British Media as mouthpiece of the authorities


Professor Sean Gabb, lecturer, political activist, writer and historian, explains how the media became a mean of governmental propaganda in Great Britain.


Until the 19th century in England and Western civilization, in general it was an unaccepted fact that the Media and the State were, brutally speaking, the same. The Media was controlled by the State, because in essence the State was the Media. People’s main source of information in England willing to the 18th century was the weekly sermon in church. We had a State church, the priests would read out the messages from the government and that is how most people would get their information about the world.

The growth of newspapers in the early 18th century changed this. People found that they have many diverse sources of information. Some of them were friendly to the government, some of them were unfriendly. Therefore, the idea emerged of a distinction between State and Media.

The State is accountable to the people and the Media assists in this process. The newspapers assist in this process by finding out what the government is doing and relay this to the people. Then Media relays to the government what the people think. It is no longer necessary to wait until there is a riot in England, to wait every seven years for the parliament elections and then for the politicians to say: “The people are not happy with this”. All you need to do is to pick up a newspaper, look at the articles, and look at the letters and say: “Um, this policy is not really popular. Either we need to explain it rather better than we have done or we need to think again”. By the 19th, century in England and through increasing part of Western civilization, that became the model of the relationship between people, Media and government. The Media was a mediator - It passed information to the people about what the State was doing, it passed information from the people to the State about what the people thought of this.

During the 20th century, most obviously in Soviet Russia, but also in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, there was a regrowth of political authoritarianism. In that growth the Media was taken over by the State, it became a mouthpiece of the authorities. It became a mean for the State to propagate its view of things.

Although, England and America did not share entirely in this growth of political authoritarianism, there were some growth. We retained a free and independent Media, but in Britain especially we had the foundation of the BBC.

The Idea behind the BBC is perhaps not a bad one. This idea is that the broadcasting spectrum is a rather narrow. Starting a radio station is not the same as staring a newspaper. If you start a newspaper you need to buy yourself a printing press, buy yourself some paper, employ some writers. It is a business and you can have as many newspapers, as people care to start. Not all of them will be profitable, but there is no theoretical limit for number of newspapers. When you have a broadcasting spectrum you have, or at least you had until very recently, a small number of spaces in which people could broadcast. So, there may be only ten or twenty radio stations on spectrum. This is changed in the past generation, but that was the case until then.

The British government nationalized the radio spectrum and it gave a monopoly of broadcasting to a single organization – the BBC, which was not privately owned, it was entirely free from commercial pressures, and at the same time, it was supposed to be politically independent of the government. The BBC was controlled by a board of governors, who were appointed by the government. So, you have a board of governors appointed by conservative government –that board of governors will continue deep into a Labor government. The Labor government will appoint more governors who continue into a conservative government. Therefore, the idea is that the BBC is commercially independent and politically independent and will do its utmost to give the people a true and unbiased view of what is happening in the world.

The BBC has never quite behaved in that way. However, at the same time the BBC has often behaved in that way. To large extent, the BBC still does behave in that way. The BBC is remarkable institution, and if you compare it with other public broadcasters, I do not think anything else comes close to the BBC in terms of the quality of its output or in terms of the overall balance and attempt at discovering the truth.

At the same time, the BBC is an institution of State. Although the BBC often in some respect makes a makes an effort to be fair and impartial, it is also an organization with a set of agendas and it is to some extent a tool of propaganda. That is one of the problems, which people in the conservative movement have always found objectionable about the BBC.