The British are coming…

The announcement that BBC World News network, the 24X7 version, is coming to American cable television has been welcomed by some as offering viewers an alternative to CNN and Fox News Channel.

One BBC World News journalist who will host a show aimed at Americans set to air in July explained (to CBS News) :

"What we're not setting out to do is carve a niche that reflects America back to the Americans," said the program’s anchor, George Alagiah. "What we're trying to do is reflect the world back to Americans."

Stuart Elliott in the New York Times described the advertising for this BBC outreach:

The campaign for BBC World News, carrying themes like "News beyond your borders," portrays the network as providing coverage that is impartial and objective, enabling viewers, as several ads declare, to "see both sides of the story."

In other words, "Fair and balanced," but for real.

Elliott notes that this is the third recent British foray into American media waters: The Economist magazine is testing a campaign to increase circulation in the United States and Rupert Murdoch's The Times of London begins a daily American edition in New York and Washington next week with a modest print run of 10,000 copies.

What to make of this British invasion?

It is definitely an indication of the flattened world (Thomas Friedman's metaphor for globalization) and an appetite for foreign news coverage in English; Americans are heavy visitors to the Guardian and The Times of London websites, the BBC says half the hits to its website are from those in the U.S.

The BBC starts with some clear advantages: it has roughly double the number of correspondents outside the U.S. as does CNN. With American networks and newspapers trimming back costly global coverage, there is less and less about international news in U.S. newspapers and television.

And some say that American readers and viewers feel short-changed by an American-centric world view in the coverage they do get. The New York Times offers this analysis:

"This has the feeling of Americans deciding they need something outside the system to get a perspective on what's going on," said Nick Shore, principal at the Way Group in New York, a strategic consulting company. "It's a global version of a second opinion."

Ah, but what sort of second opinion?

You can expect the BBC World News take on international news to have a much different feel–and it is not without bias, just of a different sort. Commentators on the right have been particularly pointed in their criticisms; the Wall Street Journal editorial page has repeatedly slammed BBC for refusing to characterize Al Queda operatives as terrorists; British columnists have been even tougher. Here is Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph in 2003:


The BBC's mental assumptions are those of the fairly soft Left. They are that American power is a bad thing, whereas the UN is good, that the Palestinians are in the right and Israel isn't, that the war in Iraq was wrong, that the European Union is a good thing and that people who criticise it are "xenophobic"…"

More recently (January 2005 in The Sunday Times), Rod Liddle surveyed what he called "unconscious bias" at the BBC and concluded that the network handled Israel and the European Union differently:

…In both of those cases it is difficult not to accuse the BBC of bias, through tone, grammar and story selection. In the case of the EU, until recently it equated Euroscepticism with xenophobia, this latter disposition to be filed under the heading “racism”.

Europe, after all, is an agreeable place full of agreeable people. Those who are suspicious of it either don’t like foreigners or have grounded their beliefs in unfortunate occurrences that one should have forgotten about by now: ie Auschwitz and Ypres.

What the BBC, institutionally, seems to wish us to do is “get along with each other”, to understand a little more and condemn a little less.

Similarly, Israel is big and strong while the Palestinians are small and weak. Israel is a case of something else the BBC, in its charter, disapproves of: bullying. And so we have Barbara Plett weeping over the death of that tea-towel bedecked murderer Arafat and Orla Guerin furrowing her brows over every successive Israeli “atrocity”.

Are these criticisms valid? From what I've seen in watching BBC through my local PBS affiliate, there is definitely an Arabist, pro-EU slant in what Liddle calls "tone, grammar and story selection." That isn't surprising, as much of the European press is decidedly more critical of Israel in its coverage (the Guardian's MidEast reportage a perfect example), and the more cosmopolitan, urban editors of BBC could be expected to like the idea of a European community.

So the BBC entry, along with that of Al Jazeera International into the U.S. market, will provide viewers with a "different perspective," arguably one that is more left-of-center. For its part, Al Jazeera has hired some well known Western journalists, including Dave Marash and David Frost, and now says it will reach more than 40 million homes by September.

The introduction of BBC World News and Al Jazeera International into the mix may highlight why objective-means journalism (what I like to call Mere Journalism), is superior to partisan "higher truth" journalism. CNN, Fox News, the networks (ABC, CBA, NBC) and major U.S. newspapers will now compete with "European-style" journalism. The competition should reaffirm the value of accurate first-hand reporting, on-the-record sources, and transparency of means and methods.

What will viewers and readers prefer? I think they want "objective-means" journalism, and surveys by Pew and others, support that contention. That being said, having more news and more opinion available to Americans is a positive development, whether through cable news, websites, blogs, global journalism, or the MSM (mainstream media). As John Milton once wrote: "Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter."

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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