- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

In the end, the only real surprise was that the BBC was so surprised. As the corporation’s news programs digested the findings of the Hutton Report, the tone of the TV and radio coverage veered from the hysterical to the self-pitying. If ever there was proof the BBC needed reform, it came in the slanted reporting of its own failures.

There were one or two honorable exceptions: the “Hard Talk” show, for instance, delivered stinging criticisms of the Beeb’s editorial practices. But for the most part, the corporation circled the wagons, encouraged by sections of the anti-Blair press.

In the weeks before the report was published, commentators had assured us senior judge Brian Hutton would prove a staunch defender of the public good. Once it became clear he was not going to send Tony Blair to the Tower of London, his lordship was instantly converted into an Establishment toady. The rewrite of history would have done credit to George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

How anyone at the BBC can have been caught off-guard by Mr. Hutton’s report is beyond belief. Watching events unfold over the past six months reminds me of one of those “Looney Tunes” episodes where Wile E. Coyote runs headlong over a cliff and carries on, blithely galloping across the clouds, oblivious to the force of gravity. Sooner or later, reality catches up with him.

Last week, the corporation’s chiefs came crashing to Earth on the sidewalk outside Broadcasting House. As I wrote in this paper at the end of August, it was obvious Andrew Gilligan and senior management would be condemned by Mr. Hutton. Only the wilfully blind (which is to say, 99 percent of the Stop the War movement) could have failed to see the bad news coming.

While it seems mildly surprising the government got off quite so lightly for its handling of some of the intelligence material, the fact remains that the Beeb was always the main defendant in this particular trial.

So don’t shed any tears for Auntie. What happened last week was the culmination of years of arrogance and high-handedness. Where it once used to be a reasonably objective public service broadcaster, the organization has turned into a shrill offshoot of the Guardian editorial page, its left-wing worldview disseminated through an increasingly tabloid-based style of reporting. It is a fatal combination.

As a former BBC journalist myself, I don’t believe most BBC journalists are corrupt people, or that they go out of their way to doctor the news. But the depressing truth is that most of the organization’s producers and its movers and shakers live in an extraordinarily narrow world in which they only socialize with like-minded people. They genuinely find it hard to believe other people may hold different views. In their universe, it is taken for granted George W. Bush is an unelected war criminal, America is a land of gun crazies, and all conservatives sleep with a copy of “Mein Kampf” tucked under their pillow. (If truth be told, they are not really all that wild about the Democrats either — too capitalistic, you see.)

It is still possible to find good reporting on the publicly funded airwaves. The new digital channel BBC4 carries a thoughtful newsmagazine aimed at grown-ups rather than celebrity-watchers. Only a few days ago, Radio 4’s early-evening current affairs program ran an interesting and balanced item on the debate over the Patriot Act. But it is a sign of how poor most of the output is — even on the once nonpartisan World Service — that many of us are taken aback to hear reporters achieve any sense of balance.

The coverage of David Kay’s testimony to Congress was another example of the corporation’s sloppy house-style — all bold headlines and no nuance. Whole battalions of reporters line up to tell us how bad things are in Pennsylvania Avenue and downtown Baghdad, yet the dismal truth is that the nearest the BBC comes to giving a rounded view of American politics is in Alistair Cooke’s “Letter From America.” And Mr Cooke is a good 30 years past retirement age.

The BBC can survive, but only if it reviews its role from top to bottom. Too much of its general entertainment output is mass-market dross. It needs to go back to thinking in terms of quality, even if that means it no longer pursues the big audiences.

There is, too, a lesson for the British media as a whole. The BBC’s decline did not happen in a vacuum. Its weakness for the lowest common denominator reflects the growing tabloid mentality of journalists, editors and program-makers across the country as a whole.

As the competition among daily papers and broadcasters grows fiercer, tendentious reporting becomes the norm and program-schedulers serve up more tediously repetitive reality TV shows. British media types like to blame America for the dumbing-down of British culture. Sadly, the natives are doing a pretty good job of trashing the place all on their own.

Clive Davis is a writer for the London Times.

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