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Britain’s BBC Capitulates To a Very American Problem

The increasingly strident tone of CNN and the New York Times has crossed the Atlantic

The BBC’s famous America correspondent Alistair Cooke perceptively observed that the trends and habits embraced by the US almost inevitably migrate over the water to the UK. Admittedly he gave a time lag of about 10 years, but he can be forgiven for not foreseeing how the Internet age would wipe out that interval; nor could he have foreseen how the fabled institution he devoted much of his life to would itself succumb to the rule in the worst way possible by aping the ills that plague the modern American media landscape. 

“A battle is under way for the future of the BBC News,” Roger Mosey, former head of BBC TV News, wrote in a recent article, “Bowing to Twitter culture is bad news for the BBC for the London-based Sunday Times.

The BBC remains, arguably, the UK’s most effective bastion of soft power and an institution that the UK and its people should be grateful for. Working as a freelance journalist in the Horn of Africa, wherever I went, as soon as I mentioned I was a journalist people would ask if I was with the BBC (I wasn’t) or say how much they appreciated the BBC.

The scope of the BBC’s worldwide coverage is indeed phenomenal. The production quality and creative and intellectual range of its radio productions alone are a wonder. During the COVID-19 outbreak, just as during World War II, the BBC’s radio and television broadcasts have been on hand to help the British public get through another crisis, and I can vouch that many a recent broadcast—or from the past and accessed via the BBC’s astonishingly large and varied online repository—has served as a source of morale and inspiration.

In short, I write this as an enormous fan, user and admirer of the BBC—hence after I got into freelancing, which often included doing work for the BBC, when I knew I had an article coming out on the BBC’s main website the next day, I would never sleep well the night before due to a mixture of nerves and excitement that I could never fully explain to myself.

Among the myriad media organizations and editors I have worked with as a freelancer since 2012, I learned the hard way how the BBC and its staff were usually head and shoulders above most others in terms of professionalism and basic decency.

But, as they say, the times are a changing, and the BBC and its relationship with the British public is under severe strain and increasingly vulnerable—perhaps more so now than ever before.

Mosey warns that the BBC risks being drawn into the culture wars that are being fought in UK national life with, if not quite as much vigour as with which they are being fought in the U.S., an increasing amount of shrillness and bombast as per Alistair Cooke’s law.

Mosey notes a July appearance by the corporation’s director of editorial policy and standards before a governmental committee, during which the director discussed the risks of too many BBC staff enthusiastically adopting a work culture that succumbs to the darker side of Twitter and is “adversarial, more argumentative, more combative, more polarised and sometimes toxic.” 

The director might just have called it a work culture mimicking the American model in which media are throwing off any semblance of being objective and non-partisan, instead embracing righteous fury and indoctrination.

The New York Times, which, however you feel about it, stands as a phenomenal institution of American journalism, is reportedly riven by infighting, with a more woke younger staff clashing with a more moderate and older editorial staff. This tension has already seen the Opinion editor forced out after publishing a “send in the troops” op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton during protests in Washington. This was followed not long after by the resignation of columnist Bari Weiss, who in her resignation letter alleged “constant bullying by colleagues,” and commented that while “Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times” it has “become its ultimate editor.”

Mosey sees a similar problem happening at the BBC, with the crux of the matter being “whether the corporation sticks with its traditional values of impartiality and fairness to all sides, or whether it becomes more of a campaigning organization in which journalists shape the agenda to harmonize with their personal views.” 

Already BBC editorial staff are reporting how work is becoming “unbearable” due to being assailed by “pressure groups both internal and external,” Mosey says. 

If that sounds mightily like the NYT, there is a key difference between the two organization that should be borne in mind (and which creates an additional problem where the BBC’s future is concerned). The clue to it is in the geographic modifier of each media’s nomenclature. The NYT, while a national paper, is ultimately a New York paper that is privately owned and speaks for New York.

The BBC, however, is the British Broadcasting Corporation, officially speaking for the country as a public service, and being paid to do so by British taxpayers—many of whom are losing patience with it, hence an online movement to Defund the BBC. This striking parallel with the Defund the Police movement in America is perhaps no coincidence; while Brits on the whole have far less concerns about the behaviour of British police compared to what’s happening in America, the BBC does police the news, in terms of what gets reported on, and in how much detail, etc.

One reason for increasing consternation about the BBC is a perception that it is adopting an unnecessarily negative stance in its reporting, especially when it comes to hot-button national issues; similar to the perception some Americans have about unnecessary America bashing by some American media. The NYT has been singled out for this with its controversial 1619 Project, a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social and economic institutions.

More recently, CNN’s coverage of President Trump’s July 4 speech at Mount Rushmore raised some eyebrows, with a presenter making an introduction by saying the president would be “standing in front of a monument of two slave owners and on land wrestled away from Native Americans.”

“Even a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a major network like CNN to have described Mount Rushmore in such nakedly hostile terms,” Douglas Murray wrote in an article for Spectator USA. “Not anymore. Today every element of the American past is up for grabs.”

Many Brits feel a similar approach is being taken by the BBC in its parsing of the UK’s colonial past, the British Empire and the role of Winston Churchill during its coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the state of racism in the UK. 

Mosey gives a small example of this dynamic at play in the BBC’s coverage regarding a statue in Shrewsbury city of Robert Clive, who played a pivotal role in the establishment of the British Empire in India. A local paper ran the following headline once it was decided the statue would stay: “Clive of India statue to remain in Shrewsbury after council vote.” The BBC went with this: “’Demoralising’ decision to keep ‘racist’ statue,” based on the comments of a protestor. 

Regardless of one’s political leanings, both the U.S. and UK need both the NYT and BBC and all their decades of accrued institutional knowledge and skill to be applied to covering domestic affairs and the respective affairs of each nation. There is a lot going on in both countries that is important, and which has implications on either side of the Atlantic, and all this needs good journalism in overwatch. 

But both institutions are in danger of missing an important requirement, and in doing so undermining themselves, perhaps fatally, which is, as Mosey identifies, the need to shift their organisational cultures to better reflect “the lives that are lived outside the metropolitan and social media echo chambers,” and thereby avoid falling into the trap of narrowing the range of permissible thought while “edging toward groupthink.”

Despite the so-called special relationship between the U.S. and UK continuing to appear on ever shakier ground, events in both countries since 2016 indicate that the significant symbiotic force that Cooke identified remains between the two and can also go both ways.  

Hence when Mosey writes that “there is no obligation on BBC journalists to agree with Brexit voters,” he could just as easily be talking about NYT journalists in relation to Trump voters, with the relevance remaining, crucially, as Mosey goes on to note the important other side to that lack of obligation for BBC journalists.

“But they do need to understand the astonishing range of views in modern Britain and to respect the right to hold them,” Mosey says. 

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. He previously served in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the British Army. He is finishing a book about his army experiences and the challenges of leaving the military and adjusting to a strange new civilian world. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and Instagram james_rfj.

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