TCS Daily

The Beeb Easy

By Val MacQueen - September 9, 2005 12:00 AM

It's said that half of Louisiana is underwater and the other half is under indictment.

That is one quote that the BBC, in its extraordinary coverage of Katrina, missed, but it gives a truer snapshot of Louisiana and the city formerly known as the Big Easy than anything the BBC manufactured in its recent willfully ignorant reportage of how George Bush intentionally withheld aid from black citizens whose plight he had caused by his refusal to sign the Kyoto thingy.

With an inexcusable lack of acquaintance with the political structure of the US, particularly the separation of powers between the states and the federal government, and Louisiana's 200 years of institutional corruption, the British Broadcasting Corporation barreled into New Orleans with pre-fabricated opinions which it broadcast back to Britain standing against local backgrounds. (Except Matt Wells, who filed his reports from his air-conditioned condo in LA.)

However much BBC correspondents continue to misunderestimate him, Bush had been trying for three days to get Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to declare a state of emergency so he could release federal funds and aid and have them on the spot when Katrina hit. Blanco and her sidekick, NO's hopeless mayor (dubbed "genuinely heroic" by BBC correspondent Matt Wells), who had 500 school and local buses lined up per New Orleans' contingency plan and watched passively as the water rose and rendered them inoperable as tens of thousands of people in the Superdome endured a nightmare, Mad Max world.

This was not, however, the way the BBC's foreign correspondents saw it. British viewers got more dramatic eyewitness reportage from Matt Frei, actually on a freeway overpass in New Orleans. He reported with heavy irony, "[after days of neglected misery], the cavalry is on the way." - unable, as always in a Bush context, to resist western movie clichés. In any event, did Frei's eyes deceive him? It was clear from watching the footage that General Honoré and his 40 vehicle convoy were not "on the way" but were on the streets of the city and in control.

The willful ignorance is breathtaking. Speaking in torturously contrived, insulting clichés is part of the drill. "The winds of Katrina will howl down the corridors of power for many years to come," keened Frei, clearly thinking Bush is Blanco's boss and he could simply take over the reins if he chose. Wells lamented with a similar lack of grasp: "New Orleans partied-on just hoping for the best, abandoned by anyone in national authority who could have put the money into really protecting the city." (As a blogger named Ed riposted on "What, do these party goers have a sovereign right to party, with central government picking up the bill?")

But it's not just George Bush who makes Matt Wells sick. The people in Santa Monica also turn his stomach: "In the workout room of the condo where I am currently staying in the affluent LA neighborhood of Santa Monica, an executive and his personal trainer ignored the anguished television reports blaring above their heads on Friday evening."

Both Wells and Gavin Hewitt, independent of each other, referred dramatically to "the American dream" -- one of them illustrating his story cleverly with a shot of an American flag drooping on a windless day. From Wells, this carefully crafted phrase: "home-spun myth about the invulnerability of the American Dream." No knowing what that means. Also Wells, from his luxury LA condo almost 2,000 miles away, spoke of "federal agencies staying tucked up at home".

Hard on the heels of the two Matts came another prat, Gavin Hewitt, togged out in tropical gear and possessed of an outboard skiff which he guided along the flooded streets. The drama was diminished, though, by people walking by in the background in water just up to their knees. He stopped outside one home where there were children guarding their dead mother's body. Worried neighbors, clearly mistaking the crew for an official rescue boat, said the children ought to be taken away. Well, never let it be said that the BBC declined a chance to interfere in a foreign country, and minutes later, Hewitt was helping the eldest girl out and onto the boat for the killer shot: a close-up that filled the screen of the BBC bwana's hand grasping the black hand. Take that, you prejudiced Americans! Not knowing what to do with them once they'd got them on board, they dropped the five children off on a freeway flyover.

Back to the flooded streets and Hewitt speaking from his boat to a camera that was presumably held by a BBC man walking backward through the shallow water. It was unbelievable, he said angrily, how long it was taking the authorities to come to these poorest neighborhoods to rescue people, although he had to raise his voice as he spoke as there were three or four helicopters hovering overhead winching people up. Needless to say, help was "too little, too late". Why no large wheeled vehicles, he demanded? Instead, "it's pickup trucks and guns. More guns than doctors." Well obviously, to have equal numbers of both, military personnel would have to carry a doctor as well as a gun.

Back home in London, the prestigious current affairs show Newsnight weighed in. Moderator and inquisitor-in-chief Jeremy Paxman, under normal circumstances possessed of a sharp intelligence, suffers, like so many other on-camera BBC employees, from a form of Tourette's syndrome whenever President Bush's name is mentioned. Among his comments on the program, according to blogger Natalie Solent, were "This is going very badly for the Republicans", despite that the Republican administration in Mississippi was doing blazingly well and the collapse of New Orleans civil order was solely caused by Democrat ineptitude. Unable to stop himself, he kicked out again, hopefully, "This is going to have a big impact on the way President Bush is seen by history, isn't it?"

Not really. But the BBC isn't going to come out too well.

The author is a TCS contributing writer. Further reading on this subject:



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