Can We Trust the BBC?

Mark Steyn writes a review of the book "Can We Trust the BBC?" in the Wall Street Journal. As a producer who's produced programming in about 40 countries around the world, I've always been interested in the influence of the BBC vs. their political perspectives on issues. If you're interested in media influence, the issue is important, because of the political perceptions major media has globally. The BBC is a huge entity, and their generally anti-American, left leaning stance, has implications – especially today, in the Islamic world. Interesting stuff.

Tales From Inside the Beeb

Bernie Goldberg, British-style: A former BBC reporter questions the political predilections of a media enterprise that is unrivaled in its global reach
May 5, 2007; Page P10

Despite the 24/7 quagmire wallow of CNN International (which makes CNN domestic look like the Michael Savage show), the rolling news network founded by Ted Turner is still seen around the world as, believe it or not, "American." The truly globalized broadcaster remains the BBC.

[Can We Trust the BBC?]

In spring 2002, when I was at the Hyatt in Amman, Jordan, the BBC was the channel that the big-shot Saudi sheikhs and Gulf businessmen preferred to watch over breakfast in the eighth-floor executive lounge. A few days after, I stopped for lunch at a café in Fallujah, Iraq, and, in what felt like a faintly parodic courtesy to the only Western imperialist in the joint, mein host made a great show of switching the TV from al-Arabiya to the Beeb. I certainly wouldn't have asked him to. It was an endless succession of sneering interviewers with skeptical eyebrows arching extravagantly out of frame as they grilled former assistant deputy assistant secretaries of state down the line from Washington about how badly everything was going. Three out of four questions seemed to begin with, "But surely you don't seriously expect us to believe . . . "

A couple of weeks later, channel surfing back in London, I found myself mesmerized by a game show on BBC4 in which the four male contestants had to remove the brassieres of the four female contestants without using their hands. I used to be able to do this myself, but frankly I'm a little rusty and was eager to bring myself up to speed.

Yet, as miscellaneous noses and teeth nuzzled and gnawed at clasps and underwiring, I found myself oddly distracted: Talk about a public service! The government exacts a levy from the citizenry in order to fund shows in which blokes compete to be the fastest at getting the bras off the birds. That's to say, in the United Kingdom anybody who owns a TV set is obliged to pay an annual license fee of some $200 in order to fund the BBC and save Britain from the lowbrow morass of American-style commercialized broadcasting, with its endless parade of idiotic soaps and witless quizzes, according to the Beeb's defenders. Like those ladies' embonpoints, quality broadcasting is not self-supporting. So, lest you consider defaulting on the poll tax, fleets of "TV detector vans" roam the land to catch you in the act of watching telly without a license. Big brother is watching you watching "Big Brother."

When a chap writes a book called "Can We Trust the BBC?" I think it's a safe assumption that the answer is unlikely to be "yes." So I trust you won't regard it as a plot spoiler if I reveal that, at the end of his brisk tome, Robin Aitken (a Beeb journalist for 25 years) reveals that, no, you cannot trust the BBC, at least not if you're of a broadly conservative disposition. On the European Union, on the Iraq war, on Northern Ireland, on Islam, on America, the BBC trends not merely well to the left of the Conservative Party but well to the left of Tony Blair's New Labour. Away from the news, its "creative" side is expressed mainly through the usual dreary provocations, such as "Weddings and Beheadings," its laugh-a-minute drama about an Islamist snuff-video cameraman, scripted by Hanif Kureishi, Britain's Oldest Most Promising Young Writer and a man who'll never run out of Beeb commissions. The BBC's privileged position in British life makes its bias of a slightly different order from any U.S. network's.

The British Broadcasting Corp. had a television monopoly until the 1950s, a local radio monopoly until the '70s and a national radio monopoly until the '90s. But it didn't get where it is today without the ability to adapt. As broadcasting was opened up to characteristically British over-regulated competition, the BBC massively expanded. It currently operates eight national TV networks, nine national radio networks, the "national region" stations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, 39 local stations, and an Asian network, plus the BBC World Service (which can be heard in 129 capital cities around the world), 10 international TV networks, and international radio services in 43 different languages, including Kyrgyz and Kinyarwanda.

