In Perspective: a Comparison of BBC Reporting with 1960's Propaganda


Graham Bell, 19 August 2011

Categories: War | Libya | Egypt | Politics | BBC News |


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Suez in Perspective, a Central Office of Information film made in 1960, four years after the Suez Canal Crisis, provides - based on what we now know - an imbalanced, and in some ways, false account of the 1956 British invasion of Port Said and the Suez Canal. The film, which the National Archives website describes as "propaganda, especially since it does not offer an Egyptian 'perspective'", is a document of how post-war British foreign policy was portrayed to a British audience. The film creates the illusion that Britain is a force for good, acting only with the best of intentions. An example is the suggestion by the narrator that the city of Port Said was not affected by the British attack, as the film shows footage taken from a plane flying over Port Said:

Nasser's propaganda, by the way, claimed that the greater part of the town had been smashed by bombing from the air and by bombardment from the sea. It doesn't look like it, does it? These flyover pictures were taken on the 22nd of November. And if the place had been bombed from the air or bombarded from the sea, you'd expect to see some sign somewhere. No bombs were dropped, only a few defined military targets were attacked by shells and rocket fire. The Egyptians said that the entire population was destitute and 50,000 homeless... absolute nonsense.

Port Said was never a target; only military objectives on its fringes.

Port Said in ruins? Well take a look at Port Said.

It is known that Port Said sustained extensive damage from the invasion, and the blunt denial of this is indicative of the propagandistic nature of the film. This particular war is accepted as a disaster (the Egypt invasion led to the end of Anthony Eden's role as Prime Minister, and the war was seen as damaging to Britain's global power). Suez in Perspective was an attempt to "dispel myths and exorcise humiliating ghosts", sugar-coating the details for the consumption of the British public.

It is interesting then to compare the techniques in the film with those of modern day reporting of war and other world affairs. The language in modern day news is not as direct, but many of the broader manners of reporting, which distort the reality of events, remain in use.

The table below discusses a number of aspects of war (and other world affairs) reporting that appear to be subject to the same treatment now as they were for the Suez in Perspective film.

Claims that attacks are limited to military targets

While wartime attacks are generally focussed on military targets, they are not necessarily limited to them. The illusion of a war that solely affects military targets ensures a degree of continued public support for wars.

Suez in Perspective

"The Anglo-French operation was penned with care and skill to achieve its objective with the minimum loss of life... Their targets were exclusively military."

Contemporary News

"NATO forces have been enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya - carrying out air strikes on military targets." (BBC News. By the time of this reporting by the BBC (8 August 2011) there had been numerous confirmed reports of NATO attacks on civilian. In one case on 20 June, a weapons failure was the reason given.

Reassurances about accuracy of weaponry

Like the "Smart Bombs" news before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, wartime reporting always promotes the idea of accuracy on the part of the invader, furthering the idea of care, skill, and precision.

Suez in Perspective

"As well as the RAF, the fleet air arm played it's part in the attack. It flew many sorties, every one carried out with meticulous care and the utmost accuracy."

Contemporary News

"The Apaches were tasked with precision strikes against a regime radar installation and a military checkpoint, both located around Brega." (BBC News, 4 June 2011)

Denial of Civilian casualties

As with the focus on military targets, news of civilian casualties needs to be suppressed and denied in order to maintain public support for military actions.

Suez in Perspective

"Casualties too were very small in number, in spite of Egyptian propaganda stories to the contrary."

Contemporary News

"The Libyan authorities claim that - far from protecting civilians - the NATO air raids have already killed 700 of them; a claim NATO dismisses" (BBC News, 1 June 2011)

Attacks on the opposition's "propaganda"

During any war, accusations of the opposition (or the invaded country) producing propaganda are made to undermine any information coming from their news centres.

Suez in Perspective

"Nasser's propaganda by the way claimed that the greater part of the town had been smashed by bombing from the air and by bombardment from the sea. It doesn't look like it does it?"

Contemporary News

John Simpson reported from Libya on 25 March that "The main struggle is a propaganda one. Libyan television is showing these pictures of civilians who've supposedly been killed in the raids. Are they genuine? Impossible to say."

"Nationalisation" is called "seizing control"

Nationalisation of assets is feared by powerful western economies as it may restrict western companies' access to resources or other profitable assets.

Suez in Perspective

The film makes nationalisation appear precarious by saying "the climax came when Nasser seized the Suez canal."

Contemporary News

When Hugo Chavez was first elected as president of Venezuela, most BBC coverage of him cited somebody calling him a "dictator". Although this is no longer the case, in May 2009 a development in Venezuela's nationalisation programme was reported as "Chavez seizes oil service firms".

Use of the "Wipe Israel off the map" rhetoric

Commonly applied to leaders which are (a) not a friend of the west and (b) within proximity of Israel.

Suez in Perspective

The film stirs up a fearful image of Egypt and specifically President Nasser by saying that "Russia was supplying arms for Nasser's often declared intention of wiping Israel off the map."

Contemporary News

Frequent references are made to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad using the phrase. An article about Jewish people living in Iran claimed that "Mr Ahmedinejad has repeatedly used rabid anti-Israeli rhetoric - slogans like 'wipe Israel off the map'" (BBC News Website, 22 September 2006). Ethan Bronner at the New York Times has discussed the different ways in which Ahmedinejad's words could have been misinterpreted by the mainstream media, suggesting that his words were a call for regime change in Israel, not a call for war.

In February 2011 John Humphrys interviewed Kamal El-Helbawy (of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood) on The Today Show. He suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood "threaten to wipe Israel off the face of the earth".


The film can be watched for free on the UK national archives website (length: 18 minutes 19 seconds).


Categories in which this article appears: War | Libya | Egypt | Politics | BBC News |

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