Behind Blair vs The Beeb

LONDON: We have all been following the dramatic developments in England where a former UN weapons inspector took his own life warning of “many dark actors playing games.” This is a political story with a media back story. It pits the BBC and the Blair government with other “dark actors” waiting for cues off stage.


The BBC boasts, often with legitimacy, of the impartiality it brings to the coverage of the news. But now what happens when the world’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 Blair’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.”


It isn’t.


The Iraq war may be over but the BBC is in the cross-hairs of a new low intensity war. Most of the British press has yet to realize that this new battle of Britain is more than a case of shoot the messenger.


If the BBC’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.




A week ago, a study came out from Cardiff University that found that the BBC, contrary to the impressions of some (especially those in the US who compared its war coverage with what passed for journalism on the tube here) was NOT in the bulk of its coverage anti-war but, rather, pro-government and tilted towards the war.


That shouldn’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.




History, deceit and small-mindedness in high places has now cast the Beeb (or “Aunty “as it is known), the world’s most respected and self-important broadcaster) into an adversarial role. The government’s spinner in chief Alistair Campbell, (“Tony wouldn’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 BBC’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 Campbell, he wrote: “Our responsibility was to present an impartial picture and you were not best placed to judge what was impartial.” The BBC prides itself on being a “trusted source” and claims that 93% of the UK population watched the war on the BBC in the war’s first two weeks.


That is some rating and share. No broadcaster in the US can claim such viewer loyalty. Also I can’t remember either the last time a news executive in America took on a government so directly. It’s been thirty years since the Watergate revelations and Pentagon Papers battle pitted US media power against political power.




Blood has been boiling on all sides. The war of words is intense, but privately the BBC doesn’t seem to understand why the government is keeping alive an issue that it clearly can’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 time‹the 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 US when Democrats and Republicans closed ranks behind legislation in the name of promoting more competition. As we now know, it lhad the opposite result, triggering more media consolidation. It was later revealed that the media companies poured contributions into the coffers of key legislators on both sides of the aisle who gave them what they wanted.




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 America. I am referring to the fact that American media companies were lobbying the Republican dominated FCC for concessions while covering its war. Few broadcasters wanted to pick a fight with the Bush Administration when so much money was riding on regulatory changes.


At least one prominent US media critic now says that media companies were “kissing the Administration’s ass” by downplaying war criticisms. The FCC rewarded their loyalty with the new rules the companies wanted. One of its rationales was war related. As expressed by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s son Michael who chairs the FCC, only big companies could report on wars like the one on Iraq.


The situation in England is not exactly the same but here too a new Communications “reform” bill is about to be approved setting up a new media regulatory body. Significantly David Currie, the head of the new regulatory body called Ofcom recently held consultations with Powell in Washington this summer. A British government which just coordinated its foreign policy seems to doing something similar with its media policy.




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 London like they do Washington.


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 Britain is organizing against this corporate sell-out. It is an uphill battle.




What does this mean for BBC? It means that just as the right in America with is targeting “liberal media” polarizing attacks centrist public service media like the BBC are being challenged in the UK.


Significantly, the BBC’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 BBC’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”‹forever 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.




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 BBC’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 America or ABC in Australia, which he describes as “minnows in their respective countries, cowed, underfunded, and ill prepared for serious battle with the governments that decide their future.”


The difference is enormous. Ordinary people in Britain spend an average of 16 hours and 21 minutes a week tuned into some BBC service. We are not talking about some small time TV station here. It is a powerful and independent, paid for by license fees. According to the 2003 BBC annual report, “The BBC broadcasts 8 network television and l0 network radio services as well as 22 TV and 46 radio services for audiences in the nations and English regions.” World Service just marked its 70th birthday. Its history is impressive, and its brand is increasingly global.


More importantly, BBC’s mission is still high-minded. “Our purposes is to enrich people’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 US broadcaster even pretends at such a mission or make a claim like this: “trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.”


This doesn’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 US investment bank.




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 US this year.


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 US than watch TV l, their lead channel in Britain.


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 BBC’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.




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, Murdoch’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 Murdoch’s ambitions.


Also as a new ITV merger threatens between ITN and Granada, the British broadcasting environment is changing rapidly. This must affect the BBC’s future.


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 US because the opportunity for innovation is a lot more substantial.”


For “Innnovation,” read privatization, You can imagine how AOL type “innovation” could “enrich’ (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 Cambridge titled “The End Game: Winners and Losers in the Digital Decade.”


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.


Watch out Britain.


Today’s winners can easily become tomorrow’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.


Don’t say it can’t happen here.


In his latest book, BBC’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 don’t believe it has lost its wayÅ .”


Don’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.


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