overthinking the idiot box

October 31, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in...

London Calling
Why, Mr. Murdoch, I do declare!

by C.J. Quinn

Welcome back, wilkommen and bienvenue, my American chums. It's shaping up to be a great autumn in TV over here, let me tell you: I'm looking forward to casting my beady little eye over the BBC's new all-star adaptation of Bleak House (now with 100% more Agent Scully than that boring old Dickens original!), sighing lustfully over the spectacle of Jamie Oliver bouncing round Italy in a decrepit camper van, and checking BBC News 24 regularly to see how many more disasters Mother Nature can throw at us all before the year is out.

Speaking of which, now that I'm back from hiatus, I'd like to share with you an interesting little tale of hurricanes, politics and media institutions that may have slipped under the radar over the pond a little last month. While you guys, I assume, were more worried by the mess Hurricane Katrina left than by how that mess was being covered in the foreign media, your friend and mine Tony Blair was, once again, standing shoulder to shoulder with you. How do we know this? Because Rupert Murdoch, disgustingly rich media uberlord, chairman of Fox News, owner of British BBC-rival channel Sky, and fount of all that is true and pure, said so!

Do let me explain. Last month Murdoch, speaking at a seminar in New York hosted by Bill Clinton, let slip the following little gem: "Tony Blair — perhaps I shouldn't repeat this conversation — told me yesterday that he was in Delhi last week and he turned on the BBC World Service to see what was happening in New Orleans. And he said it was just full of hate for America and gloating about our troubles." Don't you just love that coy little "perhaps I shouldn't repeat this"? Why, Mr Murdoch, I declare, you are just too scandalous!

Murdoch's revelation made front-page news here — to fully appreciate why, one has to dig back a bit into the BBC's troubled relationship with the Blair government. On this occasion, in a frenzy of off-the-record briefings and counter-briefing, both 10 Downing Street and the BBC tried to play the story down, keen to avoid the appearance of continuing all-out war between the government and the Beeb. The sordid origins of that ongoing war date back at least as far as the 2003 suicide of Dr. David Kelly.

Kelly was an intensely shy, retiring scientist who worked for the Ministry of Defence, and had also been an UN weapons inspector in Iraq. In May of 2003, Kelly had an off-the-record conversation with the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan about the veracity of the government's claim (prior to the invasion of Iraq) that Saddam could have long-range WMD ready to fire in under 45 minutes — Gilligan subsequently broadcast a report on BBC Radio 4's Today programme claiming that the '45 minute claim' had been inserted into the government's Iraq dossier by Blair's then spin-meister Alastair Campbell, rather than by intelligence sources. On July 17th, two days after being called to testify in front of a Parliamentary investigation into the claims, Kelly was found dead from an overdose of painkillers in the woods near his rural home.

It seemed that the grand old dame of public broadcasting had weathered the storm fairly well: one poll later showed that two-thirds of Britons still trust the BBC, while less than a third trust Tony and his cronies to tell us the truth.
The fall-out from the Kelly affair dragged on for months here, and culminated in an independent inquiry led by Lord Hutton, which concluded that no one involved could have foreseen or prevented Kelly's suicide, although Hutton's conclusions were popularly regarded here as a whitewash absolving the Ministry of Defence and the Government of blame. In the wake of the Hutton inquiry two of the BBC's top people resigned, yet, overall, it seemed that the grand old dame of public broadcasting had weathered the storm fairly well: one poll later showed that two-thirds of Britons still trust the BBC, while less than a third trust Tony and his cronies to tell us the truth.

What does all this old skullduggery and backroom briefing have to do with Rupert, Tony and Katrina? Rather a lot, as it happens. The Kelly affair seemingly convinced many in Blair's inner circle that the BBC a) hated them and b) hated America, seeing as the BBC seemed to be keen on any story that threw doubts on the American WMD justification for the invasion of Iraq. Thanks to Blair's keenness to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with Bush, yea, even unto the very gates of Baghdad and Basra, questioning the American government has come to blur in the minds of some in Blair's government with criticising Blair. Because Blair's reputation has become so firmly tied to what Bush does, Blair cannot stomach the slightest criticism of the Bush administration, but rather than admit that, he conflates 'the Bush administration' lazily and inaccurately with 'America'. Where does Murdoch fit into the picture? Well, whose Fox News channel similarly conflates Bush's flavour of Republicanism with 'the American way'? And who likes to provide a slightly less critical spin on Bush and Blair's Big Iraq Adventure, via Fox News on your side of the pond and the ever-patriotic tabloid The Sun on our side? Why... Rupert! Fancy your name coming up again!

The problem with Blair playing the 'blame the BBC' game, of course, is that bias, like beauty, is all in the eye of the beholder. As a media junkie, I tend to follow major news stories in the print media, online and via TV, and so I'm happy to report that I didn't see any difference between the way the aftermath of Katrina was reported by the BBC and by newspapers like The Independent, or by American online news outlets such as CNN. At every turn, the same stories, the same angles: rumours about what was going on in the Superdome; amazement and genuine horror at the way the poorest and most vulnerable had been left to fend for themselves in New Orleans and beyond; shock and anger at the federal mismanagement of such a major natural disaster. Nowhere did I detect a hint of gloating: indeed, both the BBC and the British press asked whether what Katrina had wrought was a foretaste of what more of us might yet experience, if global warming predictions come true.

Should one conclude that when Tony says the BBC is full of hate for America, what he really wants to say is that it's full of hate for him?
When Murdoch made his remarks, a BBC spokesperson said that "the BBC's coverage of the Katrina disaster was committed solely to relaying the events fully, accurately and impartially - an approach we will continue to take with this and other stories", and noted that while the BBC had received 8 calls from the public praising its Katrina coverage, it received no complaints at all. I myself saw numerous letters to the papers from American expats, and from US residents, voicing their appreciation of the BBC's thorough and even-handed Katrina coverage, after Murdoch's remarks were publicised. Should one conclude that when Tony says the BBC is full of hate for America, what he really wants to say is that it's full of hate for him? As Jonathan Freedland, columnist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, noted, what does it say about Blair that on seeing such shocking images of destruction and human suffering, "his ire was stirred by the messenger, not the message"?

The role of a public service broadcaster as massive and well-established as the BBC, funded by the government yet claiming complete journalistic independence from it, will no doubt continue to raise questions here, even beyond the lifespan of the Blair administration. For now, the latest skirmish in the Blair-Beeb war appears to have died down, although, with the opposition Tory party currently trying to elect a new party leader, one of the candidates this week jumped on the 'blame the BBC' bandwagon to claim the Corporation's coverage was biased towards his front-runner opponent. It may yet prove that attacks on the BBC's impartiality can actually serve the British electorate as a useful warning: if a politician claims the BBC is spinning against them, then what, exactly are they trying to spin their way out of themselves?

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