The British Invasion  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2004

The British Invasion   

Many Americans searching for a different view of the war in Iraq turned to the British Broadcasting Corp. Does the BBC offer a more aggressive and complete approach to the news, or a tilt to the left or both?

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

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The British Broadcasting Corp. can certainly relate to American media outlets in one stark way: The radio and television behemoth has been embroiled in a journalistic controversy that threatens to damage its credibility, change the way it does business and, most likely, result in the ouster of a few employees.

For media buffs, the New York Times' springtime of discontent segued nicely into the BBC's summer of the same. A governmental inquiry led by Lord Hutton explored the events surrounding the suicide of David Kelly, a weapons expert who was an anonymous source for an explosive BBC report on the British government's claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The radio segment, by correspondent Andrew Gilligan, charged the government with "sexing up" a September 2002 dossier and further alleged 10 Downing Street knowingly inserted a false claim that Iraq could launch its WMD in 45 minutes.

Soon Kelly was identified as the source of that report. Shortly thereafter, he told his wife he was going for a walk and never returned. His body was found the morning of July 18.

While American news audiences didn't see much coverage of the inquiry, the British press was full of front-page stories, loads of commentary and, in the broadcast media, reenactments of the proceedings. Internal e-mails, reporters' notes and the diary of Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy, were brought forth as so much dirty laundry, and neither the government nor the BBC came off looking particularly good. The Hutton inquiry even set up its own Web site, www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk, to give the public a look at the mounds of testimony.

Says John Tusa, former managing director of the BBC World Service: It "made the summer riveting."

Hutton's final report won't be released until late December or January, providing more time for speculation on how badly it will criticize the BBC's journalism and the government's political maneuverings.

But beyond the shared experience of having its credibility on the line, the BBC is quite different from the American networks. There's the sheer size--41 overseas bureaus, 3,700 news employees. There's the public confidence--yes, confidence. The British tend to trust the BBC more than the government, not less. They reserve the bulk of their cynicism for politicians instead of reporters. The BBC even has not one, but two cute little nicknames--Auntie, or more commonly, the Beeb.

During the war in Iraq, reportorial differences became distinctly recognizable. The BBC was more likely to be accused of being an enemy of the state than a patriotic cheerleader. A number of American viewers and listeners, dissatisfied with what they saw on the U.S. networks, tuned in or logged on to the BBC Web site in search of a different journalistic tack. Viewership of the BBC World News bulletins, aired on public broadcasting stations in the U.S., rose 28 percent during the early weeks of the war.

Not everyone was handing the BBC kudos, however. Criticism has been vehement, particularly since the launch of the Hutton inquiry, and the BBC for years has faced charges of a left-wing bias. During the Iraq war, conservative commentators such as Andrew Sullivan took to calling the organization the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC's interviewing tactics, a source of pride, are more brazen and aggressive than what is normally seen on American networks. At times, though, one man's hard-hitting interview is another's ambush.

Whether critic or fan, most can agree on one thing: The BBC provides a different approach, one not always found in the U.S. media.

Roger Mosey, head of television news at the BBC, talks about some of the criticisms launched from the United Kingdom toward U.S. networks--most have called the American reports shockingly unquestioning, particularly those on Fox News Channel. Mosey credits Fox with enlivening what had been rather dull American television, in his view; however, he adds: "The problem is that Fox, I think, has unquestionably moved the whole center of gravity rightwards.... I don't think anyone could argue Fox didn't have an absolute right to present their view of the world, but my question as someone who loves America is, is there enough of a diversity of view within the broadcast media? You know, generally speaking, there isn't."

Can the BBC, then, be the anti-Fox?

"I don't think we should have a position," Mosey responds. "But I think what was interesting about the success of BBC World during the war...is that some people clearly do think the BBC World brings in a whole different set of perspectives about the world, and that we co- present from Islamabad and from Oman, bringing other views.... A lot of Americans don't understand why a significant part of the world doesn't like them. And I think there is a danger sometimes that American television can be quite insular, and you don't get a sense of challenge. And I hope the BBC does that."

John Tusa feigns a yawn when I mention the words Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation, a moniker used to lambaste the BBC's Iraq coverage as being soft on Saddam Hussein. You'll have to forgive the BBC camp from being weary of, even bored with, charges that it has a liberal bent, particularly when covering conflicts. It gets this all the time.

During the 1982 Falklands war with Argentina, the BBC chose to refer to British troops as just that, not as "our troops." That's still the policy during conflicts. Tusa recalls the more controversial caveat uttered by BBC correspondent Peter Snow. "Now, the British," Snow said in a lead-up to the government's position, "if they are to be believed...."

