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BBC: Profile

By Lowell Ponte
Discover The Networks

What if broadcasting in the United States, instead of developing through private companies, had been taken over and run by the Post Office?

What if, instead of evolving as an engine of capitalism and competition and advertising, radio and television in America had been controlled and shaped from the beginning by a single quasi-governmental bureaucracy bent on paternalism, promoting left-of-center ideology and advancing its own agenda of government enlargement?  What if our dominant forms of broadcasting had evolved to be like National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), but possessed of vastly more influence, money and political power?

Something like this happened in Great Britain. The result is the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, a giant media megalopoly also called “the Beeb,” “Auntie,” or “the Corporation.”

In 1904 the United Kingdom’s Wireless Telegraphy Act put the Royal Post Office in control of issuing broadcasting licenses. In 1919, after complaints that new broadcasters were interfering with military communications, the Post Office stopped issuing licenses. In 1922 it permitted new stations to begin broadcasting only as part of a monopoly called the British Broadcasting Company.

In 1927 a royal charter converted this company into the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC. This nominally-autonomous corporation is run by a board of governors whose members are appointed to four-year (formerly five-year) terms by the elected government in Parliament. The BBC is managed by a Director General appointed by the governors.

BBC airs no advertising. Its broadcasts are funded by an annual tax, a “licence fee” levied on every household that owns a television set. The poor and other favored groups are exempted from this tax, and those with only black-and-white TVs pay less than those with color. This tax of approximately $195 per year per color TV household is collected for the government via two private companies. (A similar levy on every household that owned a radio was discontinued in 1971.)  Vehicles with sensors prowl British streets to detect the telltale TV set emissions of unlicensed, non-taxpaying viewers, who can be fined or jailed if caught.

This TV tax gives the BBC its own earmarked revenue of approximately $5.2 billion each year, which it uses to produce and broadcast programs and to maintain the largest news gathering operation in the world.

BBC Radio broadcasts what Americans would call five distinct networks or channels – news and sports (BBC Radio 5), what used to be called its Home Service (Radio 4), cultural programming (Radio 3), easy listening jazz and folk music (Radio 2) and contemporary music (Radio 1).

What is now called BBC Radio 1 was launched in 1967 to compete with commercial rock music pirate stations such as Radio Caroline, several of which broadcast from ships off the British coast. The rock group The Who on its famous 1967 album The Who Sell Out featured ads and other snippets (several of which were produced in Texas) from pirate station Radio London. The British Government ultimately suppressed these capitalist stations through the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Bill that imposed penalties on companies advertising on pirate radio.

Today BBC Radio also operates 10 national radio channels or networks, half of which are digital and offer funk, punk and reggae music (6Music), comedy, drama, science fiction and more (BBC 7), the Asian Network, 1Xtra and more sports (BBC Radio Five Live).

BBC Television launched the world’s first regular television service in 1936 from the Alexandra Palace in London. It has aired ever since, except during World War II when it went dark lest its signal be used by German bombers as a beacon to home in on London. That channel, now known as BBC One, broadcasts mostly dramas, comedies, game shows and soap operas.  In 1964 BBC Two was launched, and today it features more eclectic, cultural and news-oriented programs than BBC One.

BBC also produces regional programs. BBC Scotland provides several shows in Scots Gaelic. BBC Wales does many programs in the Welsh language, including the soap opera “Pobol y Cwm” (“People of the Valley”).

BBC has long exported its programs and documentaries, many of which air in the United States on PBS. One example is the miniseries “I, Claudius.” Others are “Britcoms,” situation comedies such as “One Foot in the Grave,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” “Are You Being Served?” and BBC’s ever-new 1969-74 series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The early BBC science fiction series “Dr. Who” depicted a British-like extraterrestrial aristocracy that included the “Time Lords.” BBC also catches children’s minds young with programs such as the dangerous infant show “Teletubbies,” which tempts toddlers to put their eyesight at risk by staring into the sun, which this show depicts as having a smiling baby’s face. BBC also broadcasts a few imported foreign programs, including from the U.S. the cartoon show “The Simpsons.” BBC Radio programs and news stories are broadcast by the stations of Pacifica Radio and NPR.

