The British Invasion: Many Americans Searching for a Different View of the War in Iraq Turned to the British Broadcasting Corp. Does the BBC Offer a More Aggressive and Complete Approach to the News, or a Tilt to the Left-Or Both?

By Robertson, Lori | American Journalism Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The British Invasion: Many Americans Searching for a Different View of the War in Iraq Turned to the British Broadcasting Corp. Does the BBC Offer a More Aggressive and Complete Approach to the News, or a Tilt to the Left-Or Both?


Robertson, Lori, American Journalism Review


The British Broadcasting Corp. can certainly relate to American media outlets in one stark way: The radio and television behemoth has been embroiled in a journalistic controversy that threatens to damage its credibility, change the way it does business and, most likely, result in the ouster of a few employees.

For media buffs, the New York Times' springtime of discontent segued nicely into the BBC's summer of the same. A governmental inquiry led by Lord Hutton explored the events surrounding the suicide of David Kelly, a weapons expert who was an anonymous source for an explosive BBC report on the British government's claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The radio segment, by correspondent Andrew Gilligan, charged the government with "sexing up" a September 2002 dossier and further alleged 10 Downing Street knowingly inserted a false claim that Iraq could launch its WMD in 45 minutes.

Soon Kelly was identified as the source of that report. Shortly thereafter, he told his wife he was going for a walk and never returned. His body was found the morning of July 18.

While American news audiences didn't see much coverage of the inquiry, the British press was full of front-page stories, loads of commentary and, in the broadcast media, reenactments of the proceedings. Internal e-mails, reporters' notes and the diary of Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy, were brought forth as so much dirty laundry, and neither the government nor the BBC came off looking particularly good. The Hutton inquiry even set up its own Web site, www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk, to give the public a look at the mounds of testimony.

Says John Tusa, former managing director of the BBC World Service: It "made the summer riveting."

Hutton's final report won't be released until late December or January, providing more time for speculation on how badly it will criticize the BBC's journalism and the government's political maneuverings.

But beyond the shared experience of having its credibility on the line, the BBC is quite different from the American networks. There's the sheer size--41 overseas bureaus, 3,700 news employees. There's the public confidence--yes, confidence. The British tend to trust the BBC more than the government, not less. They reserve the bulk of their cynicism for politicians instead of reporters. The BBC even has not one, but two cute little nicknames--Auntie, or more commonly, the Beeb.

During the war in Iraq, reportorial differences became distinctly recognizable. The BBC was more likely to be accused of being an enemy of the state than a patriotic cheerleader. A number of American viewers and listeners, dissatisfied with what they saw on the U.S. networks, tuned in or logged on to the BBC Web site in search of a different journalistic tack. Viewership of the BBC World News bulletins, aired on public broadcasting stations in the U.S., rose 28 percent during the early weeks of the war.

Not everyone was handing the BBC kudos, however. Criticism has been vehement, particularly since the launch of the Hutton inquiry, and the BBC for years has faced charges of a left-wing bias. During the Iraq war, conservative commentators such as Andrew Sullivan took to calling the organization the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC's interviewing tactics, a source of pride, are more brazen and aggressive than what is normally seen on American networks. At times, though, one man's hard-hitting interview is another's ambush.

Whether critic or fan, most can agree on one thing: The BBC provides a different approach, one not always found in the U.S. media.

Roger Mosey, head of television news at the BBC, talks about some of the criticisms launched from the United Kingdom toward U.S. networks--most have called the American reports shockingly unquestioning, particularly those on Fox News Channel. Mosey credits Fox with enlivening what had been rather dull American television, in his view; however, he adds: "The problem is that Fox, I think, has unquestionably moved the whole center of gravity rightwards. …

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