A great deal of the current criticism of the British Broadcasting Corporation is based on the BBC’s appalling, biased coverage of the war in Iraq. As the war began and the Coalition invasion proceeded across the desert toward Baghdad, I sat watching French TV and listening to the BBC’s World Service. That’s as close to a state of suspended disbelief as a man can get. As the capital finally fell to the Americans, I made a few notes. Here they are.
“I was wrong.”
Of all the words in all the paragraphs in all the stories ever written by journalists anywhere, the simple inability to utter those three syllables is what distinguishes, say, a Howell Raines from, say, a Michael Kelly.
At the end of the day on April 5, 2003, it was also what finally distinguished the BBC World Service’s coverage of the war in Iraq from what was going on in the real world.
First, a sense of scale: The World Service of the BBC is the planet’s radio station, broadcasting around the clock in virtually every major language, from Arabic to Urdu, to some 150 million people — far more than listen to the Voice of America and CNN Radio combined. While most BBC services are funded from the licensing fees charged to U.K. television and radio owners, the World Service is different: Its annual budget of nearly $370 million comes from a direct government grant funneled through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to whom it is indirectly responsible. In theory, every significant aspect of broadcasting by the World Service must be justified in its annual report in terms of its “Benefit to Britain.” But, in fact, what the World Service does is the World Service’s business. And for the most part its business is largely unknown in England, anyway. World Service broadcasts are intended for those living elsewhere.
For years, most listeners thought that was fine. The BBC World Service was once the great pleasure of ex-pats and traveling Brits, Aussies, and Americans. It seemed to represent all that was great about faraway Great Britain. Fair, careful news broadcasts, offbeat but intelligent radio documentaries about Patagonia, music from Wales, and goofy old guys with their collections of treasured classical music created a broadcast environment that can only be described as “well-upholstered” — the World Service was a decided luxury for those like me who spent a lot of time away from home in places like Africa and India.
But not long ago, and perhaps with some justification, the World Service started taking hits for being too “colonial” in its programming, too British, and not nearly worldly enough. Plus, its numbers started to erode. So the World Service said goodbye to its nutty assortment of odd and unusual radio plays and documentaries. Even “Lilibulero,” the World Service’s jaunty, top-of-the-hour signature tune was faded out. Instead of programs that reflected old-fashioned British virtues (like common sense), the World Service adopted an all-news-and-analysis format meant to reflect modern British values — things like “oneness” and tolerance and, lately, a disdain for all things formerly British, like an instinctive trust in the Atlantic alliance.
Normally, news-oriented programming at a time when British and Americans are involved in a war would be welcome. But the World Service’s revision of focus also coincided unhappily with a key decision announced early in March, as events in Iraq grew hot, by the BBC’s controller of editorial policy, Stephen Whittle. It was Whittle’s wish that corporation broadcasts specifically reflect antiwar opinion. Imposing a point of view on events before they unfold is a bit audacious. But it was done, and as a result, the Whittle Rule had far-reaching, although not perhaps unintended, consequences.
It’s also led to some pretty awful examples of lousy journalistic practices. As the first round of explosions rocked Baghdad, for example, the World Service’s on-air “Middle East analyst” was a chap from the Arab-funded, pro-Palestinian agitprop group called The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) — an affiliation never disclosed to listeners. A rough equivalent: CNN hiring an “analyst” to comment on an invasion of Israel without disclosing the fact that he’s from the Jewish Defense League. So when the World Service anchor asked him for his analysis, the man promptly pronounced the bombardment “an example of pure American imperialism.” Nobody challenged this assertion, was he challenged on any of his volatile comments during what became fairly regular World Service appearances. In fact, during it war coverage, the views of guests like the man from CAABU were very rarely balanced with opposing viewpoints, and World Service anchors almost never offered a differing opinion. Instead, the convention is to ask patently biased “analysts” to simply restate their propaganda in more detail: “So, Mr. Hussein, you think this is an illegitimate war, then?” He did, he does and he will tomorrow, too.