BBC airs its own noncommercial UK news channel (BBC News 24) to compete with Cable News Network (CNN) and the Rupert Murdoch sister operation to Fox, Sky News in Europe. BBC also produces BBC World, a commercial news network broadcast worldwide outside the UK, that shares reporters and stories with BBC News 24. Many of its stories also air on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). A half-hour version of BBC World News is available to PBS stations via WLIW in New York and is presently able to be seen by 80-90 percent of U.S. residents.

This media giant also has long produced BBC World Service on international shortwave, an enterprise that in our age of digital communications is being cut back. BBC continues to expand features on its Internet web site bbc.co.uk, one of the world’s most frequently accessed sources for news.

Until recently the BBC was an ever-growing behemoth, a media conglomerate involved in commercial partnerships of many sorts. This broadcasting company, to cite one example among many, was not content with publishing 27 different magazines about topics from gardening to fashion to teens to preschoolers. It recently acquired Origin Publishing to add another 11 magazines, dealing with topics from Koi ponds to sewing and hair styling, to its publishing empire. The BBC inside the UK does not broadcast advertisements, but these BBC magazines promoted on its programs do sell advertising space. (In this it resembles the educational show “Sesame Street,” which airs in the U.S. on PBS without commercials but is itself a commercial for its billion-dollar private company that markets Sesame Street books, toys and other merchandise.)

The BBC is “basking in a Jacuzzi of spare public cash.”  So said Mark Thompson when he ran competing broadcaster Channel Four. But after he became Director General of the BBC in June 2004, Thompson ordered four reviews of the bloated organization’s activities and finances.

In December 2004 Thompson announced that BBC would cut at least 2,900 and perhaps as many as 5,200 jobs from its 27,800 employee payroll by December 2007. Some BBC properties and divisions could be sold off, said Thompson, and at least 1,800 jobs from BBC Sport, Five Live, New Media and children’s radio and television would be moved from London to Manchester by 2009.

Among those on whose necks Thompson’s budget axe fell were a fifth of the staff of BBC’s factual and learning division, which produces the popular nature documentary series “Blue Planet.” This had been one of its programs that BBC in the past had pointed to with pride as an example of how its tax-subsidized funding was superior to, and provided things unavailable on, commercial broadcasting. This was what in 2004 Thompson slashed to justify continuation of the TV license tax to fund a leaner, more cost-effective BBC.

The BBC’s broadcast monopoly began to crumble in 1955 when the British Government permitted a competing commercial network, Independent Television (iTV), to commence broadcasting. Although private, iTV was expected to pay the government a hefty fee that today would be approximately $450 million per year plus do public service programming in exchange for the use of its broadcast channels. That fee levied on iTV would help subsidize the BBC. BBC retained its radio monopoly until 1973, hence its political war during the late 1960s against pirate rock music radio stations. Although BBC is nominally non-commercial, it has used its enormous resources to fight for viewers and ratings against iTV and, since 1989, against another formidable rival.

In 1989 Australian Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation re-launched Sky TV with four channels to compete with both BBC and iTV.  As a direct satellite system (like DirecTV in the U.S., now also owned by News Corp.), Sky was not required to pay the heavy fees that the British Government imposed on iTV. Sky quickly became a popular alternative for British viewers hungry for fresh entertainment and news with no left spin. (Sky merged with a failing competitor in 1990 to become BSkyB.)

BBC today, by some measures, has only 28 percent of the audience “share” it once commanded. Millions in the United Kingdom wonder why they must continue to pay a heavy tax each year for a television set license to subsidize a BBC they seldom watch and generally dislike. The royal charter granted to the BBC is reviewed every 10 years and is up for review and renewal in 2006.

Unlike a capitalist enterprise, the BBC needs neither profits nor high audience ratings to survive – but it does need political support. That political support has eroded in recent years for a variety of reasons, among them the hard-left bias and inept political posturing evident in BBC’s programs and public statements.

