding darker nations doing - indulging in fake news and propaganda.

    The role of BBC in the overthrow of Mosaddeq was not out of character or unusual. In a piece titled Why the taboo tale of the BBC's wartime propaganda battle must be told published by The Guardian, David Boyle writes about characters like Noel Francis Newsome (1906-1976), who "as director of European broadcasts ... led what is still the biggest broadcasting operation ever mounted, in 25 different languages for a total of just over 25 hours a day, across three wavelengths." 

    Such pieces of truth are sources of embarrassments for the BBC today, for "it was he who set out the strategy to use news as a weapon on war - it had to be not just true but also recognizably British."

    Here we learn "it was Newsome and Ritchie (his deputy Douglas Ritchie) who really created the myth of the BBC, by using news as a weapon - not quite what the myth suggests - with all the resources of culture and music and humor."

    If you think this too suspicious, then you ought to know: "Hitler's propaganda chief Goebbels warned in 1944: 'There is one way in which the British, despite the narrowness of their political thinking, are ahead of us - they know that news can be a weapon and are experts in its strategy'."

    This is not any brown or black person talking - these are white Germans talking about white British leading the BBC. 

    BBC and the CIA/MI6 Coup of 1953

    What the British and the BBC did in Iran against Mossadeq was perfectly in tune with their larger wartime and post-war propaganda machinery. Here the role of BBC in vilifying and demonising the character of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq is not even the issue. At issue is a more direct role that BBC Persian has played in that fateful event.

    After years of speculative suspicion dismissed as conspiracy theories, BBC Radio 4 finally admittedin a programme called Document, and subtitled A very British coup, the fact of this treacherous act of the BBC. "Documents reveal," BBC now admitted, "the true extent of Britain's involvement in the coup of 1953 which toppled Iran's democratically elected government and replaced it with the tyranny of the Shah."

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    The programme then explicitly explains: "Iran had just nationalised the very oil fields that had powered Britain through two world wars. Downing Street wanted them back. London paid Iranian agents to sow seeds of dissent in Tehran. Then, to win American support for a coup, the men from the Ministry fanned fears of a Russian invasion."

    Then comes the punch line: "Even the BBC was used to spearhead Britain's propaganda campaign. In fact, Auntie agreed to broadcast the very code word that was to spark revolution." By "revolution" of course they mean the coup.

    The New York Times also reports: "The British, too, sought to sway the shah and assure him their agents spoke for London. A British agent, Asadollah Rashidian, approached him in late July and invited him to select a phrase that would then be broadcast at prearranged times on the BBC's Persian-language program - as proof that Mr Rashidian spoke for the British."

    The same fact is reported by The Guardian: "Another man, Asadollah Rashidian, allegedly approached the shah and invited him to select a phrase that would then be broadcast at prearranged times on the BBC's Persian language service as proof that Rashidian spoke for British intelligence."

    Sometimes even the paranoids have enemies

    "Just because you're paranoid," Woody Allen is reported to have said only in half-jest, "doesn't mean they aren't out to get you." The same is true about conspiracy theories about the BBC. Sometimes even the paranoids are right.

    The issue of the BBC role in Iranian and other countries' politics has become so prevalent that scholars have conducted thorough research on the veracity of the matter and published meticulously documented books on the subject.

    In an edited volume by Marie Gillespie and Alban Webb, Diasporas and Diplomacy: Cosmopolitan contact zones at the BBC World Service 1932-2012, which is an excellent study of diasporic communities and their compradorial services at the BBC, we learn how "when it came to reporting adversely on Mossadeq, for two weeks all Iranian broadcasters disappeared. The BBC had no choice but to bring in English people who spoke Persian because the Iranians had gone on strike."

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    In their introduction, the editors cite Sir Robert Hamilton Bruce Lockhart (1887-1970), whom they identify as "journalist, spy, and British diplomat," as having said: "for the cost of a small cruiser you could recruit the services of a battle fleet" as justification for the British government funding of the BBC.

