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The BBC’s torture problem

I have blogged before about how mainstream Western journalism is – at best – in something like collective denial about the fact we’ve been torturing people on a routine basis for over a decade now. Even an after an eye-opening admission from the US President (“we tortured some folks”), news outlets soon resumed their editorial policy of not mentioning torture at all, or putting the word in quotation marks (there is no reason why the word torture should always need quotation marks). The best example of this is the BBC.

So, let’s take the Obama admission, which was as clear as a bell. Here’s the BBC headline:

9/11: Obama admits CIA tortured suspects after attacks

Somehow, a subber managed to sneak that one through. Immdiately afterwards, the BBC reverted to form. Last night I believe I watched it cover this week’s Senate torture report without using the word torture once. But let’s look at BBC headlines for US-UK torture stories since the war on terror began. The word will be put in quotation marks, or not used, and this is a deliberate policy. Here are a few examples, and remember these are all, unequivocally, indisputably, stories about actual, admitted torture:

Report on CIA details ‘brutal’ post-9/11 interrogations

‘Torture report’ stirs up row in US

CIA ‘torture': Senate due to publish report

Newspaper headlines: America’s ‘torture shame’

Bahrain blogger ‘tortured’ in jail with Shia opposition

CIA interrogation report: Battle lines being drawn

CIA report – as it happened

CIA interrogations report sparks prosecution calls

‘Vomiting and screaming’ in destroyed waterboarding tapes

UN publishes Afghanistan prisoner ‘torture’ report

Woolwich murder suspect: Michael Adebolajo held in Kenya in 2010

Hooded men: Irish government bid to reopen ‘torture’ case

UK pays £2.2m to settle Libyan rendition claim

The BBC cannot bring itself to admit the truth. Rarely is its deep-seated institutional bias so obvious. After all, it has no such qualms with the word torture when our enemies are accused of committing it. No inverted commas here!

Inside Saddam’s torture chamber

Saddam trial told of Iraq torture

Iraq’s tortured children

Syria accused of torture and 11,000 executions

Syria crisis: Living with the mental scars of torture

Torture claims by slain Russian

Russia torture-in-custody case: Police pair jailed (Jailed, you’ll notice!)

Russia forces accused of torture

Libya: Tripoli survivors tell of Gaddafi regime torture

And so on, and so on.

In contrast to its news coverage, the BBC does explicitly address the issue of torture in the “ethics” part of its website, where I found the following comments telling (italics mine):

“Torture involves deliberately inflicting physical or mental pain on a person without legal cause… Before you object that there can’t ever be a legal cause for inflicting pain, consider painful medical treatments, soldiers wounded in a legally declared war, or contestants in a boxing match… For much of history torture was used quite commonly, and without huge outcry. Civilisations such as the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans all used torture. Even the Church regarded it as an acceptable part of their armoury. Torture was used as part of many legal systems in the West until the early 19th century.”

Torture isn’t wrong or unethical if its legal, you see. What an interesting thing for a state broadcaster to say. It’s almost as if BBC editorial policy was being drafted by Foreign Office lawyers. Perhaps it was, albeit through a few proxies.

It’s interesting to reflect that in 2006, while Western torturing was in full swing, the BBC commissioned a (transparently biased) global poll to see if people supported torture. The UK government couldn’t have got away with that, nor the Foreign Office, but the BBC could. “Nearly a third of people worldwide back the use of torture“, it reported.  Suffice to say a pro-torture tone crept into more than a few BBC reports and interviews, during the heyday of the GWOT. James Naughtie and Stephen Sackur were particularly suspect.

Unsuprisingly, perhaps, the ethics section of the BBC website is no longer updated, otherwise it might have to revise its comment that “evidence obtained through torture is not admissible in British courts.” Similarly, perhaps it might parrot less confidently the FO’s claim that “the UK is committed to combating torture globally, and continues to implement an active campaign to help eradicate it.” That seems a somewhat bold assertion, given that Bahrain, for example, routinely tortures pro-democracy activists, yet the Royal Navy has just established a permanent base there, “just one example of our growing partnership with Gulf partners to tackle shared strategic and regional threats” (according to our Foreign Secretary). Or, as I have also blogged before now, that SIS is managing a Kenyan counter-terrorist unit that routinely tortures its suspects and agents.

Bear this in mind, because torture is not going to go away. In fact, it is becoming systemic and institiutionally entrenched. That SIS-assisted torture I mentioned is occurring right now. The CIA’s black bases remain open. Guantanamo is still running. Appendix M of the current US Army Field Manual still lists “interrogation technics” which the UN’s Committee Against Torture says (PDF) amount to torture. One interesting unredacted disclosure in the US Senate report is that the CIA paid over $80 million to psychologists to refine and develop “enhanced interrogation” techniques. That’s an investment predicated on a return over time.

Most tellingly, the American right-wing now officially considers the Senate report itself a form of treachery, and warns of terrorist reprisals, a percevied threat which like all perceived terrorist threats since 9/11 has been taken with the utmost seriousness. It will only result, of course, in more state-sanctioned torture, and a greater suppression of truth, because this isn’t just about torture. This is also, inevitably, about lying, transparency, justice and democracy itself. Torture is not the only crime the Senate report exposes. But the train has left the station, it shows no signs of stopping, and we are all locked in the same carriage.

The only person so far arrested for torture has been the guy who told us it was going on.

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