Thursday, February 15, 2007

BBC Model in America?

A lot of public broadcasting supporters look across the pond to state funded journalism and cultural programming. They look at Germany, with its monthly fee subsidy on televison and radio sets; they look at the BBC in Great Britain, and wonder how we could get it so wrong.

They have good reason to think that. Let's face it the state of journalism, and broadcast journalism in particular, is at a low ebb. In a recent conversation with Gary Gilson, soon to be the former head of the Minnesota News Council, he said, "Nobody's interested in doing public service journalism anymore. They [the networks] used to pour money into projects. It's over."

Gilson also isn't upbeat about ongoing foundation support, pointing to the Ford Foundation's short lived interest in public interest international journalism, "making the global local" projects and others. And so again, we turn our heads across the pond, and wonder why we in the United States can't adopt the BBC model.

I'm not totally persuaded by the BBC model. I went to German public schools, I have a fine private, international school high school education, I've summered in the south of England. And there's good broadcasting in western Europe. But it's not all good, even though it's heavily subsidized. So I don't buy the argument that subsidies are the answer.

The other thing about the BBC - and any other western European model - is that if the government chooses, it can forbid them to broadcast material. Such was the case with the BBC, just a month after the 9-11 attacks. Prime Minister Tony Blair summoned, to use the parlance of the British newspapers, the broadcast service executives to Downing Street to ask them not to broadcast tapes of Osama bin Laden. Flash forward to May of 2003: on a tip from a fellow journalist, the BBC's Andrew Gilligan meets with Dr. David Kelly, a scientist critical of evidence suggesting Saddam Hussein was capable of producing WMD's. Gilligan doesn't name Kelly as a source, and the government forces the issue, requiring Gilligan to testify and criticizing the BBC for allowing a story to air with only one source to verify that evidence was cooked up in the case being made to go to war in Iraq. Gilligan coughs up Kelly's name, who eventually kills himself in July of 2003.

The government prevents broadcast of the Hutton inquiry on television or radio into Dr. Kelly's death, and his criticism of the evidence used in the case made for the invasion of Iraq. The BBC complies.

Let my inner Bill O'Reilly come out here: that would never happen in America. The government could not make an order like that and get away with it. However, I will concede this: this same story - the furor over the BBC using one, unnamed source to verify fabrication of evidence to make the case for war, the documents that showed high level government officials doctoring intelligence - never made it into the American press for an entirely different failing of the United States, and its not because we don't subsidize public broadcasting.

It's because American journalism is timid, including public broadcasting. And I would argue that public broadcasting can be especially timid because they are so petrified of losing their precious federal dollars that they won't go out on a limb.

Now you could say, that's an extreme example. And there are plenty of examples where the BBC has done robust reporting, from conflicts in Africa to terrorism in western Europe to domestic issues on the island. But it's those singular instances where the BBC shows it's only as strong as its weakest link, and its weakest link is that when the stakes are high enough, the government will tell them what to do, and they will comply.

I have a problem with that, and I don't see the BBC funding model as a panacea for the woes of American journalism. There are too many string attached. There are already strings attached for National Public Radio as the news arm for Voice of America. I have a problem with censorship, even if it happens very rarely. It's never OK for the government to tell an independent press what to say or do, and to say you're independent and comply with the government's orders is hypocritical.

After some reading, I'll post soon about different ideas about freedom of speech. Apparently, not even Americans really believe in the 1st Amendment. Sigh.


Benno Groeneveld said...
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Benno Groeneveld said...

The BBC is not the only one with censorship problems. The 'official secrets act' gives the British government the power to ban ALL reporting on certain subjects, with heavy fines (and I think) prison sentences for media who violate that ban.

I agree that the US media are theoretically/potentially much freer in their reporting. Now all we have to do is give reporters and news organizations spines, a memory (how come John Stewart can show clips of officials contradicting themselves -- see "I never said Iraq would be easy" Cheney and others) AND some knowledge about the rest of the world. Hint: the US system with a chosen president/four-year dictator is not the only political system. There is much to be said for a parliamentary system where the government is constantly being called to account and a government that loses the support of the people and their representatives can actually be removed from power.

Benno Groeneveld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.