Sunday, 20 July 2003

Why the American press shouldn't behave like Britain's

One common refrain, particularly from the left of late*, is that our press isn’t adversarial enough when dealing with politicians; they look to the British press, and in particular the BBC (as that is the only example sizeable numbers of Americans have been exposed to), as an exemplar of the adversarial style they want to see emulated.

Those who advocate this style, however, may want to consider Jeff Jarvis’s damning collection of links that suggest that the Beeb’s quest for sensationalism and ratings—if not an ideological bias—led it to claim that the Blair government had “sexed up” reports on Iraq’s weapons capabilities before the war. At the center of the controversy is a dead weapons inspector, David Kelly, and one of the BBC’s wartime correspondents in Baghdad, Andrew Gilligan, whose performance in a pathetic cloak-and-dagger display I belittled during the war. Now, some portions of the American media are hardly better—the reliance on barely-sourced, anonymous information from deep background has become a staple of reporting in “flagship” newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times, perhaps due to every reporter thinking he’s going to become a star like Bob Woodward—but outside the most partisan papers (the occasional crusades of the Raines-era NYT, the Washington Times and the New York Post spring to mind), no American outlets have matched the Beeb’s propensity for grinding its ideological axe.

Moreover, as Peter Mandelson (no stranger to the harsh spotlight of Fleet Street and the Beeb) points out, the British media have contributed to a decline in public discourse in that country:

The viciousness that characterises the relationship between the media and politicians is turning people off politics and corroding our democracy. Everything in Britain is conducted in an overly adversarial way, from our courts to our Parliament, our industrial relations and our select committees. It is good theatre, but does it produce good outcomes? In this case, patently not.

The pervasive cynicism of the BBC and its fellow British media almost certainly have an effect on public perceptions of democracy. As a professional cynic myself, I can’t help but believe part of that attitude was formed as a result of my political socialization at the hands of the Beeb and ITN (the only other television news provider in pre-satellite-TV Britain). A healthy skepticism about the veracity of a government’s claims is good for democracy, but the consistent and corrosive cynicism embodied in the reporting on the motives of everyone and anyone in government or the public eye by the British media seems detrimental to that country’s long-term future.

Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry has more on the blame game surrounding Kelly’s death.

* I suspect that if the current administration came from the left, these calls would be coming from the right; no Democrat I can remember was complaining about the press treating Bill Clinton with kid gloves during the Whitewater/Vince Foster/travel office/Monicagate presidency-long megascandal.

Link via InstaPundit.