Tell me if you've heard this one before: prominent journalist with a quarter century experience at a nationwide broadcasting network leaves said network to write tell-all book exposing its liberal bias. Said journalist remains on cordial terms with many of his former colleagues, but officially, the network itself hardly acknowledges the book's existence, thus refusing to advance the debate about its biases and assumptions. What's this man's name?
If you immediately said, "Bernard Goldberg!" well, you've got the right idea, but the wrong country.
Robin Aitken joined the BBC in 1978, working initially on local BBC station Radio Brighton and eventually finishing his career as an on-air personality on their influential "Today" radio show, now in its 50th year. (Not to be confused with the American NBC's equally long-running morning television show.) He left the "Beeb" in 2005, and has recently released Can We Trust The BBC?, published in England and the US by Continuum, and available from Amazon.com
What is the BBC's worldview? "I think the BBC, by and large, lines up behind what I would term the progressive consensus on whatever issue one happens to be talking about," Aitken recently told me. "So for instance, during the era of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the BBC was too willing to find excuses for Soviet misdeeds and excesses; was too sympathetic for the notion of unilateral nuclear disarmament; was too hostile and suspicious of the motives of the US.
"In other words" Aitken continues, "it was too skeptical of the West and its motives; not skeptical enough of the Soviet Union and its motives. And I think that in bending over backwards to be fair, it often tips the other way, and is actually unfair to our side if you like."
How powerful is the BBC's influence? When the Tory-oriented Internet TV channel 18 Doughty Street interviewed Aitken in February, host Tim Montgomerie began the show by asking "Which is the most powerful and important institution in Britain? Is it the Royal Family? Is it Parliament? Is it the National Health Service? Well, you could make a good case for the BBC being certainly one of the most important institutions in our country."
If that sounds like hyperbole, it's certainly fair to say that the BBC, originally founded in 1922, and made a state-owned but independent corporation five years later, does have much greater power over a single nation's worldview when compared with any one American television or radio network. And very deep pockets as well: the principal source of the BBC's revenue is England's monthly television license.
"A Powerfully Corrosive Internal Culture"
It was that February appearance on 18 Doughty Street that helped to give Aitken an audience beyond England. A clip explaining that he witnessed a poster comparing President Bush to Hitler in a key BBC newsroom received extremely wide play in the American Blogosphere, including on two of the highest trafficked blogs, InstaPundit and Little Green Footballs.
A few years ago, Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post gave this sort of leftwing American hatred of President Bush its name: "Bush Derangement Syndrome," or BDS for short. But what's the BBC's excuse for BDS? Aitken believes that Bush's strong religious faith is one reason. "His overt Christianity is something that BBC by and large, finds intolerable in politicians. Certainly no British politicians would open themselves up to the accusation that they were religious. Tony Blair has felt the backlash from the BBC. The BBC hates any hint at all that politicians have some sort of religious hinterland. It despises that as a sort of superstition."
Aitken believes that the Bush=Hitler poster and the mindset that finds it acceptable to hang in newsroom that prides itself on objectivity is the mark of "a powerfully corrosive internal culture in the BBC, which acts upon individuals." Aitken adds that "I know my colleagues, or my ex-colleagues, I should say, well enough that they are honest people, and I would never say differently. I don't think that they are lying or conniving at telling untruths. I just think that there isn't enough heterodoxy in their political viewpoint to make for a healthy political balance in the output." Or as Roger Ailes of America's Fox News Channel said in early March, "The greatest danger to journalism is a newsroom or a profession where everyone thinks alike. Because then one wrong turn can cause an entire news division to implode."
It's true that Fleet Street continues to service a diverse political strata of England's readers, long after big American city newspapers consolidated on a policy that combined a liberal worldview with a bland institutional tone. But in terms of broadcast media, BBC's radio and (particularly) television programs virtually draft the single tone for the news that the vast majority of English viewers receive.
Aitken describes it, "a vast 24/7 propaganda machine, churning out a set of views on moral and social issues, and that has its effect over time. The fact that Britain is, in many ways, a very liberal society, I think a lot of that is due to the influence of the BBC, which has undoubtedly molded public opinion on a lot of these issues."
