BBC, Nationalism and a Nation in Denial

Nissim Mannathukkaren | 12 February 2023
No image

The propaganda and whataboutery being used to try and discredit the BBC documentary on Narendra Modi rest on shaky ground.

“It is this sanctimonious inability to see an issue from the other side—essential in dealing with independent news media—that hurts India’s image abroad more than anything else. Again and again officials dealing with the media seem to prefer parading their patriotism and power. . . As long as it is an open democratic society, India cannot effectively screen itself off from foreign reportage, some of which will not be to our liking.”

The BBC’s telecasting of the two-part documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ in the UK evoked completely expected responses from the Indian government, its media ecosystem and Hindu nationalists.

These can be divided into two themes: calling it propaganda and indulging in whataboutery. As we will see, both are on shaky factual grounds.

In both, the BBC, a public broadcaster, is seen as an arm of the British government which merely represents and parrots Britain’s foreign policy interests. So, the BBC propaganda on Narendra Modi comes now because the UK “is a pale shadow of its imperial past”, whereas India is a rising power which just overtook it as the fifth largest economy in the world (in nominal GDP). Besides, it is a “hit-job” against India when it assumed G20 presidency. An article in the RSS-affiliated Organiser argues that the motive is to undermine “the sovereignty and integrity of India” besides tarnishing the “image of Modi, whose stature is rising internationally”.

So, if the BBC is a mere wing of the British government, should it not be always acting in its interests? But factually, this is not true.

For example, in the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, British PM Margaret Thatcher was outraged at the BBC’s coverage which she thought was “treacherous”. Her government even contemplated taking over the BBC. The question of “taking over” arises only because the BBC was not toeing the government line. The BBC instructed its staff then that the British troops should not be referred to as “our troops” in the coverage because: “We are not Britain. We are the BBC.”

In another example, in 2003, during the Iraq War (occasioned by the American-led coalition’s invasion supported by the UK), BBC reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair “had deliberately misled the Parliament” about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. An incensed government asked for BBC’s apology, which it refused to give. Later, a government report indicted the BBC while exonerating the government.

According to Modi supporters, any criticism of him is a blanket critique of India, and that, in this case, is motivated by the interests of the UK. But what kind of a “colonialist” and “propagandist” government wing is the BBC, which is not even willing to support its own government during wars, which are usually the time when the entire nation unites behind its government (this was also seen during the 1956 Suez Crisis when the government sought to discipline the BBC for giving voice to those who did not support British military action)? And it must be noted that if there was the Conservative Party in power during the Falklands War, there was the Labour Party in power during the Iraq War.

The propaganda thesis takes a different turn when it is not a conspiracy by the British government against India but a conspiracy by the British establishment against its own prime minister, the Indian-origin Rishi Sunak; so now, it is a racial angle. But how is it possible when the documentary went into production much before Sunak fortuitously became the PM?

And the propaganda thesis takes an even more bizarre turn when it is not the UK that is conspiring against India, but China, which is acting through the BBC, as asserted by the BJP MP Mahesh Jethmalani and reaffirmed by the article in the Organiser! (The latter goes on to speculate that it could also be Pakistan which has used the BBC.)

So, when the West-China relationship has deteriorated to a low, the UK has joined security alliances like AUKUS, primarily targeting China, and when Sunak has himself echoed the NATO term “systemic challenge” to describe China, we are asked to believe that China is using the BBC to target India. Again, how are we to reconcile this claim, for instance, with the BBC’s documentary on Xi Jinping’s China which also focused on the regime’s “monstrous crimes against humanity” or the one on China’s ‘thought transformation” camps for Uighurs?

If there is alleged BBC propaganda, on the behest of various actors, on one side, on the other side is whataboutery. This goes on the lines of whether the BBC has the courage to show the truth about Winston Churchill, about the monarchy, racism, Kohinoor diamond, etc. Basically, the insinuation is that the BBC does not show anything critical about its own nation, and therefore, it has no moral right to point fingers. Such whataboutery is disseminated by the most influential voices: political leaders, celebrities and media personnel. And it enjoys widespread popularity among lay people.

