- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

Before I complain about the American coverage on that august British institution, the British Broadcasting Corporation, I ought to announce the good news first. Two outstanding programs about U.S. affairs were aired this week. The bad news is that they were both made by Alistair Cooke, and one was 30 years old.
I mean no disrespect to Mr. Cooke, who is without question one of the great journalists of our time. I am such a fan of his work, in fact, that on a trip to Manhattan some years ago, I asked a BBC producer friend to show me the studio where, every week the 94 year-old legend records his "Letter From America." He has been filing his avuncular dispatches the modern equivalent of a fireside chat ever since 1946 and shows no signs of giving up just yet.
Twenty years ago, when I worked for the BBC myself, I attended an internal talk given by a Corporation chieftain who, according to the gossip at Broadcasting House, was once given the unenviable assignment of travelling to New York to suggest to Mr. Cooke that the time had come for him to stand aside for a younger man. The word was that the executive took the great man out to lunch in order to soften the blow, but when the crucial moment came, his courage failed him.
Back to England he flew, trying to concoct an excuse for his failure to bring back Mr. Cooke's head in his briefcase. The story sounded so good that I wondered if it was apocryphal (I didn't have the nerve to ask the bigwig himself.) If it isn't true, it still tells you something about the blend of bureaucracy, eccentricity and fundamental decency which won the BBC so much admiration over the years.
And so the "Letter" cruises on toward its 56th anniversary. In the last month British viewers have also had the chance to revisit that landmark television series "Alistair Cooke's America," which has been shown every night on the minority-audience digital channel BBC4. The scheduling has been causing enormous grief in my household, as I have been struggling to remember to set the VCR every night. All the upset and confusion has been more than worthwhile. I was 13 when the series was first aired. Watching it again has been an extraordinary experience.
I wish I could be as positive about the BBC's current news output. Watching and listening to much of it, I can't help recalling the lofty reply that Mr. Cooke received from his superiors when he first proposed the idea of a "Letter From America": "Whilst I think there is a need for the USA to understand the British situation, I do not feel at this stage there is an equivalent need for us to understand the American point of view."
How much has changed since then? The truth is that, particularly in the two years since George Bush took office, the Corporation has often seemed determined to miss the point about the United States and its foreign policy. Instead of trying to understand the driving forces in American life, too many of the TV and radio journalists prefer to view events through the prism of their own European, social democratic prejudices.
Friends visiting from the States Democrats as well as Republicans have noticed this; many have been appalled. I long ago gave up expecting to hear evenhanded reports from Israel, where reporters simplistically ascribe every terror atrocity to the so-called "cycle of violence."
The same lack of balance now undermines many of the dispatches from Washington or New York. It goes without saying that skepticism is an essential tool in a journalist's make-up reporters have a duty to hold any democratic government to account but they should also try applying the same skepticism to their own opinions and instincts. Still wedded to the conventional wisdom that the Toxic Texan is bumbling through his presidency and the War on Terror, the BBC's reporters are busily looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
Of course, everyone has a different idea of what constitutes bias. If the BBC is being criticised from both the left and right which is certainly the case at present then you could argue that it must be following some reasonable middle way. That is the defense usually put forward by the Corporation's World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, whenever he is called to defend his reporters.
Mr. Simpson is a very urbane and articulate journalist who has risked his life on the line in war zones around the globe. But he has also written newspaper columns declaring that the War on Terror is doomed to failure, and at this year's Cheltenham Literary Festival he described George Bush as a man of below-average intelligence who is a "glove puppet" of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
Fergal Keane, one of the Corporation's star reporters, has made similarly harsh comments in his own press column. I wish I could think of a senior BBC reporter who has taken the opposite line, but I can't.
Both men have a right to their opinions, but unless they somehow persuade Alistair Cooke to don a flak jacket and fly to the Persian Gulf, I will be spending even more of my time flicking between CNN and Fox News in the coming weeks. It goes without saying that John Simpson loathes Fox he has described it as "dysfunctional, grotesquely patriotic and embarrassing" so the network must be doing something right.

Britain closes down for the Christmas holiday this week and will not be up and running until well after the New Year. Americans living here are often shocked to find that the country takes its yuletide celebrations quite so seriously. It would be nice to think that religious zeal lay at the root of all this. But goodness, as Mae West might have said, has nothing to do with it.
The real reason is the grim, unrelenting weather: After so many weeks of rain and grey skies, the urge to hibernate becomes irresistible. Christmas has only a tenuous connection with religion here, a point that was brought home to me when I read the main letter in this week's agony column of The Independent. It concerned a lady known only as "Phillipa", who was concerned that one of her offspring was in danger of going off the rails:
"My husband and I are getting very worried because our 14-year-old daughter has suddenly started reading the Bible. It all started with some new religious studies group at school, and now she insists on going to church on Christmas Day. It is incredibly inconvenient because the nearest service is miles away, and obviously we'd have to give her a lift and back, and we have eight people staying."
The agony aunt's reply will be published next week. I can hardly wait.

Clive Davis writes for the Times and Sunday Times of London.



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