A scathing dig at the government? Tusa, now the managing director of the Barbican Centre, an arts venue in London, says no. "It seemed a necessary and sensible journalistic caveat," he says. The information coming from Buenos Aires was more accurate, he says, and the BBC was right to point this out.

The government wasn't too pleased, though. In fact, battles between the Beeb and 10 Downing Street have been going on for decades--almost since the BBC was founded in 1922. During the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo, World Affairs Editor John Simpson raised politicians' blood pressure when he reported on Serb public opinion and the effects of the bombs on Belgrade. (The government was also upset over a column Simpson wrote for the conservative Sunday Telegraph headlined, "Why This War Isn't Working." More on correspondents' penchant for column-writing later.)

The BBC also has faced difficult times reporting on Northern Ireland. In the early '80s, "there were people who genuinely believed the BBC was responsible for the political crisis and violence there," says Stephen Claypole, the BBC's senior editor in Northern Ireland at the time and now chairman of DMA-Media, a consulting firm.

When then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed a ban on British media interviewing and broadcasting the voices of members of Sinn Fein, the BBC worked around it by showing a Sinn Fein member on screen but having an actor read his remarks (see Free Press, April 1994).

The fact that the BBC World Service is broadcast via radio in 43 languages and television's World News in more than 200 countries means the organization is more aware of how a choice of words can affect its credibility in various locales. A "terrorist" to one side is a "freedom fighter" to the other, Claypole says.

The BBC makes a concerted effort to report from both sides of a conflict. "We do try," says Simpson. "I think it's really important to see what the effects are on the ground. I think that's really important. If the British or American taxpayers are funding a war, then I think they've got a right to know what happens with the bombs that they pay for and where they land."

BBC correspondent Nick Higham says anytime you report from the other side, you run the risk of getting flak. As he explains, some would charge, " 'Surely if you're objective and impartial, you are, by implication, going to be sympathetic to our enemies.' " But, "the BBC would say, 'Well, no, what we're trying to do is reflect all sides of an extremely complicated situation'.... And to do that you've got to go and talk to the Iraqis, and you've got to reflect what Osama bin Laden says. And all the rest of it."

Given the 50/50 split, at least, in British public opinion about the war and the massive antiwar protests--more than 750,000 marched in London in February--special correspondent Ben Brown says he felt a responsibility to "not appear to be gung-ho...not to have lots of pictures of hardware." In his opinion, U.S. networks used technology very well in their war coverage, but some correspondents got caught up in the "fantastic might of the American military machine."

Adds Brown: "We stood back a little bit more."

While the BBC--often defiantly resistant of toeing the government line--may have presented its coverage regardless of public opinion, it had more of a license to do so than American broadcasters. "In a sense," says Simpson, "it made it easier for the BBC's reporting to be properly balanced because opposition to the war was stronger in Britain than it was in the U.S. So it was perhaps a more natural thing...to look at national and international opposition to it than perhaps it was in the U.S."

But, Simpson adds, even if 99 percent of the public were supporting the war and only 1 percent were against it, "I do think one has to give a properly balanced view of this and not just accept what governments say, because governments say things, as we have seen," to fit their own agendas.

Some American journalists in London agree differences between the way the BBC and American television covered the war were acute. Steve Stecklow, senior special writer for the Wall Street Journal, says it was eye-opening to watch the BBC's coverage alongside that of an American cable network. "To me, it was startling to see how [on] the American cable channel, most of its commentators were retired Pentagon officials," Stecklow says, "at all times at the bottom of the screen [you would see] 'Operation Iraqi Freedom.'... All this hype." The BBC, he says, was reporting on not just the military moves, but on the impact on the civilian population. "I felt that their coverage was far more evenhanded."

Bill Glauber, a Chicago Tribune metro reporter who was the Baltimore Sun's London correspondent from 1995 to 2002, says of the BBC: "They go where the news is and tell the story."

One BBC war report that got particularly pummeled or applauded, depending on a critic's viewpoint, was a piece that questioned the original account of Jessica Lynch's rescue, saying it was more like military propaganda. The Tribune and other papers followed its lead. "You can question some of the things in the BBC report," says Glauber, "but you can't question whether you go after the story."

During wartime, "thoughtful people should ask themselves what they really want from broadcasters and journalists," Glauber writes in an e-mail to AJR. "Do they want propaganda? Spin? The truth or a version thereof? Can they accept stories that may reflect badly on the country's leaders, policies or troops, but which are accurate?"

