The American Way of Scandal

Plunged into what some are calling the worst crisis in its 76-year history, the BBC is struggling to survive

The parallels between George W. Bush's Iraq intelligence scandal and Tony Blair's Iraq intelligence scandal are obvious, and the media have been duly playing them up.

"The president and his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, [are] both now fighting off accusations they misrepresented intelligence to make the case for war," NBC News reported, in a typical twinning of the two stories.

But if the scandals are alike on the surface, they are quite different in their particulars, and the most striking difference of all is the roles played by the media. In Britain, a publicly funded news outlet, the British Broadcasting Corp., is under fire as intensely as is Blair himself, for a piece of journalism it produced on the Iraq war. Indeed, the BBC and the government that pays its bills are engaged in a death struggle with each other, the likes of which we never see in the United States. The question is, who's the bigger villain, the government or the media. But there's a way in which the financial ties between the two inextricably link them, making the scandal even more scandalous.

Over here, in contrast, the American media are not themselves major characters in the Bush intelligence story. No government-funded media outlet occupies a position in this country remotely comparable to the BBC's place in Britain. Imagine if NPR or PBS were as powerful as the major TV networks combined, with a global audience, and you get the idea. The relatively unentangled American media have brought to the intelligence story a healthy alacrity. The old Watergate hunger, dormant for some time, seems to be back. You can feel American news outlets returning to a muckraking frame of mind, giddily sifting for presidential dirt, exactly as they should.

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.

The British scandal has too many dark twists to recount here. In brief, last week's apparent suicide of scientist David Kelly has laid bare an ugly battle between the Blair government and the BBC. Several weeks ago, Kelly was outed as the anonymous source for a May 29 television story in which the BBC's Andrew Gilligan reported that "a British official" involved in the preparation of a key intelligence dossier said that document had been "transformed in the week before it was published, to make it sexier"—more supportive of the government's case for war—and that this was done in defiance of British intelligence.

Called before a committee of the House of Commons, Kelly admitted he was Gilligan's source, but he disavowed the story: "I do not see how [Gilligan] could make the authoritative statement that he was making from the comments that I made." Three days later, Kelly was found dead near his Oxfordshire home, an apparent suicide.

Blair and his senior aides have denied responsibility for revealing Kelly's identity and are struggling to stay in power. "Everyone is blaming someone else," one MP told The Independent newspaper. "It's a pretty horrible spectacle. It's the survival of the fittest—political Darwinism."

At the same time, the scandal has plunged the BBC into what some are calling the worst crisis of its 76-year history, as it fights for its own survival. Both Gilligan and the network have been charged with pursuing an anti-war agenda, and abusing a source so badly he was driven to suicide.

Although they are bitter adversaries in this scandal, the Blair government and the BBC seem, in a way, to be complicit in Kelly's death. 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.

Yet reading the coverage, it's curious to see how those under fire in Britain are talking about fixing this problem. Blair has appointed a "Law Lord" to investigate, and that eminence grise royally proclaimed, "It will be for me to decide, as I think right within my terms of reference, the matters which will be the subject of my investigation." The Financial Times reported that the BBC, which is terrified of increased government oversight, is conducting "a new impartiality audit" that "would enhance editorial scrutiny" by its own board of governors.

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 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.