Bedfellows make such strange politics. Take, for example, the bizarre spectacle of the BBC, normally a human-resources tool for New Labour politicians, going to war against Tony Blair, the man whom the BBC helped elect not so long ago.
As battles go, the Blair vs. the BBC bout resembles a man boxing a kangaroo: The fight is much more interesting than who wins the match, especially to the British media. The man, in this case, is Alastair Campbell, former journalist, now Blair’s communications director. Campbell is called a “spin doctor” and hugely disliked by most of his former colleagues, including BBC types, like Nicholas Jones, and the leader-writers at the Guardian. They despise his “snarling delivery and jabbing finger.” He has given rich nourishment to other people who write spin, like Hugo Young, who enjoy portraying Blair’s evil shadowman spoon-feeding the nation “corrupted Horlick’s” (it’s sort of like Ovaltine, folks). The charge: Campbell has been accused of “sexing-up” (a British term if ever there was one) an intelligence report last September as part of the effort to swing public opinion in favor of supporting the war in Iraq. Campbell is said to have added language to the report at the last minute to make it appear Saddam was capable of mounting an attack on Britain in 45 minutes or so.
The kangaroo is a controversial BBC reporter named Andrew Gilligan, sketched neatly in the Daily Telegraph and much more heroically in the Guardian, who broadcast the charge against Campbell last May on the strength of a single, unnamed source. Some readers will already be familiar with Gilligan, the little buddy of Baghdad, whose blind faith in the injustice of the Coalition’s cause made him miss the very story he was sent to Iraq to cover, as I have detailed elsewhere. The widespread criticism of the BBC’s miserably bitter and biased performance before, during, and after the war has driven the world’s largest broadcaster into a defensive corner where it is now forced to put its reputation on the line for the sake of Gilligan. And Gilligan is not exactly Edward R. Murrow. Or even Woodward or Bernstein, as David Aaronovitch made clear in last Sunday’s Observer. But then Greg Dyke’s no Ben Bradlee, either, according to this report in the Guardian.
It’s a fight that won’t end without somebody getting hurt. On his side, Campbell has the prime minister, the foreign secretary, the head of British intelligence, and, apparently, a parliamentary committee charged with looking into the matter, all of whom say (or, in the case of the parliamentarians, according to the Telegraph, appear to be ready to say) that Campbell didn’t do it. On the side of the ‘roo, we have the BBC, because they can never say they were wrong, and most British journos, because they hate Blair for liking Bush and they hate Campbell for liking Blair. If the man wins, the BBC will receive the chastisement many feel it has deserved as a consequence of its awful job reporting the war in Iraq, not to mention its grotesque institutional arrogance — and it will give great impetus to those who are arguing that the BBC must learn to survive in a fair and open market. If the kangaroo wins, the prime minister may have to find new work.
As the Downing Street campaign demonstrates, the bias of the BBC isn’t a narrow right/left ideological bias. It reflects a much wider worldview that positions the U.S. and its allies as an evil force in the world. The BBC might as well be French. The goal is to isolate the U.S., and the issue of WMDs, as NRO’s Jed Babbin noted here yesterday, is the bar they hope to use to pry loose the Atlantic alliance. So the focus, as seen in Le Monde’s editorial on the dignity of M. Blix, or in this rant by the IHT’s overemployed William Pfaff, must be on the Coalition’s “lies.” Why? Because for the Euro-Left, legitimacy — or the lack thereof — is the metric by which American virtue must be measured. For journalists, this is always a no-risk gambit. After all, if the WMDs are found, will Pfaff and Le Monde surrender their legitimacy? That’s a big mais non, good buddy. (For more on the Gotcha syndrome, see Eugene Volokh’s recent NRO piece here.)
So the coverage of the war in Iraq by the BBC was essentially the same coverage we would have witnessed if billions of dollars had been given not to some typically boring liberal organization, like, say, NPR. No, the BBC’s war coverage was like something out of Pacifica. It was newscasting as it exists in Paul Wellstone’s afterlife. It wasn’t just liberal, whatever that may mean. It was radical in a goofy, rich-college-kids-on-the-radio kind of way. It was, as Janet Daley noted in the Telegraph, making the news fit the BBC’s programs. The normal rules of journalism were — and apparently still are, judging from this latest Gilliganism — frequently jettisoned for the sake of a good spin. Attention, BBC: Single-sourcing a news item intended to discredit an entire government just isn’t smart journalism. Neither was the frequent practice used by the BBC during the campaign in Iraq of bringing on “experts” and “analysts” to comment on wartime events — “pure American imperialism!” analyzed one such fellow — without making clear the affiliations and biases of the analysts. Often, I discovered, these people came from organizations like the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), an extremely well-connected, London-based, pro-Palestinian lobbying group whose network of supporters in government and the press suggests the entangled sympathies of the British left. CAABU’s website used to be a little more revealing than it is now — during the war, you could at least see the names of the BBC types on their board — but it’s still possible to get a sense of where their money comes from: “In 1998, CAABU came near to closure due to dwindling funds. After appeals for help in the Arab press in particular, we were saved mainly through two very generous and anonymous donations” and instantly an off-shore Trust Fund was set up. Ask, as I did, for a few specifics — like, how generous is “very generous”, roughly speaking? were those donations made by governments or by individuals? — and you will get silence. So for all we know, CAABU’s coasting on Saddam’s benevolence, providing helpful experts to the BBC. Until the BBC knows, it might find a better source for its “analysts”. No wonder, reported the Guardian, the Israeli government has decided that its life will be better — and certainly much more fair — if it just didn’t deal with the BBC at all.
If nothing else, the criticism of the BBC from its left flank has highlighted what many critics, such as Andrew Sullivan, have been saying for some time: Only competing for survival — instead of living large off of one of the most regressive taxes on Earth — can cure what ails the BBC. You can’t get good journalism by making people pay hundreds of dollars in “licensing fees” just to own British TV sets, which is how the BBC is over-funded. If a country like the United Kingdom can privatize its drinking water, its post office, and its subways, for crying out loud, it ought to be able to figure out a way to privatize the BBC. If it succeeds, cool. If it doesn’t, it goes the way of another white elephant, British Airways. Until then, Gilligan and his ilk should be seen as what they are: bureaucrats on taxpayer-funded soapboxes.
The Euro-Left is weeping softly inside because, as La Repubblica noted sadly, Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing Italian leader, is taking his turn to serve as EU president, replacing the dutifully liberal Greeks.
French defense: The U.S. is discovering the “limits of uniliateralism” in Iraq. The next step, says Le Figaro, is to call on the U.N. (read: France) for help. That’s called “giving up,” technically. Figaro’s source for this American epiphany? The New York Times, of course.
Mad-science report: According to this value-free report in the Independent, the lab boys have found yet more byproducts to be harvested from aborted fetuses: more fetuses. Just think, in a few short years, we could create a whole genealogy of dead children. You’ll be relieved to know that the study, conducted by a medical center and a university veterinary department, enjoyed “Full ethical approval.” Why isn’t stupid a crime?