But this, too, is unmoored in facts. The BBC has done reports on all these topics. Churchill has been counted as the “Greatest Briton” of all time, yet the BBC has done reports like “Churchill’s legacy still painful for Indians” and “Winston Churchill: Hero or Villain?” among others. Ironically, some British historians even accused the BBC of “tarnishing Winston Churchill” by alleging that he was responsible for the millions of 1943 Bengal famine deaths.

Similarly, BBC has done stories on racism like “The black British history you may not know about,” “Racism and statues: How the toxic legacy of empire still affects us” and “How Britain’s role in slavery and empire shaped modern America”; on Kohinoor and its colonial history (here and here) and on the demands for the abolition of the monarchy (here and here).

The cloak of nationalism has not been worn for the first time against critical foreign reporting, as shown by the authoritarian tendencies of Indira Gandhi who banned the BBC in 1970, and along with other foreign broadcasters in 1975 during the Emergency. Yet, scholarship argues why it is not easy to dismiss the BBC as merely being the “the voice of a colonial empire” in South Asia.

BBC became “the world’s most popular international radio broadcaster” because it also fought for “its own editorial control and independence from government priorities”.

During the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, both Pakistani and Indian listeners accused the BBC of being partial to the other nation, while in the 1971 War, its coverage reaffirmed the BBC’s credibility amongst the Indian listenership. A credibility that, ironically, Modi himself referred to in a speech before as superior in people’s minds to India’s own public broadcaster. As Major Gen (retired) Ian Cardozo, an Indian war hero of 1971, said paying tributes to the BBC: “They were the only reliable broadcasting station at that time, giving news as it happened.” It must be noted that Britain at the time was formally a part of an alliance with Pakistan.

Yet even the BBC has not managed to always hold onto its impartiality. And a mechanical impartiality can also mean a false equivalence. Research has shown that despite the Blair government’s relentless targeting of the BBC for its “anti-war bias,” of the four primetime TV news shows studied, BBC’s was the most sympathetic to the government’s pro-war position. As Roger Hardy, who worked as Middle East analyst for the BBC wrote about American and British media during the Iraq War: “We did not do enough to speak truth to power.” But research also shows, in contrast, BBC’s online coverage, despite relying more on official sources, “was not supportive of the war and sometimes seemed anti-[US]coalition in nature”. Besides it showed the “dark side of war” focused on the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

These contradictions show that the BBC, despite being among the most widely used public media source in the world, has to travel further to become a fully independent media in the service of truth and impartiality. We do not have to endorse the BBC uncritically, and should ask genuine questions; whether, for instance, its coverage of race, colonialism, has gone far enough, etc. But those questions must come from those in Britain India, and elsewhere who are striving to deepen democracy and justice, and not from those, as in the present case, who use majoritarian nationalism, and colonialism as a ruse to cover up the worst atrocities.  For the latter, even a documentary which gives substantial space to Hindu nationalist voices and does not cover a fraction of what independent Indian documentary makers and reports have already covered, is deeply threatening making it resort to the most absurd and unfounded theories of grand conspiracy against India.

A BBC becomes trustworthy when compared to the pathetic state of our own mainstream media: a public broadcaster, which has always been the mouthpiece of the ruling party, and private broadcasters which have been reduced to lapdogs under the present government: building personality cults, fomenting hate and purveying fake news.

Can we envisage our public broadcaster ever criticising the government? Or can we envisage the legion of our “nationalist” private media behemoths ever going against the government during a military conflict/war, especially in these ultra-nationalistic times?

Finally, the entire BBC censorship episode can be summed up with one story: soon after the first Narendra Modi government came to power, its information and broadcasting minister promised to completely revamp India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati and give it autonomy, editorial freedom and institute parliamentary accountability on the lines of another public broadcaster: the British Broadcasting Corporation!

Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada, and tweets @nmannathukkaren.

This article was originally published on The Wire.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.