July 06, 2003

THE BBC IS IN TROUBLE, according to this in The Times:

For this affair has left the BBC dangerously exposed. It has served as a catalyst, allowing diverse complaints about its news coverage to resurface simultaneously. The Beeb has been accused of, among other matters, fanatical suspicion of the motives of those in power and unrelenting hostility towards the Conservative Party. It has been attacked for a wholesale scepticism about capitalism, combined with a weakness for quack environmentalism and health-scare speculation over hard science.

Reporting the Middle East, it sometimes seems so remorselessly anti-Israeli that Mr Dyke might as well be open about it and allow his reporters to appear speaking Arabic, riding a camel, stopping occasionally to suck from a long pipe in a crowded souk.

Put bluntly, the BBC, a public sector bureaucracy funded by a poll tax, with a privileged status that looks starkly anomalous in an age of hundreds of television channels and thousands of radio stations, needs more friends. It is already detested by other broadcasters, derided by the print press for squandering its vast resources and damned by publishing houses for its increasingly aggressive marketing activities in their domain.

If the BBC wants to retain its privileged position when its charter is due for renewal in 2006, then it must construct a coalition of supporters broader than the Liberal Democrats, Friends of the Earth, Friends of Yassir Arafat, the sort of people who believe that taking an aspirin will inevitably result in limbs falling off and its own staff. It requires mainstream allies as well. . . .

The old consensus that Auntie should be preserved and protected is fraying; the contention that “something must be done” about the corporation is acquiring serious credibility.

Simon Jenkins wrote about the BBC on this page recently, teasingly comparing its excesses to Cardinal Wolsey’s but vigorously defending its “right to be wrong”. This was once the stance of virtually all reasonable and respectable people (plus Simon); it is no longer. The “right to be wrong” is not the same as the liberty to be a law unto oneself.

Indeed. And where will it find those mainstream allies? Nowhere, if its narrow bias continues. This piece in The Telegraph agrees:

Whatever the outcome of the present battle between the BBC and the Government, it does serve to throw attention on the state of the BBC. The BBC has been a bad joke in its news and public affairs broadcasting for several decades, but, in the way of the world, no one notices until his own ox is gored. . . .

The BBC mandate is to be independent of the government of the day and to be objective in its reporting. For a long time, the BBC has been captured by one end of the political spectrum and, with negligible exceptions, all the people who work for it.

They have handled the corporation, especially in news and current affairs, as if it were the party organ of Labour's Left wing or, at best, the Fabians. This would be acceptable in French public television under a Socialist government, but it is a breach of trust in Britain.

Instead of fuming about it, as Blair and Campbell are doing, or sending dossiers to Greg Dyke, as the Conservatives have, it would be more useful to work out what can be done with an organisation that has lost all even-handedness. Objectivity can't be maintained by inviting a few Right-wingers to be guests on the many BBC programmes putting America on trial.

How about ending the public subsidy and letting the private sector take over? The likelihood that a major, state-subsidized entity with considerable political clout can actually be objective and fair over the long term is so small that it would seem better to drop the pretense, and to quit subsidizing the political views of the New Class under a threadbare cloak of public service that no longer fools anyone but the gullible.

UPDATE: Susanna Cornett comments:

It's a classic case of how bias develops in the media, and how those who are at the center of it can't see it - they perceive themselves as edgy and unaffected by ideology. The reality couldn't be more different.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Shanti Mangala writes: "Pretty damning for such a prestigious news agency, I should say!"

Click below for more, from a British reader who has followed this closely:

A brief tour d'horizon | Broadcast | BBC man criticises 'war bias'

Paul Adams, the BBC's defence correspondent who is based at the coalition command centre in Qatar, complained that the corporation was conveying a untruthful picture of how the war was progressing.

Adams accused the BBC's coverage of exaggerating the military impact of casualties suffered by UK forces and downplaying their achievements on the battlefield during the first few days of the conflict.

