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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Auntie's Dingy Laundry

Apparently American criticism of the BBC has caused a certain flutter in some areas. For example, Dr. Frank brings us word that:

British Spin and Harry Steele respond to American BBC-bashing. Both of them hit the heads of many nails.

Those aren't nails, Frank. Those are their thumbs.

It's no wonder that the British don't see the sneering tone Lileks spoke of; if British Spin is any indication, Sneer is a widely-spoken language in Britain:

Quit whining abut the BBC

I mean come on. Forget 60 years of relentlessly clear reporting. Forget the fact that the BBC has never been a simple propaganda tool for the British government, instead aspiring to be something more complex and more ambitious, a reporting of objectivity and fairness of the world around it. BBC reporters dare to be rude to Generals, they question whether things are going well, they curl their lips, they sneer, they pronounce words diferently to Americans, They.. *shudder* give air time to the Iraqi's.

"See here, my good man, we've been at this broadcasting business for sixty years, and we don't need any upstart colonial johnnies to teach us how to suck eggs."

The purpose of reporters is not to lob up soft ones for the masterful politicians to knock out of the ground. it's to ask tough questions, to challenge presumptions, to probe, to push boundaries. What the Warbloggers seem dislike is good journalism, rather than the breathless repeating of lines to take.

I won't say I'm not irritated by the dimwittedness of American reporters' questions. As far as I can tell, the pattern goes something like this:

American: Saddam seems to have spread his forces out, dispersing them among the civilian population. Do you think this will make your job more difficult?

BBC: Now that the Iraqis are prosecuting a guerilla war, aren't you in danger of becoming involved in a Vietnam-style quagmire?

While the former is a stupid question, I don't see the latter as an improvement on it, even though it does "probe" and "push boundaries".

America and the UK are invading a foriegn country. You seriously expect the BBC not to report the official Iraqi reaction in depth?

Swell. Does the BBC curl its lip at Tariq Aziz and ask him where the hell Saddam is? Does it ask him about their little adventures with the human shields? Does it ask him if he can prove that the American dead we saw on Iraqi TV were really Americans, because this is powerful propaganda for him?

Now, I can't watch the BBC anymore (we don't get it on cable). Maybe they are doing that. But during the Afghan war I didn't notice them asking any tough, probing questions of the Taliban's ambassador in Pakistan.

The BBC's finest hour in that regard came when they reported that the Taliban were claiming to have shot down a B-52 but, the newsreader cautioned, they did not place much credence in this claim. I had to laugh. They sometimes uncritically reported some rather ridiculous Taliban claims, but even they weren't buying that one.

It's no wonder British Spin has nailed his own thumb, since most of the rest of his post is flailing at various straw men. The BBC's critics want only reports of cheering, flower-throwing crowds, and not of any bad news. They want censorship!

Ask yourself this question. Despite the BBC's terrible bias, the image of America abroad was incredibly strong 18 months ago. Has the BBC (and their cowardly media allies) become so much more anti-American to drive this? Or just maybe, is the BBC World service reflecting a scepticism about US motives that is shared by virtually every nation outside the USA and asking the questions those people want to see asked?

Possibly the latter. This, despite what British Spin seems to believe, is not a good thing. If the BBC is supposed to remain so impartial as to forget that its British (see below), then it shouldn't be pandering to worldwide paranoia, either, but maintaining an indpendent aloofness. If, of course, they're still hanging on to that glorious higher ambition.

In Sydney I got Fox News, CNN, BBC World, and Sky News Australia. Of those four, the most sensationalistic was of course Fox, but next came the BBC. That's the Beeb's real problem: it is pandering to whatever will pull in the viewers, in fact betraying the impartial legacy that British Spin seems to value so much. When there was sympathy to be milked, they were there. When it was clear there was going to be a war, they jumped on the anti-war bandwagon, until the war was won, and then there was John Simpson, Liberator of Kabul. (No thanks to the bloody Yanks, of course.)