Higham, a special correspondent for BBC News 24, the continuous news channel, doesn't believe many Americans can accept that. "I think Americans, particularly conservative Americans, have a problem with the BBC approach because impartiality, which is the BBC's fundamental watchword, is itself a liberal notion," he says. "And our commitment to impartiality comes out of what is fundamentally a small 'l' liberal culture, liberal media culture, in which objectivity, impartiality are thought to be good in themselves and achievable.... The impression I get is that a lot of Americans just don't get that.... And to them it's much more important that the news media are supportive of the national effort, particularly when you go to war."

Well, a number of conservative Brits don't get it either. But the point about what Americans, by and large, expect from their news organizations is dead accurate. Polls have continued to show that a large percentage of Americans think the media are too liberal and too free. Forty-five percent said the U.S. media were too liberal in a Gallup poll this fall, while 14 percent thought the media were too conservative; and in a poll conducted by the First Amendment Center and AJR in June, 46 percent said the media have too much freedom to do what they want. (See "Upon Further Review," August/September.)

But what of criticism that the BBC swings too far in the other direction--that it was, as usual, a pacifist commentator? Roger Mosey finds such comments "bizarre."

"I think there's a strange misconception being put around by people who don't like the BBC that there was some huge problem with our Iraq war coverage, which I just don't think is true," Mosey says.

He and others point to a study by Cardiff University's school of journalism that found the BBC to be overwhelmingly the British public's choice for the "best, most informed coverage" during the war. Both supporters and opponents of the war said so, and Cardiff researchers found in a separate study that the BBC was more likely than the three other main British broadcasters to quote government sources and less likely to question the government's stance.

Jeremy Paxman, host of the BBC's 10:30 p.m. "Newsnight" program, built his reputation on aggressive, bulldog-type interviewing. He once won a journalism award for asking Michael Howard, then the home secretary, the same question 14 times. (The guy never did answer the question.)

Contrast that with American audiences who got tired of watching Connie Chung prod Gary Condit, in yet another rewording of the question, on whether he had had an intimate relationship with Chandra Levy (see Free Press, October 2001). In Britain, they hand out an award. In America, they change the channel.

Yes indeed, there's a cultural difference here, and cynicism is one of the main issues.

Most of those interviewed for this story agree the Brits, both the public and journalists, have much more of it than the Americans. (BBC presenter Nik Gowing bristles a bit at the word, though. "Some people label it cynicism or skepticism," he says. But it's "my job and everyone's job here to be questioning...and not accept everything you are told.")

Whatever you call it, it's often apparent in journalism in the U.K. Compared with the way the British press treats the prime minister, the BBC's Matt Frei says, the U.S. president doesn't get nasty questions. "The general level of cynicism about politics is reflected in the way we report," he says.

Frei, senior television correspondent in Washington, D.C., goes on to talk about aggressive interviews on the BBC. One can tell "if a question is facetious and unnecessarily rude," he says. "I'm sure there are some people who are [facetious and rude] on the BBC. But to be facetious and rude about people in power" is less of a "sin," he says, than to be so with people who aren't.

Some of this may stem from the U.K.'s parliamentary debates, which are more like verbal food fights, but even some in the British public question whether journalists are supposed to be vicious. Bill Hagerty, editor of the quarterly British Journalism Review, calls the interviewing on the BBC's morning radio "Today" program "hostile" and "terrier-like." While politicians have criticized it--as they criticize everything, he notes--there "was a certain truth" to this particular complaint.

Politicians are being led to the slaughter, it seems. Yet, surprisingly, like gluttons for punishment, they continue to come through the doors of the BBC. Mosey mentions that even while the BBC and the government were embroiled in the Hutton inquiry--certainly the most controversial battle between the two--Prime Minister Blair and many other government ministers were still appearing on air.

Why did they do it? "You get massive audience by appearing on the BBC," Mosey says. The "Today" program is very popular, particularly with politicians and journalists, and the BBC is the No. 1 broadcast news outlet.

Before the start of the war in Iraq, the BBC approached Downing Street with a proposition: Have Tony Blair come to Gateshead for a town hall meeting where every single one of the 30 to 35 participants will be against going to war. The BBC, says Mosey, thought it would be "quite a nice production device."

Even the Beeb thought Blair would say no. He didn't. The prime minister took on the crowd, one of whom referred to him as "the honorable member of Texas north" and "Mr. Vice President."

Those sarcastic remarks give some indication of a different cultural viewpoint in Europe that will certainly be reflected in the journalism. In the United States, says Frei, the debate before the war was about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. In Europe, the overarching question was, "Are we being led by the world's most powerful nation onto a perilous course?"

