“Trust Us Not to be Really Impartial”: Reflections on the Structure and Content of the BBC

Photograph Source: Sean MacEntee – CC BY 2.0

As Iran responds to US war crimes and tensions escalate, we can expect the BBC to increase its anti-Iranian propaganda. The BBC’s Defence Correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, opines: “it was rocket attacks from Iran’s proxies – local Shia militia – against US bases [in Iraq] that formed the prelude to this recent crisis,” referring to Iranian missile launches against US bases in Iraq. But it was not. It was US-British regional hegemony and US-British-Israeli attacks on Iran with sanctions, assassinations, the murder of civilian engineers, counter-government activity, and support for terror groups, including the Mujahideen al-Khalq and the Jundallah that sets part of the backdrop. But why does the BBC spew this kind of propaganda?

This article is a modified version of responses to questions someone asked me via email. He did not give permission for me to publish the Q&A in article form, hence the reworking here.


To understand the content of the BBC we should ask what sort of institution it is. It originated in the 1920s as the brainchild of Lord Reith, a Tory party secretary. Winston Churchill, who was Chancellor at the time, had experience with dealing with striking laborers, having sent—as Home Secretary—troops to help the police at Tonypandy, Wales, in 1911. This decision led to the killing of at least one person, Samuel Rhys (or Rays). Privately-owned media at the time, including the left-wing Manchester Guardian, spun the events against the miners. Lord Northcliffe’s Times criticized Churchill but also denigrated the striking miners as “a wild mob drunk with the desire of destruction.” The Manchester Guardian praised Churchill’s authoritarianism: “instead of a score of cases for the hospital there might have been as many for the mortuary,” were it not for military intervention.

During the General Strike 1926, Chancellor Churchill wanted to commandeer the nascent BBC, to which Lord Reith objected as being too blatantly partisan. At the time, the BBC’s medium was radio. There were 37 million people in England and Wales at the time, yet only 200,000 radio licenses had been issued; a figure that rose to a mere 2.5m by 1928. So, in the absence of further evidence we can assume that many people heard the BBC’s information secondhand. This also implies that the BBC initially existed for those who could afford it; the middle and upper classes. Reith objected to the BBC being commandeered but stated clearly in his diaries that the Corporation was biased: “they did not commandeer [the BBC], but they know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”

The BBC did allow Trades Union Congress voices, but not the leader of the relatively new Labour party, Ramsay MacDonald; a Tory government decision with which Reith was unhappy, but in which he acquiesced.


By the start of the Second World War, the intelligence agencies, which had already infiltrated, smeared, and disrupted working-class movements, had established a vetting system designed to prevent both lefties and fascists from influencing the wartime propaganda. The system was introduced in the 1930s, but expanded during the War. Controller of Programmes (1933-35), Colonel Alan Dawnay, gave one MI5 officer the impression that, to quote the officer, “the line the BBC were anxious to pursue [was] to maintain a reputation for reasonable impartiality on political subjects.”

George Orwell (Eric Blair) was a problem for the BBC because he had fought for the Republicans in Spain. He might have been a dirty commie, or worse an anarchist. An internal BBC memo states: “He accepts absolutely the need for propaganda to be directed by the Government, and stressed his view that in war-time discipline in the execution of government policy is essential.” The “College” (a euphemism for MI5) had to approve of his being hired, which they did. Colleagues, such as William Empson, described their journalistic and technical training at the time as their being part of the Liars’ School.

And so it goes on.

Today, the BBC Charter continues to be renewed by the Crown, and comes into criticism when it is seen to denigrate the queen. For instance, a trailer for a 2007 documentary about the royals shows her majesty appearing to storm out of a photo session. The BBC apologized. It even apologized for revealing that the queen was unhappy about the government’s alleged failure to deport the extremist, Abu Hamza (who is an MI5 asset). The BBC is governed by a dozen or so Board members (formerly Governors, formerly Trustees) who usually come from business, including major retail, banks, private water companies, and energy firms. Notice the lack of ordinary people, media reform advocates, trade union representatives, and so on.

There’s also the issue of editorial exclusion based on class. When they were known as Trustees, Tory PM David Cameron personally overruled his Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, so that he could appoint former HSBC bank’s Rona Fairhead to the role of Chair. The upper- and upper-middle classes are grossly over-represented in the BBC, with top executives, programming directors, political editors, and so on, coming from Oxbridge or the so-called Russell Universities. It follows that the BBC’s content will be biased in favour of establishment interests; not too far left, not too far right, just culturally liberal enough to give the impression that the organization is somehow a “left-wing” institution, as people like the journalist Robin Aitken ridiculously claim.


