The BBC boasts, often with legitimacy, of the impartiality it brings to the coverage of the news. But now what happens when the worldâ€™s most respected broadcaster becomes the news. This drama is now a thriller with a Judicial Inquiry already announced with the Prime Minister Tony Blair volunteering to testify.
The Judge Lord Hutton has announced he will move quickly and in the open. The BBC, which initially was silent on charges that Kelly was its principal source in a story suggesting that the Blair Government had “sexed up” an overly alarmist dossier making the case for war with Iraq now says, yes, indeed, Kelly was their source.
There is a daily dance underway between a probing media that seemed to have lost its spine in the “fog” of war only to find it in all the discrepancies in official pronouncements about missing weapons of mass destruction, and a public that grows more skeptical by the day. Meanwhile the government gets squirmier and testier by the hour, insisting it was right all along and that the media, especially the BBC, has got it wrong, wrong, wrong.
Many believe that this trashing of the BBC emanates from the pique of a disgruntled politician like Blairâ€™s media advisor Alistair Campbell, or is meant only to shift attention away from the WMD controversy. The Times of London calls it “a weapon of mass distraction.”
If the BBCâ€™s credibility can be seriously damaged, its global power ands political impact can be circumscribed. So far most of the media coverage of this latest controversy is focused on the issues in the foreground, not the interests in the background.
There is more at stake.
WHY THE ATTACKS ON THE BBC?
A week ago, a study came out from
That shouldnâ€™t surprise.
Led by its effective business oriented manager Greg Dyke, a partisan of the New Labor movement headed by Blair, the BEEB is a vast corporation that usually functions as a member of the establishment in good standing. The BBC rarely goes to war against the government of the day.
Despite the evidence in the new study, Conservatives, as well as I am told on good authority, Labor politicians and elements of the British military, charge that the BBC was anti-war, hostile to the British forces, and one-sided.
They seem determined to do something about it.
While the opening shots in their attack are being pegged to a current issue, there is a longer-term strategy behind it that does not seem well understood. Like many conflicts, this one began with a news story, and an incident. But that may only be a pretext for a more insidious strategy.
THE CONFRONTATION BEGINS
History, deceit and small-mindedness in high places has now cast the Beeb (or “Aunty “as it is known), the worldâ€™s most respected and self-important broadcaster) into an adversarial role. The governmentâ€™s spinner in chief Alistair Campbell, (“Tony wouldnâ€™t know what to do without me,” he is quoted as saying) is accusing BBC of bias in general by falsely alleging that he was involved in “sexing up” a dossier that was used to justify and sell British involvement in the war. He demanded a retraction and apology.
At issue is a report by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan who had a high placed source confirming that information in the renamed “dodgy dossier” justifying the war had been doctored. The BBC responded by standing by the story, and saying that there would be no political journalism in the country if every story had to be based on several sources. The BBC insisted its source was credible and could be trusted.
THE NEWS DEPARTMENT HANGS TOUGH
The BBCâ€™s own Board of Governors, led by a former Intelligence chief reviewed the issue and backed the judgment of BBC News which prides itself in its impartiality. News chief Richard Sambrook is hanging tough, charging that the government had tried to steer coverage during the war and otherwise was intimidating journalists.
In a l0 page letter to
That is some rating and share. No broadcaster in the
THE WAR OF WORDS
Blood has been boiling on all sides. The war of words is intense, but privately the BBC doesnâ€™t seem to understand why the government is keeping alive an issue that it clearly canâ€™t win with the public. The highly credible BBC is prized by one and all for its independence and, hence, is no easy target for a government with shrinking credibility.
At the same timeâ€¹the BBC IS under attack, but not just from the usual suspects. Leaders of the Labor government and the conservatives which usually oppose each other are now joined at the hip in sharpening their ice-picks. Their real intentions are not being played out in the public arena. This harkens back to the l996 Communications Reform Bill in the
THE BBCâ€™s FCC-LIKE THREAT
As is often the case, what is really going on may be lurking in the background in the political machinations surrounding the debate over a new communications bill just like it was in
At least one prominent
The situation in
When passed it will open the door to US companies like Clear Channel and Disney and Viacom to buy up British media properties. A Blair advisor, Ed Richards, is credited with inserting provisions into the communications bill opening the door to the American media companies who have been lobbying
Not surprisingly Richards was later appointed to the OFCOM board which will, by the way, be allowed to operate without Parliamentary accountability. Chairman Currie has already opposed calls that the new agency allow citizens needs to come before business interests.
So far the BBC has been mostly exempted from “oversight” by this pro-business body. But critics of the independence and power of the BCC want to change that. They say the BBC has a political agenda without revealing that OFCOM does too.
Sound familiar? A regulatory body that identifies more with the industry than the public interest! Politicians who advocate for media interests becoming regulators that favor those interests! The Campaign for Broadcasting and Press Freedom in
THE BBC IS CONSIDERED
What does this mean for BBC? It means that just as the right in
Significantly, the BBCâ€™s charter comes up for renewal in 2005. Already, The Tories (Conservatives) are calling for a reduction in the license fee that TV viewers here pay and which subsidizes the BBC. They are pushing a subscription fee instead which will have the effect of turning a national broadcaster into a niche channel. If the fee is cut sharply, it could cripple the BBC.
The BLAIRites of Labor are joining in with some BBC bashing of their own. Labor MP Gerald Kaufman now wants the BBC to be fully accountable to Ofcom, a clear sign of what political role that body is setup to play. Another Labor MP, Chris Hill, who used to work for the BBC, compared the BBCâ€™s annual report to “an Enron Annual Report” implying corruption. Kauffman went further demanding that BBC journalists not even be allowed to write for newspapers charging Gilligan wrote “bellicose, contentious, controversial articles with animadversions on individuals.” “Animadversions”?