"I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering 'significant casualties'. This is simply not true," Adams said in the memo.

"Nor is it true to say - as the same intro stated - that coalition forces are fighting 'guerrillas'. It may be guerrilla warfare, but they are not guerrillas," he stormed.

"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," Adams continued.

Click here: | Special reports | HMS Ark Royal switches off BBC

Military leaders have axed the BBC from the nation's flagship amid claims of pro-Iraqi bias.

The navy has switched off rolling news channel News 24 aboard HMS Ark Royal following weeks of grumbling from the crew.

Sailors on the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier currently in the Gulf have become increasingly disenchanted with the BBC's slant on the war.

NEWS | Entertainment | TV and Radio | Dyke slates 'gung-ho' war reports

BBC director general Greg Dyke has warned of the risks of crossing the line between patriotism and objective journalism.

He said impartiality meant giving a range of views, including those that were critical of the government.

"We are here for everyone in the UK, a trusted guide in a complex world.

"We perform this role best by exercising the freedom to air a wide range of opinion and to report the facts as best we can. In doing so, far from betraying the national interest, we're serving it."

The director general also rejected criticism from the government for keeping a BBC reporting team in Baghdad, saying: "The whole culture of BBC journalism is based on the drive for accurate and impartial reporting.

"And we must never allow political influences to colour our reporting or cloud our judgement. " - Saving
Private Jessica - Jun. 20, 2003

The hospital staff also said that on the night of March 27, military officials prepared to kill Ms. Lynch by putting her in an ambulance and blowing it up with its occupants, blaming the atrocity on the Americans. The ambulance drivers balked at that idea. Eventually, the plan was changed so that a military officer would shoot Ms. Lynch and burn the ambulance. So Sabah Khazal, an ambulance driver, loaded her in the vehicle and drove off with a military officer assigned to execute her.

"I asked him not to shoot Jessica," Mr. Khazal said, "and he was afraid of God and didn't kill her." Instead, the executioner ran away and deserted the army, and Mr. Khazal said that he then thought about delivering Ms. Lynch to an American checkpoint. But there were firefights on the streets, so he returned to the hospital. (Ms. Lynch apparently never knew how close she had come to execution.)

[To understand what a slap in the face this is regarding BBC Correspondent John Kampfner's earlier report that the Lynch rescue was fake, and that Lynch was never in danger, read this and this, and maybe this.]

The Scotsman - UK - Army joins assault on BBC's war

ARMY chiefs last night joined the attack on the BBC over its accuracy in reporting the war in Iraq, accusing it of painting a distorted picture of the British campaign.

Senior figures in the army are furious about the BBC’s coverage, which they say bears no relation to events on the ground. They are particularly angry about suggestions in a BBC documentary, broadcast on Sunday night, that the army embellished reports of a militia attack on Iraqi citizens for propaganda purposes.

The row comes at an awkward moment for the BBC, which has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street communications director. The BBC had accused Mr Campbell of spinning an intelligence report to improve the government’s case for going to war, but he looks set to be cleared of those accusations by a Commons inquiry.

The militia attack came as British forces were trying to secure Basra and ended with a number of civilian casualties, including a woman who was seriously wounded and had to be rescued by the army.

Last night, an army spokesman said: "We are disappointed that the BBC attributes our reporting of the incident that happened on the bridge into Basra as propaganda. What we believe to have happened on the ground was as reported. This was nothing to do with the propaganda value or otherwise."

Privately, senior army figures are less diplomatic. "I do find it very depressing the way the BBC are heading," said one senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I think this is part of the wider problem that the BBC has at the moment.

"This documentary series is getting more and more negative and seems to imply that everything that we do is for propaganda purposes. The BBC are determined to paint the war in a negative light." | Special reports | BBC's war coverage was 'too

A senior BBC news executive has warned that the corporation's "credibility is on the line" with overseas audiences, because it shies away from showing shocking war images on its international news channel.

