Foreign Policy

Beyond David and Goliath

The strange status of the British Broadcasting Corporation


David Kelly is dead, but there's no consensus on whom to blame. The British scientist had been the BBC's anonymous source for its report that the government had "sexed up" its dossier on Iraqi weapons, making Saddam Hussein out to be more of a threat than he was. When the government outed him as the source, he denied it and then died, apparently by his own hand. The BBC's foes claim that it misreported Kelly's comments, misrepresented him as a "senior intelligence official," and thus bears some responsibility for his death. The network's defenders argue that it made no substantial misstatements, that it was doing its job in exposing public misdeeds, and that if anyone deserves the blame it's whichever officials decided to point the finger at Kelly.

Needless to say, where you come down on this issue has a lot to do with how you feel about the war with Iraq. But there's something else going on here as well, a series of past conflicts that lend form to these dueling narratives. The BBC has been around for 80 years, ever since the British government decided that a publicly subsidized monopoly would be better than the "chaos" they saw in pre-FCC America. (A radio transmission, they argued, was essentially a telegram, and the state already ran the telegraph system; therefore, it should run the radio as well. Q.E.D.) The network has a long history of tangling with the government that finances it, fending off efforts both to chip away its monopoly and to censor its coverage of sensitive stories.

For an example of the former, go to the 1960s and the BBC's battle to suppress an unexpected surge of competition: the popular pirate radio stations that broadcast from international waters. (This culminated with a 1967 law enjoining British citizens, especially advertisers, from aiding or abetting the pirates.) For an example of the latter, go to 1985 and the home secretary's efforts to block a documentary deemed too sympathetic to Sinn Fein. (The show was first yanked from the air entirely, then broadcast in reedited form.) The BBC is simultaneously independent and dependent, protectionist and enterprising, a gatekeeper eager to protect its privileges and a crusader for free expression. So when Kelly died, each side already had a long-established narrative conveniently waiting. You could attack the Beeb as a crusty old monopoly abusing its power, and you could defend it as a sprightly underdog speaking truth to power.

The funny thing is that it isn't really a monopoly anymore: It's subsidized and it's privileged, but it's just one voice in a global media din; anyone who depends on it for news does so by choice. What's more, it isn't really a force for free speech either: For every time it tangled with the authorities, there's a moment when it cautiously censored itself. The BBC is neither David nor Goliath—it's more like a Methuselah with a trust fund.