BBC’s Foundational History as Imperial Propaganda Service

BBC was explicitly set up not as news but propaganda service for the British colonial enterprise. The celebrated writer, George Orwell, lifted the curtain on its sordid history.

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[This article is loosely based on “Here’s what you Need to Know about the Liars School of the BBC,” published in Dharma Dispatch Digest]

The British Broadcast Corporation (BBC), that self-proclaimed purveyor of unbiased news, is itself in the news – again – and not for a good reason.

BBC has a long history of biased reporting against Hindus and India. However, this time it has attempted to use the cloak of documentary to launch an unsubstantiated attack against India’s sitting prime minister, Narendra Modi. The reaction from India has been swift and severe. More on that in future articles.

In this article, we will try to understand what is in BBC’s DNA that habitually compels it to spew venom against India. The answer, it turns out, lies in its foundational history.

Very few people know that BBC was explicitly set up as an Imperial propaganda service in the colonial eraOne of the most authoritative voices calling BBC’s bluff was the celebrated journalist and author George Orwell.

Orwell worked as a Talks Producer in the Indian Section of the BBC Eastern Service for two years – from August 1941 to November 1943. Those two years gave him all the material he needed to produce his landmark works – Animal Farm and 1984. 

In the beginning, Orwell naively believed BBC’s scheming denizens who told him that the Indian Section was modeled as a “university of the air” educating Indian listeners about the news of WW-2. He discovered its shady side, however, in 1941 when the Ministry of Information took over BBC and transformed it into a full-fledged propaganda factory to counter Germany’s information warfare.

At the height of the war, German propaganda was at its most sophisticated, helmed by the evil genius Joseph Goebbels. The German radio broadcast was cleverly designed to hit at the two significant vulnerabilities of the British enterprise: the raging anti-British sentiment in India and the two million Indian troops fighting in Europe on the British side.

A panicked BBC quickly set up within the Eastern Service a dedicated section to broadcast its own propaganda to India in both English and “Hindustani.” Why their propaganda was inherently anti-Hindu and anti-India is a story for another day.

Initially, Orwell had a favorable but slightly cynical view of BBC’s tactics. He noted in his diary, “I believe that the BBC, in spite of the stupidity of its foreign propaganda and the unbearable voices of its announcers, is very truthful. It is more reliable than the press.”

That view was about to change soon.

Germany’s invasion of Russia and the resulting pressures from the boisterous left-wing media forced England to up its propaganda game. One outcome was that George Orwell was enrolled in a special training course meant to teach the finer nuances of the art of radio propaganda. William Empson, a coursemate of Orwell, described the training course as the Liars School of the BBC. This unflattering moniker has endured the test of time.

As the months rolled on, Orwell became increasingly repelled at what he saw at BBC. In a letter to the Chinese novelist Hsiao Ch’ien, he writes: “Our radio strategy is even more hopeless than our military strategy. Nevertheless, one rapidly becomes propaganda-minded and develops a cunning one did not previously have.” On June 21, 1942, he wrote this in his diary: “The thing that strikes one in the BBC is … the moral squalor and ultimate futility of what we are doing… our policy is so ill-defined, the disorganization is so great… the fear and hatred of intelligence are so all pervading.”

In other words, BBC’s job was to hire mediocrities whose only function was to behave like automatons…and BBC was failing gloriously even in that simple task! Lawrence Brander, the intelligence officer for the BBC Eastern Service, admitted as much in his 1942 report: “Affairs are much worse in India than anyone here is allowed to realize… our broadcasts are utterly useless because no one listens to them in India.”

Censorship was the other side of the BBC propaganda machinery. The totalitarian nightmare that Orwell describes so chillingly in 1984 was born in the oppressive environment at the BBC, where every bit of the broadcast was closely monitored. Indeed, many of the descriptions of the physical spaces in 1984 are directly taken from what he observed at the BBC.

This excerpt from Orwell’s resignation letter in November 1943 speaks volumes about his disgust with his brief stint at BBC: “I am tendering my resignation because for some time, … I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produces no result… the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task.”

What Orwell wrote eighty years ago remains true to this day. BBC continues to squander British taxpayer’s money on anti-India propaganda, and there is no sign that it will abandon its nefarious enterprise any time soon.

Given England’s two-hundred-year history of plundering its erstwhile colony, no institution of that nation – including BBC- has any moral right to lecture Hindus or India on anything.

Dr. Jai Bansal is a retired scientist, currently serving as the VP Education for the World Hindu Council of America (VHPA)

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