The British Broadcasting Corporation

A View from the USA: A Gilibert-and-Sullivan BBC

The political fallout of these scandals remains to be seen, but the media lesson is already pretty clear. The British mess shows that, for all our bellyaching about the American media, compared with the rest of the world our journalism is a model of sanity.

For an outside observer, it's hard to overlook the fact that behind the scenes, the two are in bed together anyway. The British government funds the BBC through a tax called a "license fee," and a board of governors appointed by the prime minister runs the network. Despite these ties, the BBC has a global reputation for editorial independence, and on the surface this story seems to underline that status. After all, the Gilligan piece challenged the legitimacy of Blair's decision to go to war.

There's an almost comic, Gilbert-and-Sullivan quality to all of this, particularly the notion that a news outlet will somehow improve through scrutiny by government-appointed overseers. The (newspaper) story continued: "Under a four-point plan ... the [BBC] governors will receive more-frequent reports on editorial policy; conduct regular surveys on public perceptions of BBC impartiality; invite outside analysis of editorial content; and ask bodies such as the Royal Institute of International Affairs to produce detailed reports on significant areas of coverage."

Can impartiality be regulated? Thankfully, Americans don't worry about such things. In our intelligence scandal, money's not changing hands in the background, government to media, and nobody has slit his wrists. The American media are gunning for the president in a fashion that looks, next to the British analogue, downright healthy.

William Powers
Atlantic Monthly

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