I don't think that the directors of the BBC actually sit around and try to think of ways to make the US look bad, but I do think that the reporters and writers have enough anti-American bias that it can't help leaking through. Or, given the pandering, they don't bother.

Frankly, When I watch Fox and CNN and (to a lesser extent Sky), I'm shocked at how.. gullible they sound. Every uncorrobrated report is carried as if fact, and then completely rowed back from a few hours later without any sense of shame. Call it the Florida syndrome. I'd be surprised if anyone outside the US regards them as a reliable and objective media source.

As he goes on to say, this is just a factor of 24 hour news. While I agree that they ought to be careful about verifying sources and not repeating wild rumors, I don't see that broadcasting early reports, then retracting them, is particularly bad. Certainly it isn't "gullible". I suppose that if you take every word that comes from the TV as carved in stone, you might be confused, but that makes you gullible. Whenever I see something sensational on the TV, I remain skeptical until it's confirmed. Perhaps British Spin should take this approach, rather than regarding whatever the BBC emits as the Word from on High.

(I might add that the BBC had its share of mistaken reports during the Afghan war as well. Perhaps British Spin isn't watching the same BBC I was.)

Oh,. and Sky are now reporting that there is NO Chemical Weapons facility.. So the BBC were right on that one then.

Er, I wouldn't be so quick to gloat over that. There's been precious little information about that. In fact, I always wonder why, of the many tough and probing questions the press could ask at the CENTCOM briefings, they don't ask more about that.

Harry Steele doesn't add much to the debate, contenting himself with urging British Spin on, but he does indulge in a little pop psychology:

I have been pondering what has been behind this sudden wave of criticism of old Auntie Beeb from the blogosphere and, at the risk of going into amateur psychology, I think there are some possible explanations that can be offered:

In the case of Andrew Sullivan a hard right US-based British expat commentator, it is clearly part of his going native ritual.

But for the real Americans I think there are other things at work. For a start the idea that you can have a public broadcasting service which is widely watched, popular and quite often very good, goes against everything that the US right stand for. How can it work? How can people like it? There are no advertisements, the market is not really operating and it is a public venture which is not censored by the state? Surely some mistake?

Ironically they are actually calling for a form of state censorship by constantly harping on about how the BBC are asking tough questions, broadcasting Iraqi statements and even allowing critics of the war to be allowed on to the airwaves. They want the Beeb to broadcast our government's line. Well I think we'll leave that kind of thinking to the Iraqi regime.

Note: Sullivan is "hard right". This is the trouble with some of the British: everyone to the right of Tony Blair is "right-wing" or "hard right".

I don't think many Americans particularly care (or even know) that the BBC is state-subsidized, though I have heard a few use that as an explanation of its bias---a sort of reversal of Harry's explanation, in which the unaccountable, publicly-funded mandarin class (which in normal times includes yours truly) has a bias against societies in which they'd have to get real jobs. An interesting theory, but unconvincing.

Both Harry and British Spin have new stuff up in response to each other questions, and further comment by others, it's more thrashing of straw men. No one expects that various Iraqis or critics of the war not be allowed to speak. But if the Beeb is going to be impartial, it would be nice if they were as "tough" and "probing" with the Iraqis as with the Americans. I guess, in a way, it's a compliment; they have faith that Tommy Franks is not really going to whip out his pistol and shoot them---something you're not entirely confident of with the Iraqis.

In the comments to Harry's post, British Spin says, in part:

I say kudos to the BBC for refusing to be a simple mouthpiece for the British national interst.

Being a mouthpiece for British national interest and for the current British government are two different things. It's admirable that the British government---different British governments over many years---funds a news organization which does not necessarily toe the government line. But surely it's not too much to ask for the BBC to remember that it is British, that they serve the British people, and, yes, ought to consider their interests.

The fact that British Spin is so contemptuous of the very idea suggests that he's one of those people who are so pure as to have given up thinking in terms of nations and their interests.

I have more, but I'll cut this post off now.