Pot wants Kettle to steady its nerve: trouble at the BBC

Those of us in the United States who benefit from BBC programming at no cost might be a little slow to pick up on the significance of recent travails. Ian Bell worries in the Sunday Herald, though, that the BBC has lost its nerve.

This wallowing in self-harm began with the Hutton report. The BBC was sloppy, but not wrong – a small detail – in its reporting of the government’s efforts to con us into a war. It faced the sort of whitewash for which God created pliant judges. But rather than put up a fight it abased itself, dumped both its chairman and director-general, and bent over for a kicking from Alastair Campbell, a man whose job it was to defend the version concocted by a government given to ignoring every relevant fact. Yet the BBC folded. It caved. Its only concern was to find a form of words so abject as to put its future reliability beyond doubt. The weakness became a habit. From that, bizarrely, the affair of the naming of the Blue Peter cat became a hanging matter.

So what? The BBC survived Hutton; it will survive Queengate, surely? So this: if it has lost its courage, if it is more interested in picking errant fluff from its navel and forcing out distinguished broadcasters such as Fincham, how reliable can it be? In news and current affairs, in particular, a degree of courage is necessary. There has to be a willingness to risk you will get things wrong sometimes. If the BBC eviscerates itself, that becomes impossible.

Bell can’t imagine Britain without the BBC, which epitomizes “the odd idea of an independent state broadcaster.” Yet, at least from a perspective eight time zones away, it seems like for all its advantages, the BBC leaves room for a newspaper business far more vibrant, far more willing to challenge the government, and far more dedicated to the notion that news reporting ought to be independent than in the United States. I wonder if it is that the BBC has served in some way to keep others honest, to set a standard, as Bell writes, of “an ethical Olympus, elevated by a historic duty to inform, educate and entertain, without fear or favour. The rest of us pick our way through the moral maze as best we can, if we can.”

Bell isn’t the first I’ve seen–even of the BBC’s putative competition–to write of the BBC’s importance. It is a relationship quite unlike anything I see in this country, where news organizations often seem intent on ignoring their competition in broadcast or publication, even as they imitate each other so faithfully as to raise some question of independence. David Croteau and William Hoynes (2003), in Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge), write that “news accounts have a tendency to look similar because reporters all follow the same basic routines. They talk to the same people, use the same formats, observe the same basic dos and don’ts, and watch one another closely to make sure that they are not out of step with the rest of the profession” (p. 133). “In fact,” they write, “if news differed substantially from outlet to outlet, questions would be raised about the method of objective reporting, likely signaling a new crisis for the profession” (p. 134).

In Britain, however, newspapers adopt divergent political views; while the better ones acknowledge a responsibility to truthfulness, a standard apparently set by the BBC, they feel no obligation to cast events in the same light as their competitors. The U.S. has no comparable institution to the BBC. Voice of America is strictly intended for foreign audiences, not to compete with domestic news organizations, and though, from what I’ve seen, it strives for credibility, no one would expect it to be anything other than a propaganda organ of the government.

Indeed, it was the British press that broke the story of the Downing Street Memos, which revealed an assessment that the Bush administration was adjusting evidence to rationalize an invasion of Iraq, and it was the U.S. press that downplayed the same story for several weeks until activists finally compelled news organizations to pay it some heed. It is now hardly even open to question that the Bush administration was dishonest in its efforts to persuade the public to support the war, but it is the British press we have to thank for this knowledge, not the organizations supposedly protected by the First Amendment.

While media scholars generally do not share conservative views of a “liberal” media bias (they point instead to multinational corporate conglomerate ownership and advertiser support as affecting coverage in any of a number of ways), there is little question that the news media in this country have failed in their role to inform the public. Consider for instance, the divergent treatment given to stories exposing Bush’s failure to fulfill the terms of his Vietnam War draft-dodging obligation to the Texas Air National Guard–while sending the National Guard to war in multiple tours of duty in Iraq–and the slanderous claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against John Kerry, who did serve in Vietnam. The Swift Boat claims critically wounded the Kerry campaign, and eased the path for Bush’s “re-election” in 2004, but Bush’s family connection-arranged draft dodging was seen as “old news.”

However cockeyed the British media system may appear from a U.S. perspective, it somehow functions to serve the British public better than its U.S. counterpart serves the U.S. public. So the defanging of the BBC is of serious concern to us here, perhaps even more than it is for the British, for it is the U.S. that is the “sole remaining superpower” and the most dangerous nation on the planet and it may only be through British reporting that any serious challenge to the U.S. system of domestic propaganda may be raised.

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