An impartial British institution; an institution that serves the nation in the interests of all its people. We so often hear these platitudes touted about both the BBC and the monarchy. This weekend, both institutions combine to ‘troop the colours’ for the queen’s birthday. On the surface, the pomp and ceremony of these institutions can seem mostly harmless. Both lynchpins of the establishment predate our collective memory – they seem, in some ways, always to have existed. They supposedly oversee events, rather than shape them. But look with fresh eyes at an annual military parade broadcast for nearly three hours, and it is easy to reach other interpretations. These are criticisms of the monarchy you will probably never find on the BBC.
The military show of force that characterises the royal birthday spectacle dates back to George III. The third Hanover king of England, he was the first to be born in Britain and speak English as a first language. He also oversaw the entrenchment of British colonial power in countries that now compose the global economic south. Despite its history of political brutality, the monarchy carries its wealth and respect into the 21st century. And much like the monarchy itself, the institution that cheerleads for it – the BBC – seems startlingly resistant to imputations of corruption and political partiality.
Last week’s Novara Wire long read detailed the endemic corruption at the heart of the British state from past to present. From accusations of bias during Scotland’s recent independence referendum to cheerleading for Ukip, the BBC has been under fire for enabling British corruption. It has also greatly neglected reporting on #ToryElectionFraud. Election fraud could send MPs to jail or see enough by-elections for the government to lose its majority. If the BBC was really impartial, balanced and independent you would expect it to be at the front reporting on this issue.
If we dig into the BBC’s internal structures, we can see that overlooking widespread systemic abuses is a problem that goes right to the top. The chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, is a key recent example. When she took on the BBC role, she continued to work for HSBC, where she had the role of ‘overseeing’ the risk department. During this time, HSBC failed to prevent different international terrorist organisations and a Mexican drug cartel laundering money through the bank. Another oversight for Fairhead was around HSBC’s Swiss tax evasion scandal. After this second farrago, she stepped down from her post at the bank – although she continues to keep the lucrative stock options they afforded her.
Fairhead was also at HSBC during the period in which the bank was implicated in a £1bn ‘overselling’ high street scandal, revealed by the whistleblower Nicholas Wilson. There remain serious questions over why this story has been underreported both by the BBC and by swathes of news outlets similarly imbricated with corporate interests. More attention should also be paid to what the government knew of about this affair. Though the Office of Fair Trading announced that the bank’s subsidiary had overcharged customers, it took no further action. This news was released the day before the government made HSBC boss Stephen Green a Lord.
This only leads to further questions about Fairhead’s surprise selection to lead the BBC. With her past at HSBC, it is easy to imagine how pushing investigative reporting into systemic fraud would not be one of Fairhead’s top priorities – even if she denies steering or silencing coverage over HSBC. It’s similarly easy to imagine how she wouldn’t want to overly criticise her good friend George Osborne.
The largest corruption scandal of 2016 – perhaps of the decade – has connections to both George Osborne and David Cameron’s families, and their stashed cash in tax havens. This scandal, namely the Panama Papers, points towards endemic corruption based the UK, and in the City in particular. Half of the world’s tax avoidance hubs en route to treasure islands. These are a network small nations – many former colonies and British territories overseas. The sun never really set on the British Empire – it just went offshore. In light of the Panama revelations, there is something sickeningly hypocritical about comments caught on camera inside Buckingham Palace. A conversation between David Cameron and the queen, his fifth cousin twice removed, went along the following lines:
“We’ve had a very successful cabinet meeting this morning to talk about our anti-corruption summit, we’ve got the Nigerians… actually we’ve got the leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain. Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.”
The prime minister’s audience for this moment of ill-advised candidness included not only the queen, but the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the Commons Chris Grayling, and Commons speaker John Bercow. BBC reports critical of the royal family are rare to the point of being almost non-existent, and the way the BBC reported this incident represents its institutional sycophancy. After the bare bones of the story were given, James Landale, the BBC diplomatic correspondent, was quoted in a heading ‘A truthful gaffe‘. Using sympathetic tones towards the government and monarchy, the piece asserts how basically what Cameron said was true. It references Transparency International’s report that Nigeria and Afghanistan are among the most corrupt countries in the world. The BBC report fails to mention how Transparency International is sponsored by the British government, and itself had senior executives caught up in the Panama Papers.
