Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 17, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BIAS AT THE BBC?....Josh Chafetz has a cover story in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard titled "The Disgrace of the BBC." Basically, it makes the familiar point (familiar to readers of hawkish bloggers anyway) that the BBC is irretrievably anti-American, anti-war, and resolutely unfair and unbalanced.

I don't watch the BBC here in Irvine although that doesn't seem to stop most of its critics so I don't have any special axe to grind about whether or not the BBC is fair or accurate or balanced or not. But I do have a few general comments:

  • I would be very cautious about accepting views of the BBC from American hawks, who seem to view any deviation from the war party line as an anti-American, pro-Saddam tirade. The problem is that whenever I check up on a charge of BBC bias such as declining to call the invasion of Iraq "liberation" I'm usually struck not by the blatant bias on display, but rather by just how subtle and trivial the alleged bias is.

    Josh, for example, provides several examples of anti-war bias, but only a couple of them really hit home. The others are just garden variety mistakes, which are common in war reporting, or things that, far from showing bias, actually seem more true than false. Jessica Lynch's rescuers, it's true, didn't fire blanks, but on the other hand it really was "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." Even the British military liason thought so. And Andrew Gilligan, when he reported that he didn't see any American tanks in central Baghdad on April 5, was quite correct to say that the army had a habit of making "premature announcements" about such things. In fact, this particular story, which was played up in newspapers around the country, was premature. All that happened that day was a single lightning thrust that lasted a couple of hours, and it was several more days before Baghdad was entered in force.

    In fact, given that he has months and months of round the clock coverage to choose from, Josh's examples are remarkably thin. When you get to the point of complaining that the BBC uses quote marks to indicate that somebody said something namely that the U.S. government reported that Uday and Qusay Hussein were dead you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel. And incorrectly pretending that these were "scare quotes" doesn't make your case any better.

  • Like Josh, I've been following the Andrew Gilligan/David Kelly affair pretty closely, and I'd be a lot more careful about drawing conclusions than he is. (Summary of events from the Guardian here and from the BBC here in case you haven't been following it.) Josh seems to rather credulously assume that Kelly was telling the truth when he denied saying the things that Gilligan quoted him as saying, but the fact is that Kelly had enormous incentive to lie about this. He gave an anonymous interview and said things he shouldn't have, and then got caught. Of course he's going to claim that Gilligan misquoted him.

    We will never know for sure what Kelly said or whether Gilligan quoted him accurately since there's no recording of the interview and Kelly himself is dead. However, there's evidence that corroborates Gilligan's story and calls into question Kelly's veracity: it turns out that Kelly said similar things to BBC reporter Susan Watts, who called him the next day to follow up on Gilligan's claims, and then denied saying those things when he testified before parliament. (A transcript of the conversation is here and Kelly clearly does say the things that he denied saying.) Kelly is obviously far from a reliable source in this matter.

  • Josh is quite right to say that the BBC lied about the source of Gilligan's quotes. They claimed repeatedly that their source didn't work for the Ministry of Defense and was an intelligence officer. In fact, Kelly did work for MoD and wasn't an intelligence officer. They obviously lied to make it appear that their source was more highly placed than he was.

  • Although Gilligan may be coming under some deserved criticism for his "flawed reporting" and "loose use of language," it's worth noting that once you separate the wheat from the chaff the basic facts actually seem to back up his story a fact that Josh glosses over rather hastily. The 45-minute claim in the dossier was dodgy, intelligence sources did point this out at the time, and Kelly also implicated Alastair Campbell to BBC reporter Susan Watts, not just to Gilligan. (She decided not to use the allegation because she considered it just a "gossipy aside.")

    Gilligan may have overplayed his hand, and the BBC certainly went over the line in defending him, but so far the actual charges Gilligan made seem to be holding up pretty well.

It is no doubt true that especially in the case of war the BBC does not automatically assume that everything the U.S. government tells them is ipso facto true. However, that's neither a sign of anti-American bias nor sloppy reporting. So while Josh manages a couple of glancing blows, when you dig below the surface his case turns out to be a pretty thin gruel. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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