This insistent bias isn’t limited to the World Service’s English-language broadcasts, unfortunately. The all-news Arabic service is perhaps worse-and with consequences far more potentially harmful. As Barbara Amiel has noted in the Telegraph, in the days and weeks leading up to the war, the BBC’s Arabic service offered no “Saddam’s family firm and the political system underpinning it; there has been virtually no discussion of how he keeps control or the role his sons play in the country… no analysis of [Baathist] war crimes…no serious inquiry about weapons of mass destruction or the policy to destroy oil wells.” Instead, listeners were invited to vote on whether the Coalition’s invasion would be legal and “and whether the Americans would be looked on as liberators or invaders.”
In English, Arabic, or any of the other 43 languages used by the BBC World Service, attaching a virulently anti-American viewpoint to one of the most trusted brands in the world has a deep significance. When the Iraqi leadership calls on suicide bombers to attack British and American soldiers, the call goes out over the BBC, without any attempt to deflate the accompanying rhetoric. If a child is hurt anywhere in Iraq as a result of Coalition activity, the World Service is there, broadcasting from bedside and full of sanctimonious fury. You might read about cheering Iraqis greeting troops as they advance through the country, but you will never hear about such a thing on the World Service.
The German newspaper Der Tagespiel recently compared CNN Radio to the World Service. CNN, supported by advertisers, was seen by the paper as a uniquely American broadcaster. The World Service, however, was “UN radio.” The newspaper meant this as flattery, but it might have added that the World Service resembles the U.N. in other ways, too: it’s unresponsive to critics, certain of its virtue, fascinated by radical governments, dependent entirely on taxpayers’ handouts for its survival and, after a while, stupidly self-serious, and profoundly depressing. I know. I’ve been listening to the World Service and nothing else for weeks. I’ve had a full life. I’m ready to die.
Saturday, April 5: this will be the day most people will remember as the day when the journalistic standards of the World Service committed suicide. The BBC’s bad day in Baghdad started early: A column of U.S. soldiers had entered southwestern Baghdad just after daybreak. The soldiers — in tanks and armored personnel carriers — drove through the city for several kilometers encountering only sporadic resistance. Near the university, the column turned left, drove out of the capital and parked at the international airport, which was already securely in American hands. In Qatar, the Coalition command center announced the incursion, saying that elements of the 3rd Infantry had gone into the center of Baghdad. At first, the maneuver was reported as a grab for urban territory. Later, more accurate reports, however, said that it was a demonstration by the U.S. that it could and would enter Baghdad at will.
Cut to: Andrew Gilligan, the BBC’s man in downtown Baghdad. “I’m in the center of Baghdad,” said a very dubious Gilligan, “and I don’t see anything…But then the Americans have a history of making these premature announcements.” Gilligan was referring to a military communiqué from Qatar the day before saying the Americans had taken control of most of Baghdad’s airport. When that happened, Gilligan had told World Service listeners that he was there, at the airport — but the Americans weren’t. Gilligan inferred that the Americans were lying. An hour or two later, a different BBC correspondent pointed out that Gilligan wasn’t at the airport, actually. He was nearby — but apparently far enough away that the other correspondent felt it necessary to mention that he didn’t really know if Gilligan was around, but that no matter what Gilligan had seen or not seen, the airport was firmly and obviously in American hands.
It was clearly important to the BBC that Gilligan not be wrong twice in two days. Whatever the truth was, the BBC, like Walter Duranty’s New York Times, must never say, “I was wrong.” So, despite the fact that the appearance of American troops in Baghdad was surely one of the war’s big moments, and one the BBC had obviously missed, American veracity became the story of the day. Gilligan, joined by his colleagues in Baghdad, Paul Wood and Rageh Omaar, kept insisting that not only had the Americans not gone to the “center” — which they reckoned to be where they were — they hadn’t really been in the capital at all. Both Omaar and Wood told listeners that they had been on hour-long Iraqi Ministry of Information bus rides — “and,” said Wood, “we were free to go anywhere” -yet they had seen nothing of an American presence in the city. From Qatar, a BBC correspondent helpfully explained that US briefings, such as that announcing the Baghdad incursion, were meaningless exercises, “more PR than anything else.” Maybe, implied the World Service, the Americans had made it all up: all day long, Wood repeatedly reported that there was no evidence to support the American claim.