When Conservative Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister (1979-90) and hinted that she might privatize the BBC, the BBC preemptively attacked her with its comedy series “Yes, Minister” to portray the government as incompetent and self-seeking and to make it a laughingstock. BBC reporters are widely perceived as favoring the left, and as inclined to criticize conservatives and to support the socialist Labour Party. In 1997 the ascent of “New Labour” leader Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister was greeted with rejoicing in the halls of the taxpayer-funded BBC, as were his fashionably-leftwing-but-wealthy political appointees to run BBC, Gavyn Davies as Chairman and Greg Dyke as Director General.

“Of course we want to use the media,” said a Blair advisor quoted by BBC documentary maker and journalist Nicholas Fraser in the May 2004 Harper’s Magazine. “But the media will be our tools, our servants; we are no longer content to let them be our persecutors.”

But when Prime Minister Blair and President George W. Bush worked as allies to remove terrorist-supporting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the BBC responded by slanting its reporting heavily against the military effort, exaggerating British casualties, and giving airtime to every politician and anti-war activist who criticized Mr. Blair.

BBC reports from Iraq became so out-of-kilter that even its own defense correspondent at the coalition command center in Qatar, Paul Adams, filed an internal BBC memo that leaked and was reported in the Labourite newspaper The Guardian:

“I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering ‘significant casualties.’ This is simply not true,” wrote Adams. “Nor is it true to say – as the same intro stated – that coalition forces are fighting ‘guerrillas.’ It may be guerrilla warfare, but they are not guerrillas….”

“Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving ‘small victories at a very high price?’ The truth,” wrote Adams, “is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and costs still relatively low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected.”

BBC reporting so heavily played on the theme of British soldiers wounded and killed in Iraq that in March 2003 the BBC felt compelled to promise more sensitivity to the feelings of soldier family members back home, and that it would show no more footage of seriously injured soldiers.

As a reflection of the bias of its reporters, in February 2003 the BBC had to order some of its top news anchors and reporters not to participate in an anti-war march. Junior BBC staff was permitted to participate as anti-war activists, but then-Director General of the BBC Greg Dyke urged the staff to remain “independent, impartial and honest.”

The flagship of the Royal Navy is the HMS Ark Royal. Its crew in the Persian Gulf became so disgusted with the one-sided anti-war slant of the BBC that they tuned their television sets to Sky News.

“The BBC always takes the Iraqis’ side. It reports what they say as gospel but when it comes to us it questions and doubts everything the British and Americans are reporting,” said one British sailor in the Persian Gulf. “A lot of people on board are very unhappy.”

In July 2003 a report on BBC Radio 4 quoted an anonymous government official suggesting that the Blair government had “sexed up” its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction contrary to the wishes of the intelligence services. When the identity of this official was identified as Defence Ministry scientist Dr. David Kelly, he committed suicide. The investigation that followed found that the reporter had behaved irresponsibly, both by inaccurate journalism and by accusing the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications and Strategy of manipulating the government’s intelligence analysis.

The scrutiny this case focused on the BBC revealed that such bad journalism was common. The London Telegraph obtained other internal BBC memos and emails. In them, one of BBC’s “most senior news managers,” Hugh Berlyn, criticized BBC’s news reports as untrustworthy, littered with errors, inaccurate and potentially libelous because the corporation’s journalists frequently fail to check their facts, and because BBC often broadcasts these stories without oversight by an editor.

One recent example of BBC incompetence happened in December 2004. To mark the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical factory disaster in India, BBC broadcast an interview with a man it described as a spokesman for Dow Chemical Company who promised compensation from a fund of $12 billion for the accident victims and their families. Dow shares fell 3.4 percent on the Frankfurt exchange before this spokesman was exposed as a hoax. Union Carbide, purchased by Dow in 2001, in 1989 paid $470 million as a settlement with the Government of India, which has yet to disperse much of this money to victim families.

The first BBC response to recent criticism about its Iraq coverage was to counter-attack. Richard Sambrook, the news director of BBC World Service, told students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism that American reporters were “wrapping themselves in the flag” and failing to ask tough questions about the war in Iraq.

“We must ensure that we don’t become Americanised,” said BBC director general Dyke, who also accused Prime Minister Blair’s government of trying to “manage public opinion” and “apply pressure” on the BBC.

