There has been a vast amount of handwringing about the Hutton report on the BBC, including by some of our own fine writers, who seem to feel that the report is somehow a threat to the independence of the BBC. As far as I can tell, it just says the BBC had some lame editorial practices – like misquoting and mischaracterizing sources, not seeking confirming sources, and a general tendency to present the news in such a way that agrees with institutional bias.
This evaluation of the matter by Gerard Baker of the Financial Times is a bit overwrought in the other direction, but to me speaks more truth than the weeping BBC advocates, who see “independence” as meaning contrary to any government that doesn’t share its worldview. What I find most telling and humorous about htis whole debate is the ASSUMPTION that just because Hutton didn’t find what they wanted him to find is somehow prima facie evidence of a “whitewash” or a “cover-up.”
- FOR THE LAST WEEK, much of Britain has borne witness to an outpouring of grief the like of which has not been seen since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. When Baron Hutton of Bresagh, knight of the realm, Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, a hitherto rather inconspicuous retired member of the British supreme court, delivered his much anticipated report at the end of January on the death of Dr. David Kelly, a British government weapons expert, a collective howl of anguish went up from the well-upholstered parts of the media establishment.
Lord Hutton concluded that Tony Blair, the British prime minister, was not guilty of lying about the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction when he made the case for war more than a year ago. Nor had he or his government “sexed up,” in the immortal phrase, intelligence information about the nature of the Iraq WMD threat. The prime minister had been accused of both in a notorious report by the British Broadcasting Corporation that aired in late May 2003.
By contrast, Hutton’s report found the BBC profoundly guilty. The original story by its reporter, Andrew Gilligan, that the government had deliberately inserted a false claim into a published document concerning Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, was unfounded. Worse, the BBC had failed to ensure proper editorial procedures to prevent such an erroneous report from being broadcast. Then, without having properly checked the story, the BBC’s management refused to back down from the report even though some of its own editorial staff were quietly expressing concern about its reliability.
….The Hutton Report was, to read the British media, the Night of the Long Knives, the bonfire of the vanities, and the Cultural Revolution all rolled into one hideous assault on cherished press liberty.
If you live in the fantasy world of self-adulation and preening pomposity of high-powered liberal journalists, I suppose the aftermath of the Hutton Report might seem like that. But for those who have to toil in the less sensational world of reality, the unassuming 72-year-old peer may just have done the world one of the greatest services in the history of journalism and public broadcasting.
For Lord Hutton has exposed, from the pinnacle of independent judicial authority, the fatal flaws at the heart of the world’s largest broadcaster. His report has confirmed what critics have argued for years: that the BBC, once one of the cultural treasures of the English-speaking world, has lost its way.
EVEN AS IT PROJECTS its unrivaled resources further around the globe, including the United States, where its news programs are now seen in millions of homes, and its entertainment channel, BBC America, advances on cable networks, its reputation for quality public service broadcasting and objective and fair news is sinking rapidly.
Its news is increasingly tinged by the corrosive liberal bias that permeates so much of the global media. Its reporters and editors share a worldview that would sit perfectly with the denizens of the New York Times, and they hold the same conviction that theirs alone is an objective account of the truth.
Its vaunted public service ethos, the tradition that over the years produced original and creative drama, entertainment, and comedy, has been traduced and subordinated to commercial ambition. It uses the vast resources it receives from a compulsory tax on everyone in Britain who owns a TV set to muscle out privately financed competitors.
….Quite why this single story and its follow-ups had the capacity to inflict so much harm on the reputation of the prime minister might seem a puzzle to American readers. But the fact is that the BBC occupies a position in British public life quite unlike that of any media organization in the United States or, indeed, in the free world. It runs several TV channels, including two all-news services, and several all-news radio networks. It has two 24-hour global news networks. Its main news shows on TV and radio reach upwards of three-quarters of the British people every week.
What is more, with Britain’s print media being politically partisan, the BBC’s past reputation for impartiality has made it much more widely trusted than any competitor. Imagine the influence of the main American TV networks, PBS, CNN, Fox News, National Public Radio, the New York Times, and the newsweekly magazines all rolled into one and you have some inkling of the reach of this giant.
….The BBC’s coverage of the Iraq war itself marked a new low point in the history of the self-loathing British prestige-media’s capacity to side with the nation’s enemies.
Its Middle East coverage is notoriously one-sided. Its pro-Palestinian bias is so marked that recently the London bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post refused to take part in any more BBC news programs because he believed the corporation was actually fomenting anti-Semitism. If anti-Americanism is on the rise in the world, the BBC can take a fair share of the credit; much of its U.S. coverage depicts a cartoonish image of a nation of obese, Bible-wielding halfwits, blissfully dedicated to shooting or suing each other.
Its suppositions are recognizable as those of self-appointed liberal elites everywhere: American power is bad; European multilateralism is good; organized religion is a weird vestige of unenlightened barbarism; atheism is rational man’s highest intellectual achievement; Israel (especially Ariel Sharon) is evil; Palestinians (especially Yasser Arafat) are innocent victims; business is essentially corrupt, or at best simply boring; poverty is the result of government failure; economic success is the product of exploitation or crookedness. And so on.
This will be familiar to consumers of news in much of the United States. Liberal media bias is by now, fortunately, increasingly widely recognized. But the difference is that BBC bias is so much more powerful and much more pernicious because the BBC is still seen by viewers and listeners, in Britain and around the world, as objective. And when the BBC conveys its slanted views of the world, there is very little means of checking and correcting it.
….The great virtue of Lord Hutton’s devastating indictment is that it represented for the first time an independent verdict. The editorial failings it criticized, the tendentious reporting it identified, the massive bureaucracy it exposed, and the troubling strategic vision that underlay it all demand a radical change at the BBC, if the organization’s reputation is to be restored. [Weekly Standard]