The Magazine

The Disgrace of the BBC

From the August 25, 2003 issue: Unfair, unbalanced, and afraid.

Aug 25, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 47 • By JOSH CHAFETZ
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Oxford, England

EVERY YEAR, every household in Britain with a color television set has to pay a licensing fee of approximately $187. The resulting $4.3 billion constitutes 90 percent of the annual $4.8 billion domestic broadcasting budget of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Inspectors from the TV Licensing Agency patrol neighborhoods using wireless detectors to attempt to pick up the "local oscillator" signal from a television in use. Anyone caught using a TV without a license is subject to a fine of up to $1,600. It doesn't matter if you watch TV once a month; it doesn't matter if you heartily disapprove of the BBC's editorial direction (or, indeed, its existence); it doesn't matter if you think the Beeb hasn't produced anything worth watching since "Fawlty Towers" went off the air in 1979: You still have to pay.

What do you get for your money? The typical American might think of "Masterpiece Theatre" and high-toned pronunciation. But that's only if you've missed the spectacle of the BBC's institutional meltdown this year, which is theater of a different sort and not nearly as edifying. The plot runs as follows: The BBC has accused Tony Blair's Labour government of dishonesty in making the case for war with Iraq. The government has accused the BBC of dishonesty in making the case against the government. The anonymous source for the key BBC report--a scientist employed by the Defense Ministry--has killed himself. And a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death is now under way in London, at the request of the government--roughly the equivalent of an independent counsel investigation.

The testimony so far has not been flattering to the BBC (or the government). Charges and countercharges of corruption fill the front pages of the papers. (Had TV cameras been allowed into the Royal Courts of Justice, where the witnesses are testifying, the BBC might have unwittingly produced and starred in a hugely popular reality TV show.) It turns out that what a captive audience gets from a media megalith with a government-enforced subsidy is exactly what a beginning student of economics would predict: The BBC may be arrogant, but it's also incompetent, not to mention surly and evasive when criticized.

THE WAR IN IRAQ has left in its wake a string of embarrassments for the BBC that have many questioning its privileged status. Throughout the war, the BBC was consistently--and correctly--accused of antiwar bias. These accusations began almost as soon as the fighting did, when the BBC described the death of two Royal Air Force crew members, after their jet was accidentally downed by a U.S. Patriot missile, as the "worst possible news for the armed forces." On March 26 (less than a week into the fighting), Paul Adams, the BBC's own defense correspondent in Qatar, fired off a memo to his bosses: "I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering 'significant casualties.' This is simply NOT TRUE." He went on to ask, "Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving 'small victories at a very high price?' The truth is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and costs still relatively low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected." Outside critics were even blunter: They revived the nickname "Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation," a coinage from the first Gulf War, when BBC broadcasts from the Iraqi capital were censored by Saddam's government without viewers' being notified.

"What makes the BBC's behavior particularly heinous," noted Douglas Davis, the London correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, "is the relentless indulgence of its penchant for what might be politely termed 'moral equivalence' at a time when Britain is at war with a brutal enemy and its servicemen are dying on the battlefield." Mark Damazer, the deputy director of BBC News, did nothing to dispel that kind of criticism when he said (in a speech to Media Workers Against the War, no less) that it would be a "mistake" for BBC journalists to use the word "liberate" when referring to areas now under coalition control. Stephen Whittle, the BBC's controller of editorial policy, piled on, telling his journalists to refer to the armed forces as "British troops" and not "our" troops.