The deputy director of BBC news, Mark Damazer, said this had led to BBC World showing one version of the recent war in Iraq, while other news channels such as Arabic service al-Jazeera were broadcasting something completely different.

"We've been too static and our credibility with international audiences is on the line. BBC World is showing one thing and other channels around the world are showing something different," Mr Damazer told the MediaGuardian forum on war coverage today.

"I don't think our credibility has been shot to pieces around the world yet. But I think there's a significant problem. I think in this country we need to examine our own values and criteria," he added.

"Our Anglo-Saxon sensibility, unlike continental Europe, never mind al-Jazeera, means there's a feeling that close-up shots [should not be used], that there are other methods by which we can tell the story." | Special reports | BBC man curried favour

Fawning letters written by Rageh Omaar, the BBC's correspondent in Baghdad during the Iraq war, trying to curry favour with the director of Iraq's ministry of information, were published last night by the Times newspaper.

According to documents uncovered from the ministry, Omaar wrote effusive letters to Uday al-Taie, who was responsible for allowing foreign correspondents into the country and was close to Saddam Hussein.

After one trip, Omaar wrote: "After promising and promising to have dinner with you for such a long time - we finally did it.

"Alhamdullilah!!!! For me, this was the main achievement of my visit."

The BBC said the letters showed him behaving in an entirely professional manner. | Special reports | BBC boss admits 'daily' mistakes in Iraq

Mr Damazer said allegations by the anti-war lobby that the BBC had become "shackled" by the government and military were "profoundly ill-judged and unfair".

"Although it's unquestionably true that we make mistakes, and on a daily basis, we don't only make them in [a pro-war] direction," he added, speaking last night at a meeting of Media Workers Against the War. [Emphasis added]

Mr Damazer admitted one of the areas where the BBC had made mistakes was in its use of language, but that it was seeking to put this right.

"If we have used the word 'liberate' in our own journalism, as in 'such and such a place had been liberated by allied forces', that's a mistake," he said.

"That is the wrong language to use without evidence of Iraqi people feeling as though they have been liberated," Mr Damazer added. | Special reports | BBC editorial rules spark accusations of anti-war bias

BBC journalists have been instructed to reflect anti-war opinion in their reporting of the impending war in Iraq, under guidelines issued by the corporation.

The controller of editorial policy, Stephen Whittle, has told staff that even once a war is under way, opposition voices should be given airspace, provoking concern over an anti-war bias at the BBC.

"We must reflect significant opposition in the UK (and elsewhere) to the military conflict and allow the arguments to be heard and tested. Those who speak and demonstrate against war are to be reported as part of the national and international reality," Mr Whittle said.

He also warned that the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" should be used with care, for fear of causing alarm.

"If we say they have been used, we should be absolutely certain of the fact. If their use is rumoured only, our reports must not be alarmist or excited. The possibility of their use is to be discussed calmly," Mr Whittle said. BBC reporters have also been told to test the reliability of information from government press briefings, while the armed forces are to be referred to as "British troops" and not "our troops", because BBC reports are broadcast around the world.

But the Conservative culture spokesman, John Whittingdale, accused the BBC's management of allowing its own views on the war to affect coverage. "People inside the BBC who are opposed to the conflict are imposing their own views," he told the Times. | Special reports | BBC bans news stars from anti-war march

Senior BBC news presenters such as Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce and journalists including Andrew Marr have been ordered by bosses to stay away from Saturday's anti-war march in London.

The BBC deputy director of news, Mark Damazer, yesterday sent an email to newsroom staff listing which categories of journalist should not attend the march and rally in Hyde Park.

These include all presenters, correspondents, editors, output editors and "anyone who can be considered a 'gatekeeper' of our output".

Mr Damazer said he was allowing more junior staff to attend the march but only in a "private capacity with no suggestion that he or she speaks for the BBC".

--S.E. Brenner