Some people believe that the BBC is opposed to Boris Johnson and his Tory party. Why do they believe this? People with power lose all sense of perspective. They see anything less than complete subordination to their desires as hostile opposition. This is not unique to Johnson and the perception that his supporters have of the BBC: as we shall see, the supposedly left-wing Tony Blair felt persecuted by the BBC, despite their groveling.

In the ‘80s, Thatcher threatened to “knock the BBC down to size,” according to declassified documents, quoting Peter Warry of No. 10’s Policy Unit. Prior to coming to power, Thatcher suggested raising revenue by inserting commercial adverts into radio broadcasts. For her, the BBC was a left-wing organization, “biased and irresponsible” (Thatcher’s Home Secretary, Leon Brittan). As a way of discouraging people from watching the BBC, Thatcher also suggested building TV sets incapable of picking up the BBC for non-license holders.

In 1980, Thatcher complained to the BBC about its coverage of flying pickets during a steel dispute. The BBC wrote back an astonishing letter which says much about what its upper echelons think of working people: “I expect you will know that anyone with access to programme decisions, and in certain other sensitive areas (about 40% of staff) is vetted at our request by the Security Service. If therefore any ideological extremists slip through it is hardly our fault.” Working class people protesting for better conditions are “ideological extremists.” Invoking emergency powers usually reserved in case of a nuclear attack, Thatcher also threatened the BBC with government take-over due to a Panorama documentary apparently critical of the British military during the Falklands War 1982.

But it’s not just the right-wing. The Blair administration did the same. For a 6am radio broadcast aired two months after the invasion of Iraq, in which an unnamed source confirmed what we already knew (that the Blair Iraq War dossier had been exaggerated to make the case for war), the BBC was nearly brought down. The government decided to name the alleged source as weapons inspector David Kelly, who was later found dead. Blair’s propagandist who helped spin the dossier, the war criminal Alastair Campbell, stormed into Channel 4’s studio demanding an impromptu interview. He raged against the BBC’s “fundamental attack upon the integrity of the government, the Prime Minister, and the intelligence agencies … let them just accept, for once, they’ve got it wrong.” In other words: don’t you dare challenge our power. The journalist who revealed the story that caused the stir, Andrew Gilligan, lost his job, as did the Director-general, Greg Dyke (both resigned, technically). The former Director of News, Ron Neil, recommended that a College of Journalism be established, presumably to train journalists in how not to do their job.


The BBC claims to want to counter fake news; for example via its Reality Check service. But the BBC helped to cement fake news into the British cultural landscape. In the UK, one needs a license to watch all television, including commercial channels, because the BBC is license-fee-funded. License-fee detector vans supposedly parked outside random houses and contained surveillance equipment designed to pinpoint TV signals picked up by specific houses. If the given household was watching the BBC without a TV license, the viewers would get fined or jailed. It was nonsense and revealed as such years later, but enough people believed that such vans existed it to make it credible.

There are more serious examples. The BBC’s Director of European broadcasts, Noel Francis Newsome (1906-1976), spread propaganda across 25 nations over three wavelengths. One notable case of BBC foreign-service propaganda, which crossed the line into political interference and destabilization, is Iran. The secular Mossadeq government was deposed in a CIA-MI6 coup in 1953, following his nationalization of Anglo-Persian/Iranian oil (later BP). Not only did the BBC broadcast relentless lies about the alleged catastrophe of nationalization, it even broadcast the codewords for the revolutionaries, one of whom was the Ayatollah Khomeini, who quickly became the enemy of his former backers.

When the US and Britain backed a long-term coup in Indonesia against the nationalist Sukarno, to replace him with General Suharto between 1965-67, the BBC was used to spread lies about Sukarno. The lies were initiated by the British Ministry of Defence’s Information Research Department. The US-British coup led to the murder of a million Indonesians. Thugs and paramilitaries cleansed working-class leftists by crushing their throats with table legs, strangling them with wires, and so on. Consider in more recent years the BBC’s credulous parroting of the Blair government’s claim that Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, possessed weapons of mass destruction and thus Iraq needed to be imminently invaded. The BBC also reported lies about strategic events, too, such as the claim that the city of Basra had fallen to British troops before it actually had.


Fake news continues. Recently, the BBC uncritically repeated British PM Boris Johnson’s unfounded allegation that General Qasem Soleimani, who was recently murdered in a US drone strike, had “the blood of British troops on his hands” by supplying improvised explosive devices to Iraqi militias. Without checking or citing international law, such as the UN Charter, the BBC also says: “Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected the idea that the killing was an act of war.” Given the BBC’s structure and its history of lies in the service of state-power, it is unsurprising that the recent crop of articles on Iran follow the pattern.


T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).