Researchers at the University of the West of England, UK, have exposed ongoing and systematic bias in the BBC’s news reporting on Venezuela. Dr Lee Salter and Dr Dave Weltman analysed ten years of BBC reports on Venezuela since the first election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency in an ongoing research project, and their findings so far show that the BBC’s reporting falls short of its legal commitment to impartiality, truth and accuracy.
The researchers looked at 304 BBC reports published between 1998 and 2008 and found that only 3 of those articles mentioned any of the positive policies introduced by the Chavez administration. The BBC has failed to report adequately on any of the democratic initiatives, human rights legislation, food programmes, healthcare initiatives, or poverty reduction programmes. Mission Robinson, the greatest literacy programme in human history received only a passing mention.
According to the research the BBC seems never to have accepted the legitimacy of the President, insinuating throughout the sample that Chavez lacks electoral support, at one point comparing him to Hitler (‘Venezuela’s Dictatorship’ 31/08/99).
This undermining of Chavez must be understood in the context of his electoral record: his legitimacy is questioned despite the fact that he has been elected several times with between 56% and 60% of the vote. In contrast victorious parties in UK elections since 1979 have achieved between 35.3% and 43.9% of the vote; the current UK Prime Minister was appointed by his predecessor, and many senior members of the British cabinet have never been elected. It will come as no surprise that their legitimacy is never questioned by the BBC.
Of particular note is the BBC’s response to the military coup in 2002. BBC News published nine articles on the coup on 12th April 2002, all of which were based on the coup leaders’ version of events, who were, alongside the “opposition”, championed as saviours of “the nation”. Although BBC News did report the coup, the only time it mentioned the word “coup” was as an allegation of government officials and of Chavez’s daughter.
The “official” BBC explanation was that Chavez ‘fell’, ‘quit’, or ‘resigned’ (at best at the behest of the military) after his ‘mishandling’ of “strikes” (which, as Hardy  reminds us, were actually management lockouts) and demonstrations in which his supporters had fired on and killed protestors. In reporting this latter, Adam Easton, the BBC’s correspondent in Caracas wrote ‘Film footage also caught armed supporters of Mr Chavez firing indiscriminately at the marchers’ (‘Venezuela’s New Dawn’). The footage in question was broadcast by an oligarch’s channel that had supported the coup and was shown to have been manipulated.
Given that Chavez had won two elections and a constitutional referendum before the coup, it is surprising that the BBC privileged the coup leaders’ version of events. The democratic, restorative intentions of the coup leaders were unquestioned.
In ‘Venezuelan media: “It’s over!”’ the BBC allows the editor of El Universal to declare unopposed “We have returned once again to democracy!”. Perhaps more significantly, in ‘Venezuela’s political disarray’ the BBC’s Americas regional editor chose to title a subheading ‘Restoring democracy’. ‘Oil prices fall as Chavez quits’ explains that Chavez quit as a result of a ‘popular uprising’.
Crucially, all of the vox pops used in the nine articles were from “opposition” supporters, and the only voices in support of Chavez were from government officials, Chavez’s daughter or Cuba. It is therefore reasonable to infer from BBC reports that ordinary Venezuelans did not support Chavez; whilst the coup was inaccurately reported as ‘popular’, the counter coup was not.
The researchers hypothesised that one of the factors underpinning the inaccurate reporting of Venezuela was the BBC’s adherence to the ideological outlook of the Venezuelan elite. Against the weight of historical research into Venezuelan history, the BBC underpins its reporting with the “exceptionalism thesis” – the idea that Venezuela was the exception among Latin American nations in that its democracy was robust enough to resist dictatorship.
However, historical research suggests this idea is wrong. As Professors Ellner and Salas explain, those who referred to the exceptionalism of Venezuela,
Failed … to draw the connection between political exclusion and the related phenomena of clientelism, on one hand, and the violation of human rights, electoral manipulation, and corruption, on the other. Indeed, they took the legitimacy of the institutional mechanisms that guaranteed stability for granted. The same defects of electoral fraud, corruption, and repression that scholars pointed to as contributing to the crisis of the 1990s had been apparent in previous decades
Certainly the BBC fails to recognise this, and its ignorance of the extreme poverty afflicting so many Venezuelans mitigates against any adequate of understanding of Venezuelan politics. Because the BBC cannot “see” these factors, the Bolivarian Revolution cannot be understood as a response to decades of poverty and oppression.
Rather, the BBC personalises the Bolivarian movement in Hugo Chavez, himself emerging from nowhere and then imposing himself on Venezuela, as if there was no movement, and as if no elections took place.
For example, the 2004 referendum victory is referred to as ‘an extraordinary turn around, and one that defies easy explanation’ (‘Analysis: Venezuela at the Crossroads’ 17/8/04). Of course, the victory appeared “extraordinary” only to persons ignorant of the underlying issues affecting Venezuelan politics.
Consequently, Chavez himself becomes the cause of political conflict. In the world of the BBC it is impossible for class, poverty, human rights abuse or corruption to cause political conflict – the BBC cannot understand the impact of a poverty rate of 70% in 1995 or the fact that a year before Chavez’s first election victory 67% of Venezuelans earned less than $2 a day.
Rather, Venezuelans are painted as mindless sheep being led by a Pied Piper figure, responding only to his call for them to agitate. In the BBC’s world, social and political “divisions” exist only because of Chavez.
For the BBC, the only legitimate representatives of Venezuelan appear to be the unelected oligarchs behind the “opposition”. It is the “opposition” that is Venezuela. ‘Opposition leaders in Venezuela’, according to the BBC, appeal ‘to the international community to intervene to protect democratic rule’.
When democracy was “restored” by a military coup and the imposition of a dictator, the BBC reported that “Venezuela has looked not to an existing politician, but to the head of the business leaders’ association”. When a majority of Venezuelans elect Chavez it is not an act of “Venezuela”, yet when a CIA-backed military coup imposes a corrupt oligarchy, it reflects the will of the whole of Venezuela; not the will of an elite class, but of Venezuela itself.
There is an argument that the inaccuracy and bias of the BBC’s reporting results from the experience of BBC journalists, themselves being from a particular class background living in well-to-do parts of Caracas. From this point of view, they simply don’t see the reality of the situation. If so, it would confirm Charles Hardy’s claim that, we tend to be given ‘the perspective of an international correspondent… who works in a downtown office building of an opposition newspaper and lives in an apartment in a wealthy neighborhood’.
The big question, however, is whether the BBC can be trusted to report adequately on Latin America. Certainly from their latest reports on Evo Morales’s recent victory in Bolivia it seems unlikely. In the meantime, their audience remains woefully ill-informed.
The research programme is ongoing and the researchers arrive in Caracas at the end of December for the next stage of the project. For further information contact Lee Salter, firstname.lastname@example.org