At a lunchtime press briefing, the surreal Iraqi Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, gave the BBC some solid support: The American incursion was a hoax, said al-Sahaf. Not only that, he added, the Iraqis had retaken the airport, the Americans had been driven out, and Republican Guard units were “pounding” trapped American troops in a suburban area. The bizarre announcement was accepted at face value by the BBC. For most of the rest of the day, the BBC’s correspondents, including its diplomatic correspondent, Peter Biles, confessed to being “confused” by the conflicting statements of the Coalition military command and the Iraqi information ministry. Who could you believe, they kept asking themselves?
The BBC’s Wood and Omaar, meanwhile, had been reporting from more of Baghdad in interviews organized by the Iraqi government. For example, for most of the day, the World Service broadcast hourly, sometimes without any disclaimers whatsoever, an interview by Paul Wood of a Palestinian in Baghdad. The interview was obviously arranged by the Iraqis; it was exactly the kind of Iraqi-sponsored propaganda that got Peter Arnett, then with CNN, in trouble in Baghdad twelve years ago. Then, like now, everything British and American correspondents in Baghdad did was monitored and approved by the Iraqis. But like the use of “analysts” with unannounced axes to grind, the BBC made little effort to make it clear that its journalists were shoveling manufactured “news.” In this instance, Wood had been taken to a poor neighborhood of angry Palestinians. He dutifully described to listeners the broken glass and bent window bars he saw when he entered one man’s house. (“Excuse me for not taking off my shoes,” he mumbled.) The Palestinian was apparently sheltering his whole family in a couple of rooms and dealing irritably with the shelling and bombardments that have become a fact of life in Baghdad lately. He was not happy. Neither were his kids, although happily they hadn’t been harmed. Except psychologically: “What happens to the children when there’s bombing?” Wood asked, urgently, compassionately, deeply worried. “Do they cry?”
Oh boy, do they ever, said the man.
“And what will happen when the Americans come to this street?” Wood asked.
We will fight them, said the man, to keep them from taking our homes.
NO COALITION HERE! Mid-afternoon, April 5: I have listened to the World Service for five straight hours. During that time, the World Service, in its reporting and analysis, has been obviously deeply skeptical of any Coalition claims of success and insistent that the Americans be denied simple good faith. The anger of Iraqis, however, has been widely and consistently featured. No indication of any spontaneous support for Coalition troops was ever mentioned.
Of all of the things the World Service reported during those hours, one item caught my attention and held it: Iraqi TV had been blacked out for most of the day by a power shortage.
“How are people in Baghdad getting their information, then?” an anchor asked a correspondent. From the World Service, he said. What a chilling thought.
So I decided to try an experiment — kind of a private Reed Irvine science project. I have a friend in a neighboring village here in France who gets most of the English-language TV news channels — not Fox, but CNN, BBC News, ITV, Euro News, Sky, the usual — on a satellite dish. So I gave him a ring, invited myself over ,and walked the three or four kilometers to his house, listening to the World Service on a pocket radio as I went. The afternoon of April 5 was a beautiful one in northern France — bright, crisp, clear. But it was dark and gloomy in Baghdad, I was sure. “The Americans are bombing again,” the BBC mourned. I imagined angry swarms of citizens gathering in homes and cafes to listen to World Service reports about the duplicitous Americans and their phony incursions. (In fact, I might have passed a few such places in my walk through the French countryside.)
When I arrived at my friend’s house, I set up my little test. I watched the TV while listening to the World Service on my hand-held radio. It was a startling multimedia event. I could listen to the BBC’s Paul Wood telling me once again that there was no sign of the American incursion into Baghdad. Yet on the screen in front of me there was the 3rd Infantry. They were cruising through Baghdad, driving down the highway, turning into the streets. Look! Along the sidewalks, there were waving children and adults, cheering them on. Men in passed by in trucks and cars crying out, “Saddam down!” and giving the soldiers big smiles and waves. I finally turned off the World Service and turned up the television. At the airport, a correspondent was asked about the Iraqi claim that the Americans had been driven out of the airport and were being “pounded” by Republican Guards. He looked around, mystified, then replied that he’d been at the airport for two days, that it was securely in Coalition hands, and that the only Iraqi challenge he had noticed had been a couple of small skirmishes that were quickly quelled by Coalition forces. “Maybe that’s what he meant,” he said, generously. Behind him, soldiers lounged around like the stranded tourists they were.