That different viewpoint and a higher level of cynicism regarding politics leads to occasional comments that some may see as anti-Americanism, others as appropriate toughness. Is it cheeky, or is it the truth? For instance, in November, the BBC reported on the World Trade Organization's ruling that tariffs imposed by the U.S. on steel imports were illegal, according to trade agreements. "It's an argument about whether America is obeying international rules," the correspondent said, then added as an aside, "Where have we heard that before?"

Ned Warwick, the Philadelphia Inquirer's foreign editor, lived in London for 11 years, working for ABC News and later as a TV news consultant. His views on the cultural divide: "I think there is in British society sort of an instinctive kind of condescension toward the United States that goes to a combination of having a chip on their shoulder of about how the colony went beyond them and also a genuine belief that we're still a culture working our way through the frontier.... I have found, in fact, while you see moments of what you and I would instinctively recognize as sort of a snappish anti-American [comment], it is just so much a part of their fabric that they don't even realize they are saying it or doing it."

However, Warwick points out that "there was a kind of objectivity about the BBC that simply does not exist in [British newspapers]. Not one single bit. It is more measured, it is less sensational, it makes a great effort to get it right."

In fact, the programming that can get more contentious--"Today" and "Newsnight," what is called "current affairs" as opposed to news by the BBC--is more opinionated. While Americans can listen to "Today" through the BBC Web site (www. bbc.co.uk), the radio and TV programs available in the U.S. are the straight news bulletins.

As Matt Frei says of the half-hour BBC World News reports, "If they want bitchy, they're going to be disappointed."

The news bulletins are much closer to "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"--with a little more spunk--than they are to any heated crossfire on the cable channels. However, the international report, perhaps another reason Americans turn to the Beeb, is much more extensive than anything on American channels. While U.S. networks have cut back on foreign bureaus (see "Bureau of Missing Bureaus," October/November), the BBC always has someone there--wherever the news is. Its hallmark remains its worldwide reach.

The BBC's international viewership has grown immensely in the past decade. BBC World News, a 24-hour news channel launched in 1995, is available in 274 million homes in more than 200 countries (though that includes U.S. homes that only get the half-hour BBC World News reports on PBS). The public broadcasting stations carrying those bulletins (229) numbered only 26 five years ago. The Beeb also launched a 24-hour satellite and digital cable channel, BBC America, five years ago. It's now in 37 million U.S. homes, 10 million more than in 2002.

John Owen, an American journalist who has lived in London for 13 years, talks about the "prodigious" output of the BBC. The statistic often quoted is that for every hour of the day, the BBC puts out 40 hours of programming. (That's not just news, of course. The BBC has been responsible for everything from Monty Python to the Teletubbies.)

Owen, who spent 20 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and later directed the Freedom Forum's European Center in London, is executive producer of News Xchange, a nonprofit that hosts international broadcast journalism conferences. He says the BBC used to be criticized for being too concerned with what the government of the day might think and, like other public broadcasters such as the CBC and Australia's ABC, the BBC is now under attack from the government for being critical. In his view, the organization is "the strongest that I can remember it."

The BBC's critics have been much more vocal since the outlet has faced Lord Hutton's scrutiny. But Owen and many others say the BBC is big enough and strong enough to take a hit. "The idea that the BBC is somehow in crisis as a news organization is grossly overstated," Owen says. "It's still an incredibly fine news organization that has dwarfed the rest of the world in terms of its international reporting."

On May 29 at 6:07 a.m., BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan revealed provocative information about the British government's behavior in putting together a September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons capabilities. Gilligan did so in the form of a two-way, an interview, with "Today" radio program host John Humphrys.

At issue was a claim in the dossier that Iraq could deploy some of its weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to do so. Gilligan reported that some in the intelligence community were unhappy about using that claim. "What I have been told," Gilligan said of his information from an anonymous source, "is that the government knew that claim was questionable, even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier."

That statement--along with Gilligan's subsequent column in the Mail on Sunday, a tabloid, in which he fingered Alastair Campbell as the one who forced the claim into the dossier--sparked an unprecedented battle between the BBC and the government. Campbell and the Blair administration launched an attack on the BBC, as well as an investigation into who had been Gilligan's source. The BBC staunchly defended its reporter, and only later did it, and Gilligan, admit that mistakes were made. Gilligan told the Hutton inquiry that his error was a "slip of the tongue" and that he should have scripted the report. Gilligan should not have said the government knew it was inserting false information in the dossier. Campbell, meanwhile, resigned.