Like the charter of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) that oversees PBS and NPR in the U.S., the BBC’s Charter and Producer Guidelines state that the BBC shall “…contain comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world…. Treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality…. All programs and services should be open minded, fair and show a respect for truth.”

“The BBC is no longer relied on in the way it was,” said Labour member of Parliament Gerald Kaufman, chair of the Commons Committee on Culture and the Media. “It’s placed itself in a situation where its word isn’t accepted automatically anymore. It’s gone from being an institution to just another broadcaster, and a shoddy one at that.”

In February 2004 the Sunday Times reported that the British government was considering whether to dismantle the BBC.

Days after the release of the finding involving Dr. Kelly, Chairman Davies and Director General Dyke resigned. The BBC, however, announced that it would not fire the editors and reporter in this case.

Detailed analyses of BBC bias with many examples from its news coverage of the Iraq war and the Middle East can be found at bbcwatch.com.  Another web site providing many examples of slanted news coverage at BBC is biased-bbc.blogspot.com.

BBC reporting about the Middle East is usually critical of Israel and sympathetic towards Palestinians. In November 2004 BBC correspondent Barbara Plett acknowledged bursting into tears as longtime terrorist Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat departed for a hospital in France shortly before his death. To the families of Arafat’s many victims, this could be compared to crying with grief at the impending death of Adolf Hitler. This pro-Arab bias is nothing new at BBC. In 1938 BBC launched its first foreign language radio service – in Arabic.

As to its view of capitalism and the United States, the BBC’s choice of commentators for its coverage of the American election in 2004 spoke volumes. One of the only Americans chosen to explain the U.S. elections to the British people was hatchet-man and propagandist for Democratic President Bill Clinton’s Administration Sidney Blumenthal. Another was Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The third was former Central Intelligence Agency director (and this panel’s only moderate) James Woolsey. The fourth was a self-identified hater of President Bush, Daddy Warbucks for leftwing organizations supporting Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, and billionaire financier whose hostile currency speculation in the British Pound led him to be known as “the man who broke the Bank of England” George Soros. The fifth and final American election commentator chosen by the BBC was anti-Bush documentarian and radical Michael Moore. This is how the BBC fulfills its charter requirements for “impartiality” and a “respect for truth.”

“There are many reasons why the BBC should be allowed to survive….” wrote BBC documentarian Nicholas Fraser in the May 2004 Harper’s. “The triumph of television as entertainment means that much of what is important – what we should think, or know about, as a bare minimum, if we are to consider ourselves truly citizens – is pushed out to the edges…. Far from extending knowledge, or increasing literacy, the Age of Information has merely enshrined the notion that people should watch what they want, and not what anyone else considers to be good for them….it protects the right to ignorance….separating us from one another through the simple means of what we watch, hear, or read.

“Judged by such standards,” wrote Fraser, “the low-level aggressions perpetrated by journalists cannot really be called cynical…. The BBC breaks free-market rules, succeeding as a public organization, and this explains why it is hated…. The BBC is a last bastion of intelligent speech and therefore of mass intelligence. It is even more important now than it was during the propaganda wars of the last century – because it is one of the few reliable maps of consciousness still available to us.”

Let us translate Fraser’s vague, patronizing words: he believes the BBC is superior to most people because it is one of the last bastions of the [historically-discredited] left. Citizens should continue to be taxed so that those like himself on BBC can tell them to eat their broccoli, vote for socialist candidates, and think of themselves not as free individuals but as servants of the collectivist state.

Think how reactionary Fraser is in this 21st Century to declare it wrong that “people should watch what they want, and not what anyone else considers to be good for them.” And who is this “anyone else” who determines what the rest of us ought to be shown on BBC? Conservatives are almost never given BBC airtime to share what they believe would be “good” for others. Fraser embodies the smug paternalism that is the left – and the BBC.

In an unconscious glimpse of truth, Fraser noted that George Orwell had worked at the BBC and modeled much of his dystopian novel about totalitarianism, 1984, on what he experienced there.

The Orwellian motto of the BBC is: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation.”

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