There's something about a British accent that tends to make Americans weak at
Call it the "Masterpiece Theatre Syndrome," an affliction that runs deep
into our intellectual and cultural life. It causes many of us to swoon before
anyone with a "Sir" in front of their name and to consider anything originating
from Shakespeare's "scepter'd isle" as patently superior to anything
This dim-witted Anglophilia is a problem in the arts and it has its impact on
journalism as well. In particular, the reputation of the British Broadcasting
Corporation rests more on this pseudo-snobbery than the actual credentials of
the powerful international television and radio network.
Like all myths, the inflated reputation of the 'Beeb,' as the BBC is
sometimes called in Britain, is based on some truth. In Britain, the government-owned
station was once considered an impartial source that contrasted with the
highly partisan English press. And the respect and affection with which the network
is regarded around the world is also based on its historic role during World
War II as the free world's outlet to occupied Europe.
Broadcasting a lie
But that was a long time ago. The BBC is no longer the only source for news
around the world. And the once impartial tone of its radio and TV news is as
dead as Winston Churchill.
Any doubts about this reversal were erased earlier this month when a
commission charged with investigating a controversial BBC story ruled that the network
had put out information it knew to be false.
The findings of the Hutton Commission which revealed that BBC reporter Andrew
Gilligan knowingly broadcast a lie about the British government falsifying
information has been rehashed at length elsewhere. The main point about the
story is that Gilligan's lies were inspired by his own strong opposition to
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the war. in Iraq. Even more important was the
fact that the leadership of the BBC was unwilling to examine the network's
shortcomings until forced to do so by public pressure.
But this is far from the only example of bias at the Beeb. In its coverage of
Israel, the network has proved that slanted reporting like that of Gilligan's
is the rule rather than the exception. Just as there was no editorial
oversight or apologies forthcoming from the BBC over their slander of Blair, so too
there was none when a BBC documentary falsely accused Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon of war crimes. Nor did it backtrack when another BBC production
falsely said Israel used poison gas against Palestinians.
Those accustomed to complaining about the American media's treatment of
Israel need to understand that, compared to the BBC, even the most egregious local
offenders are small potatoes.
This bias has been documented in detail by sources such as the British Daily
Telegraph newspaper's "Beeb Watch" (www.dailytelegraph.co.uk) and by media
monitoring organizations such as CAMERA (www.Camera.org) and
HonestReporting.com. Their findings show that in both tone and substance, BBC news programs
routinely minimize stories that depict terror attacks against Israelis and instead
focus on inflated reporting about the suffering of Palestinians. On the BBC,
Israel's legitimacy and right to exist are always up for debate (though its
defenders rarely get to participate in that debate) while the right of the
Palestinians to carry on their terrorist war is rarely questioned.
But the collapse of the BBC's facade of integrity is isn't just a British
story. The BBC is now widely available in the United States via satellite
television networks and the use of the BBC's World Service on National Public Radio
For example, here in Philadelphia, NPR is heard on publicly supported WHYY-91
FM, an all news and talk station that is like all NPR affiliates
subsidized by government aid and individual contributions from listeners.. Indeed,
WHYY has recently expanded the BBC's exposure to include not only post-midnight
hours and the early bird 5 a.m. slot but also now the 9 a.m. drive-time niche.
NPR has itself come under fire for its slanted Middle East coverage, but the
addition of BBC programs and the contempt for Israel that often borders on
anti-Semitism, which is found in its content, raise concern about NPR stations to
a new level.
How should we react to this problem? As it turns out our English cousins have
given us a good example of what doesn't work. England's Chief Rabbi Jonathan
Sacks recently came under fire for defending the BBC against charges of
anti-Israel bias, even though he had himself previously led a delegation of rabbis
to complain to the network about its coverage. Sacks explained in an op-ed in
The Jerusalem Post that what is needed is not loud protest but calm voices
that can diplomatically educate the media.
Sacks is right about pro-Israel responders going off half-cocked. But when he
warns us that angry Jews who are fed up with bias don't know how to speak the
Queen's English to the Lords of the BBC, then it becomes apparent that what
he is doing is stifling protest, not channeling it in the right direction.
Instead of a forceful response, his article reeked of an older, discredited Jewish
pattern. The time is long past when we should rely on Jewish notables like
Rabbi Sacks making personal requests for fairness when we are faced with
American listeners and contributors to public radio should let these
stations know exactly how we feel about their increased use of the BBC. We need
to free ourselves of our "Masterpiece Theatre Syndrome," which has helped
these supposedly high-minded broadcasters sneak the BBC's bias into our
Tugging our forelocks in the direction of their snooty accents won't work. We
need to tell the BBC and their American middlemen that we won't subsidize
their anti-Israel bias via tax dollars or individual contributions again.