Whose News?

Is the BBC reporting breaking stories? Or telling morality fables?


"Last night while listening to my wind up radio," wrote one of Glenn Reynolds' readers in Michigan on Friday, "on comes the 'authoritative' BBC voice. Their headline was that the power outage was causing 'chaos' in several American cities." Of course, the major American angle on the blackout was just the opposite: that there was no chaos. Nevertheless, a visit to the Beeb's Website would have revealed an image package labeled, "In Pictures: Blackout Chaos."

"The international press," wrote peeved blogger Daniel Drezner in response to last week's overseas coverage, "seems bound and determined to ignore the absence of disorderly conduct during the blackout." Drezner, Reynolds' reader, and others were sounding a familiar theme: foreign coverage of anything involving Americans is usually negative and frequently inaccurate.

Of course, it doesn't particularly matter to Americans what most of the international press says about anything. The obvious exception is the BBC, which has in recent years gone from being the model of reliable international journalism, and the premiere arbiter of what the news is on any given day, to being the subject of an extremely contentious story about itself. That story centers on charges of cheap anti-American bias; the squawks over the BBC's "Blackout Chaos" angle are only its latest wrinkle.

In fact there's reasonable doubt about how "biased" the Beeb's blackout coverage was last week: The sudden absence of traffic signals and street lights, of subways, of refrigeration, etc., may well come under the heading of "chaos," without necessarily suggesting that Americans were suddenly running amok. Nor was the BBC alone in trying to hype its story. I watched a newswoman on an American cable network doing a standup from Cleveland, where, she said, traffic had been hopelessly jammed. Unfortunately for her report, the intersection where she'd set up no longer had any cars in it. Drivers had organized themselves out of the mess, leaving the streets completely clear. To compensate for an image of total calm, she carefully described how clogged the intersection had been an hour earlier, when she had arrived with her crew. Hers was a report that refuted itself, and it was a lot sillier than the BBC's evocation of "chaos."

But weighing the nuances of a single word misses the point of the BBC's situation. In journalism, your effectiveness is defined—and limited—by your reputation. You can run breaking stories all day, but if you haven't established readerly trust, no one will pay your stories any attention unless they're picked up by another outlet with a more "authoritative" voice. Establishing such a voice takes years; blowing it takes no time at all. That's why, when a scandal involving credibility strikes a major newspaper, as it did The New York Times recently with the Jayson Blairstory, or The Washington Post years ago with the Janet Cooke hoax, those institutions will devote page after page after page to internal investigations. They obviously need to wash their sins in an excess of their institutional virtues.

The BBC's troubles are more complex than either of those scandals. Not that the issue of credibility isn't hanging in the balance; the investigation into a story by reporter Andrew Gilligan concerning the purported "sexing up" of a British dossier related to the Iraq war, and that story's relationship to the suicide of biowarfare expert Dr. David Kelly, is continuing.

Among other problems, the BBC has been miring itself in cases of alleged bias in its narratives, and indeed in disputes involving its moral perspective. Josh Chafetz, writing in The Weekly Standard, cites numerous instances of bias, especially those involving war reportage. (Among the memorable examples are Andrew Gillgan's statement on April 9, as American troops were entering Baghdad, that "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.") Chafetz quotes Douglas Davis, the London correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, on the Beeb's war coverage: "What makes the BBC's behavior particularly heinous," said Davis, "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."

The perception among critics in the U.S., however, transcends equivalence. For many, the BBC has abandoned its once-celebrated efforts at neutral news narratives, especially in stories involving the United States, and has instead adopted a moral "meta-narrative" in which Americans consistently play the role of villain. Meta-narratives, by their nature, can quickly come to characterize any single story. Thus, even ambiguous cases, such as whether there was or was not "chaos" during the recent blackout, emerges as another perceived example of BBC moralizing and characterization. In short, many Americans are now primed to hear not "news stories" from the BBC, but rather "moral fables" in which they are the inevitable blackguards.

People who regard themselves as demonized tend to react badly, and in fact Americans are now busily characterizing the BBC in return. Reynolds' reader at the beginning of this story, for example, undercuts the BBC's stature by putting the term authoritative in quotes. Writers such as James Lileks have been subjecting the BBC's tone to withering sarcasm: "I'm unsure how it's possible to sneer the entire time you're speaking. I fear the announcer's face will stay that way." Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, wonders if he isn't also sniffing a bit of anti-Semitism in the BBC air. Many critics (not just Americans) have set up Websites devoted to critical examination of almost everything the BBC posts or utters; you can check out some of their remarks here, or here, or here, or here, or here.

Morality fables beget counter-fables, a cycle that cannot be halted with a splashy investigative report. The problem hardly threatens the BBC, which is underwritten by British subjects through coercive taxation; Reason assistant editor Jesse Walker aptly described the Beeb recently as "neither David nor Goliath—it's more like a Methuselah with a trust fund." At stake is mere trust.