On the BBC News channel, the anchors got Wood on camera and very gently pointed out to him that they were getting a lot of video in showing the Americans had indeed taken a drive deep into Baghdad and that the information minister’s odd claims didn’t seem to be holding up. Wood was kind of chubby, younger than I expected. He seemed obviously pained. But he had his story — no Americans in Baghdad as far as he was concerned — and he was sticking to it.
But of course he didn’t have the story. One of the war’s turning points had taken place under his nose and he and Gilligan the rest of his BBC colleagues in Baghdad had missed it, simply because they were convinced of American deceit and could not bring themselves to look for what they refused to believe had taken place. I turned off the TV, had a cup of coffee with my friend, and returned home. After a half hour or so — call me crazy — I once again tuned into the World Service. By now, I wasn’t so much interested in how the war was going. I knew American troops weren’t trapped anywhere. But the BBC had trapped itself in a big hole, and I wanted to see how they’d get out of it.
Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s correspondent in Qatar, was being interviewed by a troubled World Service anchor, “Jonathan, who should we believe? The Americans? Or Saddam?” It’s obvious the Iraqis are lying, Marcus shot back, adding that the American incursion was not only real, it was significant and had gone deep into the capital. “Anybody who questions that can’t see the forest for the trees,” he said. It was the only real-world comment I had heard in a full day of World Service listening. That was the last I heard of Marcus that day. The anchor instantly went to another, more trustworthy correspondent.
As midnight approached, the World Service finally conceded that, okay, the Americans had probably reached into Baghdad, but the real story was the way the military guys in Qatar had misled the BBC’s correspondents. It was just another reason why nobody trusted the Americans. For example, the BBC correspondents reported, the incursion didn’t go to the “center” of Baghdad — or at least far enough to the center that Gilligan and Wood and Omaar could be satisfied. It was confined to the “fringes” of the city. It was a minor thing, really, and the Americans, in their typical cowboy way, had blown it up into something it wasn’t. Baghdad was still safely in Saddam’s hands, the World Service wondrously reassured its listeners. The Iraqi government’s claim to control over the airport was still being reported without comment or qualification. The World Service was still saying the situation was “confused” — and, for the BBC, no doubt it was.
CRAZY NEWS FOR CRAZY PEOPLE The World Service began April 6 by broadcasting to the citizens of Baghdad and the rest of the world the report that an Iraqi mullah had called for the faithful in Baghdad to engage in “holy war” against the Americans and the British who would soon be in their midst. I finally turned off the radio and went to bed.
Perhaps reporting the mullah’s call for jihad at the moment troops were entering the city was just thoughtlessness, the way reporting the Palestinian’s call to arms was thoughtless. Or maybe not. Certainly, the men and women who work at the World Service, from director Mark Byford on down to the likes of Andrew Gilligan or Paul Wood, do not expect to have to answer for any of the consequences of their decisions. If confronted, they will claim they are just the messengers. Of course, that’s the journalist’s equivalent to the Nuremberg defense. But as Andrew Sullivan recently wrote, “What the BBC is able to do, by broadcasting directly to these people, is to…make the war more bloody…If you assume that almost all these reporters and editors are anti-war, this BBC strategy makes sense. They’re a military player. And they are objectively pro-Saddam.”
Baghdad has been Saddamized for decades, so the World Service is just piling on. And while most Iraqis obviously don’t like their brutal government, along the streets and down the alleys of Baghdad, there are some pretty crazy people getting their news tonight from the likes of Wood, Gilligan, and the others at the BBC. The Americans will return tomorrow and the next day and the next and the next. Soon, they will be everywhere in Iraq, trying to rebuild the place. But one day, one of those crazy teenagers they produce over there might remember the World Service interview with the Palestinian guy, or that Iraqi mullah’s call for jihad. Maybe he’ll grab a gun and go out to welcome the British and American newcomers — and get shot before he blows anybody away. Some hopeless, misguided young BBC correspondent, riding his big Scoop moment, will report it on the World Service as an outrage.