The believable BBC

Before going upstairs at night I generally snap on BBC's 15-minute summary of the late news to find out how the world is coming along. There it is, after Big Ben, dispassionate, calm, quietly Olympian without being patronizing. The news is delivered in what I would describe as a tempered British accent which is acceptable to the English-speaking nations over the world. I would about as soon challenge it factually as I would a statement from the front page of the New York Times. It has, in other words, the most important element that a vehicle for news dissemination can obtain - credibility.

I visited my daughter recently in Geneva and found that the family there also habitually switches on BBC to supplement the local news that comes from all quarters of the world. Like the Voice of America, the BBC is state-operated and, in some ways, the two supplement each other, but the BBC has a prestige and authority built up over the years. It remains to be seen whether the VOA can do as well.

BBC has been challenged by some members of Parliament recently for being too impartial. In the Falkland Islands war it was hard for emotional listeners to hear the announcers differentiate between the ''British'' and the ''Argentines'' account of events rather than between ''us'' and ''them.'' Wasn't this being unpatriotic? I have before me a clipping from the highly charged Sunday Express (London) carrying a news story from the war front saying that when hostilities ceased there should be an investigation of the whole affair - BBC, journalists, and all. Indeed, there probably will be. The spokesman for BBC coolly stuck to his guns however. Richard Francis, BBC Radio Managing director, put it like this:

''It is not the BBC's role to boost British troops morale or to rally the British people to the flag.'' He told the International Press Institute: ''Our contribution to national morale in the present crisis is no more than to provide the most reliable and fullest possible account of confusing, worrying events.'' And he added:

''Whatever reputation the BBC may have does not come . . . from banging a jingoistic drum for the British task force.''

These are brave words to have uttered in wartime and the problem interests any journalist. It involves a parallel problem in the United States. It is agreed that the Voice of America under the hand of its new director John Hughes (a former editor of this paper and a Pulitzer Prize winner) should carry the views of the US round the world. But how best do it? The Russians, for example would say one thing; the British another; what will VOA do?

On my same short-wave set I can pick up the gospel-according-to-Moscow (English version) by shifting the dials a half inch and for a little while it is fascinating. Then it gets dull and finally insufferable. The propaganda is too flagrant. I could save Moscow a lot of money if they would listen to me and tone down their tirades a bit; probably it is better for all of us that they don't.

So what will the new course of VOA be? The man in charge, the head of the ICA (International Communications Agency) is Charles Z. Wick, a California businessman who helped elect President Reagan. He wants a stronger, tougher response to Soviet propaganda. Many people are watching. Former VOA director James B. Conkling resigned last March, apparently because his views were like those of Richard Francis of BBC, rather than the more activist Mr. Wick.

This is a more subtle battle than one with bombs and battleships. The message must be given in a way that promotes interest, not yawns. In days ahead will the world switch on Moscow, or London, or perhaps Washington? And will it believe what it hears, for this is basically a struggle for credibility.

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