Stephen Claypole, who worked for the BBC for 12 years and also was managing director of APTV, says the BBC was right to defend itself against a ferocious attack by the government. Many observers agree. "Unfortunately," Claypole says, "they made the stand with a piece of journalism not entirely without merit, but flawed."

The allegation that the government falsified the intelligence has not been corroborated. But many harbor questions of the government's actions, particularly with no WMD in sight, and strongly support Gilligan and the BBC.

Peter Oborne, political editor for The Spectator magazine, says he agrees with long-standing charges that the BBC is left-wing, pro-Europe and anti-American (Oborne is a Tory commentator). But nevertheless he praises it as "the greatest news organization in the world." He regards Gilligan as "a great hero" and says the BBC story was 90 percent true. "Gilligan obviously overstated his case, but not that badly," Oborne says. "When you're breaking a story...getting no help from anyone...90 percent is not bad at all."

A lot of the arguments as to who was right and who was wrong are more about politics than journalism. The consensus gleaned from interviews for this story is that Hutton will criticize the government and the BBC, most harshly Gilligan, but that the news organization will move on without long-term damage to its credibility--albeit minus a few employees and with a little tightening of editorial control. Mosey says the policy of allowing correspondents to write columns for outside publications is being reviewed and most likely will be changed.

Certainly the Hutton inquiry created an opportunity for critics to pile on. The amount of commentary available in the British press on the episode is astounding. The Daily Telegraph, owned by Hollinger, launched a "Beebwatch" to point out instances of perceived bias. Conrad Black, until recently the company's chief executive, went so far as to call the Beeb "the greatest menace facing the country."

A less emotional analysis was conducted by the think tank Cchange, Conservatives for Change. Its 72-page report examines five years' worth of the BBC current-affairs program "Panorama" and the BBC's coverage of a single political issue, whether grammar schools should be retained or abolished. The report, available at www.cchange.org.uk, argues not that the BBC is pro-Labor and anti-Conservative, but that there is a set of political values--anti-free market, anti-business, anti-U.S., antiwar--shared by those who work there and evident in BBC reporting.

Nicholas Boles, director of Cchange, says a left-wing bias is apparent in the choice of subjects and interviewees, and also in how views are characterized. (An example under the report's "anti-U.S." category criticizes a December 2001 program on the CIA for saying that "following 11 September the US 'burned with anger and demanded revenge.' ")

Boles says that the type of people who want to work for a large, public-service journalism enterprise are usually of the liberal persuasion. But, he says, the BBC needs to do a better job of recruiting staffers of different political beliefs, and the oversight structure (a board of governors, picked by the government yet considered part of the BBC) needs to include an outsider.

"Panorama," as a current-affairs program, is designed to have more of a point of view than a straight newscast. Boles' complaint is that it doesn't present strongly opinionated programs from the right. "Nobody would have any objection to this at all, to institutional bias existing, if it was a private company," Boles says. "If that was the BBC's position, that would be absolutely fine. But it's not. We're all forced to pay for the BBC whether we like it or not."

As a public-service broadcaster, the BBC is funded primarily by a license fee paid by everyone in the U.K. who owns a television set. The 116 pounds a year (about $197) from color-set owners and 38.50 pounds ($64.45) for those with black-and-white TVs make up 94 percent of the BBC's income for its domestic broadcasts.

Because the public has a vested interest in what the BBC does, there's a lot of love for the organization--and higher expectations. "The good side is people feel they own this organization," Mosey says. "The down side is that it means that we are singled out."

With more competition from broadcast media, the BBC has faced a tougher road in its mission to provide something that commercial outlets cannot and yet something for everyone in the British public. In a multichannel, digital television world, arguments about the justification for the license fee will only increase.

The BBC's John Simpson hopes the recent episode simply reinforces a commitment to basic, fair journalism. "What I hope is that all of this Hutton inquiry business will make the BBC go absolutely right back to its roots, back to basics, and that we will absolutely be clear in our minds that we shouldn't do these things, we shouldn't give any particular twist to what we are saying either in favor of something or against it," he says. "But it's not easy to do."

It's also not easy to judge what is fair and impartial, what is bias, what is a different viewpoint. When Matt Frei told me about Tony Blair's antiwar town hall meeting, he said Blair had been mauled. Mosey said he did really well. A few people encouraged me to take a look at an interview of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by BBC correspondent David Dimbleby. The view was that Dimbleby hit Rumsfeld with much tougher inquiries than the U.S. press did and clearly tore the defense secretary to shreds. Maybe I was expecting too much. I thought Rumsfeld skillfully handled the questioning.

So much is in the eye of the beholder.


Editorial Assistant Zenitha Prince provided research for this story.

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