Unlike the shrunken unmanned Royal Navy, the sun never sets on the BBC empire. As Mr. Aitken points out, 82% of people listen to it every week — and that's just in Afghanistan. The BBC is the world's most popular Internet news site and the third most popular site in the U.S. Last year, I was having a drink with Australia's great foreign minister, Alexander Downer, and, as one does, we got into an argument about Burkina Faso. I demanded to know whether the minister could, in fact, name the country's present head of government. He confessed that, alas, he hadn't been paying as close attention to the affairs of Burkina Faso as he might, pulled out his BlackBerry, went straight to the BBC and read out their comprehensive and authoritative page on the nation. ("Burkina Faso is a poor country by West African standards" — which is a mind-boggling concept.)

No other broadcaster has such a reach. When those butch voices announce the evening news from the ABC-CBS-NBC "world news headquarters," you can't help noticing it's heavy on the headquarters, very light on the world news. As for PBS and NPR, I take a malicious pleasure in the humiliations inflicted on public broadcasting in this country whenever I see the floundering host in front of the silent phone bank urging us to call now because otherwise we'll be denied quality programming like the thrice-weekly Peter, Paul & Mary reunion concert and don't forget, for a pledge of only $200, you'll receive this bonus gift of a Bill Moyers snood. No insulated BBC panjandrum has to sully his lips with so desperate a pitch.

So Robin Aitken's argument rests on the Spider-Man proposition that with great power comes great responsibility. In 1938, the Ameri
can scholar Lincoln Gordon explained that the BBC's privileged position brought with it certain "beliefs appropriate to a British national institution. . . . In domestic affairs they are the monarchy, the constitution, the British Empire and Christianity; abroad, peace sought through the machinery of the League of Nations."

Seventy years on, that list prompts a mirthless laugh from Mr. Aitken. "Only in the BBC's respect for the League of Nations' successor, the United Nations, is there any obvious continuity," he writes. Otherwise the BBC today is antimonarchist and anti-imperialist, and the only constitution it believes in is the one Giscard d'Estaing devised for the European Union. It is avowedly secular and contemptuous of organized religion, with the exception of Islam, which is more organized than most.

When one TV host made some observations about the Arab world's penchant for suicide bombing, amputations, repression of women and a generally celebratory attitude to 9/11 — none of which is factually in dispute — he was yanked off the air immediately and permanently. When, however, the BBC's principal current-affairs morning man called the Catholic Church's attitude to AIDS "outrageous" and "wicked," his words apparently complied with BBC standards of "impartiality." When their arts pundit offered the pensée that "Brooklyn born" Jewish settlers on the West Bank "should be shot dead" because "they are Nazis" and "I feel nothing but hatred for them," he too remained at his post, though the BBC did remark on its Web site that "his polemical, knockabout style has ruffled feathers in the U.S., where the Jewish question is notoriously sensitive." ("The Jewish question"?)

Much of what Mr. Aitken recounts will be familiar to readers of disaffected American-broadcasting insiders such as Bernard Goldberg. But if in the U.S. the soi-disant MSM act in support of the Democratic Party, in Britain the BBC has in essence declared itself Britain's official opposition party. And the market cannot correct an entity constitutionally protected from it. After a brisk trot through the Beeb's one-sided coverage of Europe, Ireland and the war on terror, Mr. Aitken concludes wanly that they need to "hire more journalists from right-wing newspapers."

That won't happen, and it would make little difference if it did. The correct answer is to split up the Beeb. A broadcasting behemoth funded by compulsory levy is unjustifiable in an age of ever multiplying narrowcast niche markets. The BBC is the most zealous proponent of a multicultural society — except when it comes to a monolithic national broadcaster. And even Mr. Aitken can't quite bear to kiss it goodbye.

Mr. Steyn is the author of "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It" (Regnery).

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  1. He is absolutely correct about the BBC. A friend of mine often jokes saying BBCi stands for BBC Islam, and we have a running competition to spot the most ludicrously PC or anti-Israeli report of the week.

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