BBC Troubles: He Who Pays the Piper


The British Broadcasting Corporation is often regarded a model civil service outfit which, despite its near total reliance on government funding, prides itself on being independent of government influence. That is the myth. The reality is different.

Just how different it is can be seen from the current flap over the so called Hutton Report, an assessment of the BBC's reportage and opining concerning PM Tony Blair and his government's understanding of whether Saddam Hussein had anything close to the sort of weapons of mass destruction that Blair & Co. alleged he did in fact have and one which belief they undertook the co-invasion of Iraq.

One of the BBC's reporters, Andrew Gilligan, had publicly stated in a newscast recently that Blair probably knew that no such weapons were in Hussein's possession, or at least that the intelligence on which that belief was based wasn't quite kosher. Gilligan's statement was based, in part, on input from the scientist David Kelley who subsequent to the revelation of his involvement in the BBC report is supposed to have committed suicide. After the suicide came to light, British PM Tony Blair called for an investigation of the BBC and the chore fell to one Lord Hutton, whose reputation in the UK is impeccable as far as trustworthiness and thoroughness are concerned.

The just released Hutton Report accuses the BBC, in particular, Andrew Gilligan, of having issued a statement about Blair and his government that is quite baseless. (See the report and the rulings here.)

No, I have not managed to follow this controversy in the kind of detail that would give me full confidence about who did what, and whether any kind of malfeasance had occurred. What I am going to tell you is that it is pretty sad that in a country where the ideal of freedom of speech took roots an agency such as the BBC should even exist.

Like our own Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), the BBC is a complete anomaly in a free society. What business is it of the government to engage in news reporting anyway'-such endeavors could be expected from the old Soviet Union, with its Pravda and Izvestia official government and (single) party newspapers, but they have no legitimate place in Western Liberal countries such as Great Britain? Why? Precisely because news organizations paid for by the government'-which determines their budget, approves its various structural features, and appoints officials overseeing it'-simply cannot avoid occasional fiascos such as the one brewing in London today.

Not that some measure of independent journalism cannot be had from the BBC'-and, indeed, from PBS and NPR. But to rely on these as the primary source of news and analysis is very dangerous. In a free society the free press does not provide assurance of complete accuracy, objectivity and non-partisanship, of course. But because of the wide variety of news sources available to nearly everyone, with none having special official sanction, the truth is likely to win out, in the end, more so than when government funded sources are relied upon. Yes, of course, Britain has many other news organizations beside the BBC, and that reduces the danger somewhat. Yet, given how high an opinion so many British and, indeed, international academics and intellectuals have of the BBC, without ever challenging its government dependency, the kind of flack now afoot should go some distance in calling into question the wisdom of this kind of outfit.

It is at least unthinkable in the United States of America that a president would call some inquiry into the news reporting of ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC or Fox News, regardless of how displeased the pres might be with what any of their reporters or analysts may present to viewers or listeners. Whatever errors may creep into such reporting will have to be ferreted out by critics who have no legal power to influence matters to the point of getting the heads of these outfits to resign, as did the Chairman of BBC, Gavyn Davies, resign after the Hutton Report was aired.

As regrettable as the problem at the BBC may be, it does serve well as an illustration of the kind of messes that will be generated when legal administrators and law enforcers dabble in matters they have no business dabbling in.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.