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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While Damazer graciously admitted that the BBC "make[s] mistakes," most of those mistakes were distinctly unfriendly towards the coalition. For example, on April 3, after U.S. troops had taken control of the Baghdad airport, Andrew Gilligan (remember that name) reported on the BBC World Service and on the BBC website, "Within the last 90 minutes I've been at the airport. There is simply no truth in the claims that American troops are surrounding it. We could drive up to it quite easily. The airport is under full Iraqi control." That was Gilligan's story, and the BBC was sticking to it--until another correspondent pointed out that Gilligan was not, in fact, at the airport, but U.S. troops quite clearly were.

Two days later, on April 5, Gilligan reported, "I'm in the center of Baghdad, and I don't see anything. But then the Americans have a history of making these premature announcements." At roughly the same time, CNN was broadcasting pictures of the 3rd Infantry driving through the center of Baghdad. By April 11, even the intrepid Gilligan could no longer maintain that the coalition was not in control of Baghdad. So instead he argued that Baghdadis were experiencing their "first days of freedom in more fear than they have ever known before"--that is, that they felt less safe than they had under Saddam. The prime minister's office shot back, "Try telling that to people put in shredders or getting their tongues cut out."

But it's unfair to single out Gilligan: His colleagues were spinning just as egregiously. For instance, on May 15, John Kampfner filed a story in which he called the April 1 rescue of POW Jessica Lynch "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." The U.S. Special Forces troops who rescued her "knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital." The Pentagon, he claimed, "had been influenced by Hollywood producers of reality TV and action movies" to the extent that the troops had actually gone in firing blanks to make the rescue more dramatic on tape.

This should have struck any professional war correspondent as implausible, to say the least. As a U.S. official deadpanned to the Washington Times, the Navy SEALs who rescued Lynch "are not the type of guys who carry blanks." In fact, an investigation by NBC News found that "the so-called blanks were actually flash-bang grenades used to stun and frighten hospital workers and potential resistance." Hospital workers also told NBC that the Iraqi military had used the basement of the hospital as a headquarters, and that top brass had left only six hours before the raid. And while there was no fighting inside the hospital, there was a firefight between soldiers guarding the hospital perimeter and Iraqi paramilitaries.

Of course, BBC spin usually comes in more subtle forms. The use of scare quotes on the BBC website, for example, often betrays a remarkable contempt for the coalition. When Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed by U.S. troops last month, the website blared, "Saddam sons 'dead'" and "Iraq 'deaths' will have huge effect." The next day, having come to terms with the fact of these deaths, the BBC moved on to questioning their value: "U.S. celebrates 'good' Iraq news." And, as Christopher Hitchens noted in a perceptive Slate essay, you can no longer depend on BBC journalists even for proper pronunciation. The Beeb's announcers habitually mangle Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's last name (pronounced exactly as it looks) to make it more Jewish-sounding: Vulfervitz.

Hitchens isn't the only one who has noticed something not quite kosher in the BBC's treatment of Jews. The Israeli government, responding to a persistent demonization which it says "verges on the anti-Semitic"--including a documentary which erroneously claimed that the Israeli army uses nerve gas on the Palestinians--recently announced that it would no longer cooperate with the BBC in any way. Israel does not impose similar sanctions on any other news organization.

In the midst of all this controversy, Greg Dyke, the director-general of the BBC, took time to, yes, criticize the American media. "Personally, I was shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during this war," he told a University of London audience. The fragmented American television industry, he said, has made the White House and the Pentagon "all-powerful with no news operation strong enough or brave enough to stand up against it." What a contrast to the bravery of the BBC! But as sometime BBC commentator Janet Daley wrote in the Telegraph, "BBC staff often say proudly that it is their responsibility to oppose whatever government is in power. Well, actually, it isn't. . . . Examination and analysis are the business of tax-funded journalism. Opposition is the business of mandated politicians."