    Two other scholars, Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh have published an even more detailed study, Persian Service: The BBC and British Interests in Iran (2014) in which they examine "the perception" that BBC has been not just a neutral chronicler but in fact an active agent in the politics of Iran and its region at large. They concentrate on BBC Persian Service, trying to craft a neutral ground on which to interrogate both the objectivity of BBC and its perception as a soft power tool in the arsenal of British colonial and postcolonial interests.

    The result is a non-committal prose that itself is implicated in equivocating between fact and fake news. In their own words they are trying to find a balance in the "inelegant dance between financial control versus editorial independence" of BBC coverage of four major episodes in recent Iranian history: the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, the CIA-MI6 coup against Mossadegh in 1951-1953, the 1979 revolution, and the Green Movement of 2009.

    Between fact and fake we think and live

    Sreberny and Torfeh's study is an admirable exercise in judicious scholarship. But their excellent book needed and did happily receive an excellent corrective lens by the preeminent historian of modern Iran, Professor Ervand Abrahamian. In his review of this book, he reminds us how during the wartime period "there was no pretense of objective reporting and impartial analysis. After all, George Orwell learned much about Newspeak and Doublespeak while working for the BBC Indian Department. Some suspect his Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four was modeled on the BBC building in Portland Place, London."

    Imagine that: the BBC that was the model of Orwell's Ministry of Truth now preaches the world about "fake news!"

    Abrahamian also reminds us how the abdication of Reza Shah was in no small measure engineered by the BBC: "Asa Briggs, later in his famous History of Broadcasting, wrote that this was probably the first time in history that a ruler had been hurled from the throne by radio." 

    I think Stephen Sackur should do one of his "Hardtalks" on the history of BBC as fake news.

    As for the CIA/MI6 coup of 1953, Abrahamian is equally emphatic: "the British government and the BBC were equally collaborative. The latter throughout the crisis loudly echoed the former's line that nationalisation of the oil industry would be disastrous for Iran - that it would financially bankrupt the government, that the country would not have the technical know-how to run the industry, and that Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq had refused a series of fair and just offers for compromise. After the overthrow of Mosaddeq, the BBC continued to echo the official line that there had been no military coup but a spontaneous revolt against a "dictatorial regime."

    Is that not fake news - distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the BBC? You were the mother of all fake news when it came to the fate of an entire nation.

    When BBC blacklisted British critics

    Abrahamian quite gently reminds the authors of this important book of a serious omission: "Even though the book details the close links between the government and the BBC during this crisis, it overlooks one major egregious case. Throughout the crisis, the Foreign Office and the British ambassador explicitly forbade the BBC to send to Tehran any reporters sympathetic to Iran. Professor Elwell-Sutton was explicitly blacklisted despite his outstanding expertise." The British embassy denounced him as "anti-colonial and anti-British."

    Just to be clear: Abrahamian correctly points to the identically conspiratorial mindset of both the late Shah and the current ruling elite of the Islamic Republic for abusing these facts of BBC collusions with the British colonial interests in the past to conceal their own delusional conspiracies of blaming the BBC when their own actions were the main culprit of calamities that befell Iranians.

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    Iranians as a result are caught between a rock and a hard place: When BBC actually colludes with the British government to rob them of their democratic aspirations, and when these facts are abused by the Shah and the ruling clergy of the Islamic Republic to ascribe such aspirations to foreign conspiracies.

    One must remember these historical facts not as an act of vengeance but as corrective lenses. The seismic changes in Internet possibilities no intelligent follower of news is trapped or condemned into any single site of media platform - BBC or otherwise. We can roam the globe from one news media to another, from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to Europe and North America, with each news media, BBC included, giving us a fragment of truth and a lot of fake news. We watch and read them all, trust none completely, nor do we privilege anyone of them with our particular dis/trust. We dis/trust them all equally.

    Today the BBC should be neither demonised nor valorised, for it is neither as demonic as its conspiratorial detractors contend nor as angelic as the BBC self-promotional advertisements sing and dance. It is just one click away from the next fusion of fact and fantasy.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

    Iran vs UK: History of a media war

    The Listening Post

    Iran vs UK: History of a media war


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