The BBC also fail to explore whether this conversation was stage-managed to be caught on camera. It could well have been a strategic case of “throwing a dead cat on the table” to deflect heat away from Cameron’s personal involvement with tax havens. But if we assume that Cameron and the queen were genuinely caught unaware by the camera a few metres from them, it is easy to imagine them believing they are scrupulous – holier than thou – when it comes to corruption. It is an attitude of astonishing hypocrisy uncritically reflected by the BBC in its reporting of the incident. Consider what details could have been examined. The conversation took place inside Buckingham Palace: a building built from the proceeds of wars, genocide and slavery. Buckingham Palace is perhaps the world’s biggest glass house from which to cast stones about monumental corruption. One of the interlocutors was an unelected head of state.
Elizabeth II’s claim to the throne rests on being the 22nd great-granddaughter of William I, who successfully invaded Britain exactly 950 years ago this autumn. Compared to her Norman descendants, like George III she is there because she is not a Catholic, as this part of her family line was ruled out. People often say the queen – one of the richest people in the world – does not wield power. This seems to be contradicted by many things; not least her weekly formal meeting with the prime minister. Most billionaires pay a lot to the Conservatives for just a one-off meeting with Cameron. Despite a 24 hour news cycle, few of these facts made it into the reporting.
Looking at the specific countries mentioned, there are other critical things that could be said. Rather than simply dismissing the entire polities as “fantastically corrupt”, one could discuss how both Afghanistan and Nigeria have been and still are fantastically exploited and devastated by Britain. They still struggle with the legacy of colonial occupation – a political settlement pursued by the government, supported by the monarchy, and blithely ignored by the BBC. One example is the Ogoni nation of Nigeria, which to this day suffers massive persecution and destruction of its land, mainly sponsored by oil companies including BP and Royal Dutch Shell – both headquartered in London. British crimes in west Africa started with slave trading in Nigeria and the whole area nearby was known as the Slave Coast. In a similar colonial vein, Afghanistan has been frequently invaded by British troops playing the ‘Great Game’ against Russia for power, influence and resources that started in the 19th century. Looking back, it would be hard to find countries not devastated at some point by British imperialism, given that only 22 countries have not been invaded by Britain.
As for the queen, her relationship with money is a strange one. Her face is all over it; she probably never touches it; although her bank, the exclusive Coutts, has reportedly got its fingers dirty in the Panama scandal. Cameron’s family’s tax-dodging became infamous, in week where he went from all-out denial to admission that he did keep money offshore. Cameron is not only related to the queen by blood: like her, he and his number two George Osborne have a direct family connection to the worst part of the Empire. Both Osborne and Cameron’s families made money from Britain’s slave trade and were compensated when it ended. It is unclear what has happened to this wealth.
So there was a lot that Landale could have got his teeth into. But he did not. This problem does not originate with this – or indeed any – journalist in particular, but if we dig into his background we find him to be a product of the same class system he fails to criticise. He comes from the same school that 19 of 53 Britain’s prime ministers did, the same one attended by Cameron, and the same one attended by Archbishop Welby.
Eton itself is not the problem, but the preponderance of its alumni symbolises the problem. The BBC – and Britain more broadly – is run by people from super-rich backgrounds, who often network at private school, followed by Oxbridge (or other elite universities) before all working together. A report from Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recently showed how class still mainly defines Britain. So for the privileged few “Bob’s your uncle”. This phrase originated with Robert “Bob” Cecil, the prime minister in the late 19th century known for his nepotism, but seems apt to encapsulate Cameron’s Britain. Cecil, incidentally, also went to Eton.
The BBC should be seen as no less of an old boys’ network than any other of the UK’s institutions. From the top flights of big business, to the judiciary, to the civil service, to Westminster, the same pattern persists. This problem takes a particularly insidious form in the BBC because of its enormous influence, allowing it both to gloss and to normalise these dynamics not only for its audience in Britain, but around the world. The BBC says its news reaches one in 16 people on the planet; a reach it is hoping to expand.
The expansion of the BBC to its current dominance took place when the British government was transitioning from old-style colonialism to a system in which international fiscal power is wielded and maintained in subtler ways through Britain’s tax haven network. As such, an institution with a budget set by the government is peopled by those who grew up cribbing class notes from future cabinet members. It is little wonder then that the institution has little sustained interested in critiquing the loci of power in which the BBC is structurally, historically and personally implicated. Some of course would have bucked the trend, but more than not will be framed by Britain’s institutionalised class prejudice.
Indeed, it is so enmeshed with the apparatus of corrupt government power that it could even be called a part of that very system. Its reach is so wide partly because – thanks again to another legacy of empire – English is an international lingua franca. This means that BBC news piece after news piece is beamed across the world, through the links created by colonialism, presenting the modern faces of colonialism as democratic and admirable, and itself as impartial. The corporation only wants to extend its audience, expand its empire. It seems that Britannia still rules the air waves.
Photo: Roger Harris/Flickr
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