The politicians are trying to chip away at the integrity of BBC journalism. No government wants a really independent news body. (Most independents in other countries are really “dependents”â€¹forever seeking funding and distribution. The BBC has that.) In the short run, they are resorting to intimidation. In the longer run, if they can get away with it, they will use regulation and deception just as they have in selling the war. This whole attack on the BBC will be sold in the name of giving British viewers more choice. More for less! That is how attacks on quality programming are always disguised.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
While BBC journalism is being debated, the power of the BBC as a sustainable institution is what is really at stake,
In the private sector media companies and their backers in Labor and among the Tories, also want the BBC to be tamed. Steven Barnett argues in the Observer that the BBCâ€™s best hope is with Labor, but that may be the case given their affinity for the private sector. He explains that the BBC is not like PBS in
The difference is enormous. Ordinary people in
More importantly, BBCâ€™s mission is still high-minded. “Our purposes is to enrich peopleâ€™s lives with programs and services that inform educate and entertain,” says its charter. “Our vision is to be the most creative organization in the world.” No
This doesnâ€™t mean the BBC is beyond reproach. Far from it, their own Governors released a statement indicating that “we have ten key objectives where we think the BBC can do better.” Among them are reaching younger audiences, serving ethnic minorities and “the underserved.” There is continuing and often heated debate within and without the BBC about how well it is doing. TV critics frequently skewer their shows as they do programs on other channels. Financially, the BBC has a big debt and has already sold off its buildings in a complex lease back deal set up by a
AS BBC GOES GLOBAL, GLOBAL PLAYERS GO FOR THE BBC
For years now the BBC has pursued a corporate strategy of its own to demonstrate efficiency and pay its bills, which include generous salaries and perks for, executives. It has created many profitable enterprises including the commercial BBC World that hopes to launch as a 24 hour channel in the
When many Americans turned to the BBC for less jingoistic war news, The Corporation realized they were being given a business opening. BBC understood that it could do very well competing head on with US channels. Amazingly enough, more people now watch BBC shows in the
The big media companies are not unaware of what all this means. What BBC sees as an opportunity, they see as a threat. Remember their religion has little to use for “visions,” “values” and public interest missions. They are driven only by self-interest worshipping the bottom line.
BBC just released a 2003 annual report showing that annual revenues grew to $5.63 BILLION last year, Worldwide sales were up 16%. They hope to earn TWO HUNDRED MILLION pounds by 2007. That is a lot of money. A lot of money. No wonder US and British media companies are motivated to see BBC Å’s growth checked, broken up, or even privatized.
All of this money and power will likely now become a target for government regulators like the merry men of OFCOM who want to contain public enterprises and serve those avaricious private businesses who would love to slice off some of BBCâ€™s market share. If they perceive the BBC competing with them, they will compete with it. And they play dirty whenever they can get away with it.
MURDOCH AT THE READY
A long time BBC basher, Rupert Murdoch, a big supporter of the Bush-Blair Iraq war is not disinterested. He may be angling to buy a lucrative terrestrial TV station like Channel 5 (he already owns SKY News and satellite stations.) I was told that virtually the entire Blair government attended a party for an outgoing editor of The SUN, Murdochâ€™s tabloid newspaper known for the topless page 3 girl and dishing out reactionary slogans to the working class This right wing press lord has been a big Blair electoral backer. Not surprisingly, it was Blair loyalists in the House of Lords who killed a proposed amendment to the bill proposed by Moviemaker and now Lord David Putnam to stop Murdochâ€™s ambitions.
Also as a new ITV merger threatens between ITN and
Also interested in a British Channel is AOL Time Warner and others global media giants The Media Guardian this week carries a profile of Michael Lynton, the head of AOL in Europe. In it, he pitches himself for a job at BBC. Read between the lines. “I would love to be involved with broadcasting. The market here is a more interesting one than the
For “Innnovation,” read privatization, You can imagine how AOL type “innovation” could “enrichâ€™ (read decimate) the culture and quality of the BBC.
And one more ominous note:
In September, the Royal Television Society is holding a convention in
BBC Director Greg Dyke is moderating.
But the lead speaker is none other than Mel Karmazin, the one-time radio ad salesman who now runs Viacom, Infinity Broadcasting and CBS, His biggest claim to fame is as the media exec who unleashed the serial sexist shock jock Howard Stern on American culture. Mel has never known a media tradition he was not anxious to dumb down.
Todayâ€™s winners can easily become tomorrowâ€™s losers.
It seems to be logic of these times.
Just as “Old labor” was displaced by New, so the old BBC can be, shall we say, “modernized” by the marauders of the market.
Donâ€™t say it canâ€™t happen here.
In his latest book, BBCâ€™s star news correspondent John Simpson writes “The BBC has changed utterly and out of all recognition since day I first went to work there on 1 September l966. And yet at the same time, it remains essentially the same organization with the same basic values that it always had. I donâ€™t believe it has lost its wayÅ .”
Donâ€™t rest on your laurels John: That “way” is now at serious risk.
Danny Schechter edits Medichannel.org . His latest book is “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How The Media Failed to Cover the Iraq War (available in PDF format www.mediachannel.org/giving)
– Danny Schechter Executive Editor, Mediachannel.org the world’s largest online media issues network with 1080 affiliates. Please sign up for our free weekly email newsletter.