January 10, 2004

The BBC: an Alternative for the American Public's Media Attention-Span


In the wake of what many Americans feel has been a pandering patriotism to the U.S. invasion/liberation of Iraq, the American media establishment seems to have a new competitor to deal with these days – the BBC.

After discovering BBC programming available overnight on public broadcasting and on demand through the Internet, many of our more urbane citizenry are finding the less patronizing and far more venerable British media icon a better truth-teller than our own broadcast news sources. But, who could blame them… there’s just something about that British accent that lends itself to severe credibility.

I found an interesting article in the December/January issue of the American Journalism Review that speaks to the subject of "the Beeb’s" newfound American admiration - read the whole piece, but here's an excerpt:

    The British Broadcasting Corp. can certainly relate to American media outlets in one stark way: The radio and television behemoth has been embroiled in a journalistic controversy that threatens to damage its credibility, change the way it does business and, most likely, result in the ouster of a few employees.

    For media buffs, the New York Times' springtime of discontent segued nicely into the BBC's summer of the same. A governmental inquiry led by Lord Hutton explored the events surrounding the suicide of David Kelly, a weapons expert who was an anonymous source for an explosive BBC report on the British government's claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The radio segment, by correspondent Andrew Gilligan, charged the government with "sexing up" a September 2002 dossier and further alleged 10 Downing Street knowingly inserted a false claim that Iraq could launch its WMD in 45 minutes.

    Soon Kelly was identified as the source of that report. Shortly thereafter, he told his wife he was going for a walk and never returned. His body was found the morning of July 18.

    While American news audiences didn't see much coverage of the inquiry, the British press was full of front-page stories, loads of commentary and, in the broadcast media, reenactments of the proceedings. Internal e-mails, reporters' notes and the diary of Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy, were brought forth as so much dirty laundry, and neither the government nor the BBC came off looking particularly good. The Hutton inquiry even set up its own Web site, www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk, to give the public a look at the mounds of testimony.

    Says John Tusa, former managing director of the BBC World Service: It "made the summer riveting."

    Hutton's final report won't be released until late December or January, providing more time for speculation on how badly it will criticize the BBC's journalism and the government's political maneuverings.

    But beyond the shared experience of having its credibility on the line, the BBC is quite different from the American networks. There's the sheer size - 41 overseas bureaus, 3,700 news employees. There's the public confidence - yes, confidence. The British tend to trust the BBC more than the government, not less. They reserve the bulk of their cynicism for politicians instead of reporters. The BBC even has not one, but two cute little nicknames--Auntie, or more commonly, the Beeb.

    During the war in Iraq, reportorial differences became distinctly recognizable. The BBC was more likely to be accused of being an enemy of the state than a patriotic cheerleader. A number of American viewers and listeners, dissatisfied with what they saw on the U.S. networks, tuned in or logged on to the BBC Web site in search of a different journalistic tack. Viewership of the BBC World News bulletins, aired on public broadcasting stations in the U.S., rose 28 percent during the early weeks of the war.

But, it’s not just the cosmopolitan accents; many BBC fans cite the World Service as a more reliable – and more objective – source of opinion in what many feel has become a near completely entertainment-oriented broadcast news culture from homegrown sources.

Maybe American news media should consider their most sophisticated demographics a bit more deeply. We certainly don’t get the same global feel here in the States that Brits and others enjoy on BBC and I think an important demographic defection is underway when one’s most important news consumers find European opinions more compelling than the ones at home.

- Arik

Posted by Arik Johnson at January 10, 2004 12:46 PM | TrackBack