Lessons from a BBC blunder

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The world of journalism has just suffered another one of those ethical train crashes that from time to time cause dismay, anguish, and, one hopes, self-examination. Although it happened across the Atlantic in Britain, there are lessons to be pondered by US press, politicians, and public.

Over the years, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been held up as an example of accuracy and reliability. But now it is reeling after scorching charges of sloppy, inaccurate reporting of its claim that British Prime Minister Tony Blair manipulated - specifically "sexed up" - intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein's Iraqi weapons arsenal in order to justify the case for going to war.

Mr. Blair vigorously denied the charge, and a British judge was assigned to investigate. After months of inquiry, the judge, Lord Hutton, has ripped the BBC's reporting, and cleared Blair. Amid abject statements of apology, the BBC's chairman has resigned, followed by its director general, and the reporter who aired the story.

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US journalists still are recovering from the discovery that New York Times reporter Jayson Blair invented interviews, lifted quotes, and plagiarized and fabricated material in a string of stories. The scandal brought down the paper's two top editors.

It isn't the first time great journalistic institutions have been misled by sources, or betrayed by staffers. When such disservice to readers, or listeners, or viewers is discovered, they must go public, correct the error, apologize, and take disciplinary action.

In the case of the BBC, the issue is complicated by the fact that it is a government- funded broadcasting service. But it is jealous of its independence, and in the assertion of that independence, its journalists are sometimes wont to lash out at the hand that feeds them.

The Weekly Standard a few months ago quoted a sometime BBC commentator, Janet Daley, as writing in the (London) Daily Telegraph: "BBC staff often say proudly that it is their responsibility to oppose whatever government is in power. Well, actually, it isn't. Examination and analysis are the business of tax-funded journalism. Opposition is the business of mandated politicians."

The US similarly has a government-funded broadcasting service in the Voice of America. But unlike the BBC, it is precluded by its charter from broadcasting internally. Its role is to tell America's story abroad. It has a wide international audience reached primarily by shortwave broadcasting that offers straight news, but also features about American life and explanatory commentary on US policy.

There seems not much doubt that in some circles at the BBC there was a mind-set against the war in Iraq and an enthusiasm for finding fault with the prime minister's lonely stand in support of it.

Reporters, shouldn't, because of professional obligations to fairness and objectivity, be denied the right to personal views about the issues they report on. But unless they're columnists, commentators, or editorial writers, those personal views shouldn't be manifest in, or influence, what they report for their institutions.

Did the BBC fall prey to the quest for "hip" and "smart" reporting that has afflicted some of today's journalism, notably on some of the cable TV channels and the so-called newsmagazine TV shows that aren't news shows? Did a BBC bias manipulate its reporting against the British prime minister and his pro-Iraqi war stand?

Both the US and Britain are initiating inquiries into intelligence used in deciding whether to go to war with Iraq.

There are some lessons from the BBC debacle to be pondered by American politicians on both sides of the issue, by the press that will properly be digging into it, and by the public they serve.

In the midst of a war on terrorism, the quality of intelligence, both past and future, is too important to be sullied by partisan politics or sloppy journalism.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration.

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