Post-9/11 Complaints of BBC Bias
Somewhat similar to conservative criticism of Reuters, complaints of bias in the BBC were given much more conclusive proof after 9/11. For Reuters, it was Stephen Jukes, their global news editor's remarks immediately after 9/11 that "We all know that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Aitken says that the BBC has a very similar worldview when it comes to the Palestinians.
"My view is that the Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership is the architect of its own misfortune in many ways. Whereas, what comes across from the BBC's presentation of events in Palestine and the Middle East generally, is that in some ways, the Palestinians are a put-upon victim minority, and it's the beastly Israelis who are doing the dirty to them.
"And you know, that is not a fair presentation of the position. Because the Israelis are militarily strong and successful, and the Palestinians aren't, I think the BBC allows that too much to play at its judgment, so that what comes across is too much sympathy, if you will, for the Palestinians, too little appreciation of the rights of Israel, and also too little recognition of the fact that Israel is a functioning democracy in a way that Palestine isn't, and nor is any Arab-dominated Middle Eastern state, and not enough credit is given for that in my view."
Similarly, another BBC bias is obvious from their tone of Iraq War coverage. During the war's early days, Aitken was still affiliated with the BBC, via its "Today" radio show. While Aitken viewed the Iraq War, at least in its early days of liberating Ba'athist Iraq, as a positive turn of events, his opinion was an outlier in the halls of the BBC. "Now, you can take whatever view you wish of the Iraq War. But it isn't the BBC's place to have a view in that sense of such a thing. Now, of course this view is never made explicit, I should hasten to add: the BBC doesn't come out and say, 'We think the Iraq War is Wrong.' But the tone of the coverage, the negativity, of the coverage, the starting point for all the discussions about the war" tacitly demonstrates those biases. "I think it took a clear editorial view, from the very first, that the Iraq War was mad, bad, and dangerous," and thus filtered that opinion to its millions of listeners, all the while, feigning objectivity.
An Official Cold Shoulder
While Bernard Goldberg was extremely well regarded amongst his peers in CBS, once he went public with his charges of bias at "The Tiffany Network," he quickly found himself on the short end of a cold shoulder, beginning in 1996, most famously from Dan Rather, after Goldberg's initial article on media bias hit the Wall Street Journal. "Bernie, we were friends yesterday, we're friends today, and we'll be friends tomorrow," Dan Rather said back then, the last time he spoke to Goldberg. When Bias, the book that sprang from that article was eventually released in 2001, "media elites ignored it," Goldberg told me three years later. "Then, when they couldn't ignore it, because it hit The New York Times' bestseller list, some of them got incredibly nasty and mean spirited, and personal."
Predictably, Aitken's new book seems to be meeting a similar fate from his previous employer, although Aitken is quick to add, "I remain on good terms with many of my former colleagues", noting that many of them appeared, off the record, in his book. "Of course, being on good terms with them on a personal level is very different from the view that the BBC," as Aitken draws a long intake of breath, "takes of me officially."
Is Eventual Demassification Possible?
While there are occasional calls for the demise of England's broadcast tax, it's doubtful that it will be going away anytime soon. But it is possible that the BBC's power could slowly be diluted in other ways.
This is somewhat akin to the current state of American news organizations. One of Alvin Toffler's favorite words is "demassified," the splintering of mass production, or in this case, mass media. In the 1970s, the US media essentially consisted of three television networks, two weekly newsmagazines, and as a result of mergers and consolidations, all but the largest metropolises were reduced to one ponderous Big City Newspaper. And they all took their lead from the New York Times and the Washington Post. Then came cable TV. Then Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio. Then Fox News. Then Drudge, and then the Blogosphere. While those original three networks are still there, their power has been dramatically diluted. (See: Rather, Dan.)
Slowly, the same thing is happening in England, with several new television channels, the aforementioned 18 Doughty Street Internet TV station, and prior to its launch, lots of new Web and blog sites. But Aitken advises caution: "One hopes very much that we'll begin to see the pack ice breaking up, and that new voices like 18 Doughty Street and others will gain more of a foothold and eventually will become more important, and challenge that hegemony of the BBC. It hasn't happened yet, but it might happen in time."
And perhaps, one day in early 2009, the Bush=Hitler poster might even come down off that BBC newsroom wall as well.
But let's not ask for miracles.