BBC America and The Virtues of a Free Press

bbc news_final.JPGLike most British expats, I subscribe to the digital cable channel BBC America to help keep in touch with culture back home, whether it’s Graham Norton, The Office, or the fantastically entertaining car-show-that’s-not-really-about-cars Top Gear. BBC America’s lineup used to be largely fluff, though hugely entertaining and well-written fluff. As a First Amendment scholar, though, I was quite interested by their recent decision to produce a nightly BBC News telecast for the American market, which they call BBC World News America (it also airs later each evening under a slightly different name).

I’ve only watched the show a few times, but have been very impressed by it. Two stories in particular struck me for what they say about the potential for television journalism. The first story was an interview with former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in which she discussed her intentions to return to Pakistan and run for election as a moderate. Broadly speaking, Bhutto is certainly the kind of candidate that many Westerners would like to see in charge in Pakistan – moderate, Westernized, and a speaker of fluent English. One could thus have forgiven the BBC for giving her an easy time. But they didn’t. The interviewer (also the anchor) Matt Frei gave her a torrid time, asking her tough questions about how she could believe that a moderate woman could effectively lead an increasingly radicalized and fundamentalist Islamic state. Bhutto rose to the challenge, but that’s not really the point. The point is the willingness of a television news reporter to subject a world figure to sustained questioning, going beyond the offered platitudes of a politician to try to get at the truth. It’s something that the major US networks (let’s not mention local news) with the possible exception of PBS could learn from.

The second story was earlier this week – a video of life in Burma smuggled out of the country by a brave BBC journalist who could have been imprisoned or worse for merely making the video. The video showed the streets of Myanmar, armed soldiers, and interviews with pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks in hiding. It showed the value of an independent press, as well as why the media is often the first thing authoritarians (or would be authoritarians) seek to discredit or control.

My point about all this is not to praise BBC America for airing such a serious program (though they deserve praise, even if the commercials they air during it are a bit odd), but rather to make a more general point about First Amendment law and social norms. In the US, First Amendment doctrine guarantees broad protections for the media, freeing them (in practice, if not overtly in theory) from government control, defamation liability, privacy claims, and other sorts of public or private legal controls. But when it comes to a free, independent, and vibrant press (I’m tempted to say uninhibited and robust also, to quote NYT v. Sullivan), law is not enough. Press protections are necessary but not sufficient. We still need journalists who are willing to ask tough questions of important national and international figures, and we still need journalists who are willing to risk imprisonment or even death to report the news. In other words, the social norms of journalists need to be strong, and they need to be oriented to their traditional mission of informing us about what we need to know. We live in a time of infotainment and profit-driven media where we seem to have more reporters covering Brangelina than the War in Iraq. I also think it’s true that there is more hard news on Comedy Central than on NBC. These realities can (and should) give us pause. But the BBC World News America blueprint is a courageous one, and as someone that cares about a vibrant and aggressive free press, I hope it not only succeeds but catches on.

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4 Responses

  1. Neil, very interesting points. I’m a fan of various forms of BBC News available here in both TV and radio mediums, though I haven’t seen the “America” version yet. You are certainly correct that questioning by even a garden-variety BBC reporter is more intensive than Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press, widely regarded as the toughest interviewer in the American news media. The US media definitely could learn a lot from BBC norms.

    And yet, I have two qualifications, or at least two further thoughts:

    1. I often find that BBC norms for questioning go significantly too far in the other direction. Maybe this is just cultural. But I sometimes think an interview subject can barely get out the word “hello” before a BBC reporter is asking hostile, leading questions, sometimes of the “when did you stop beating your dog?” variety. Sometimes this pointless “gotcha” by the journalist simply distracts from the substance of the interview.

    2. Can competition among news outlets have a negative effect on the values you name? For most of its history, the BBC was the only significant news broadcaster in the UK, supported by public funds. There are private alternatives now, but they got such a late start that the Beeb was already well-established. It is such an article of faith among US lawyers that media competition improves quality. Is that overly simplistic? Did the BBC’s standards arise in large part because they were incubated in a sheltered environment where journalists were free to feature news from Myanmar without worrying that the audience were all off watching double murders and cute pet videos on a competitor’s news broadcast?

  2. Frank says:

    Very interesting points, which remind me of Balkin on an infrastructure for freedom of expression:

    http://balkin.blogspot.com/2007/04/two-ideas-for-access-to-knowledge.html

    “Freedom of speech– and Article 19’s right to receive and impart information and knowledge– depends on an infrastructure of free expression.

    What is in that infrastructure? It includes government policies that promote the creation and delivery of information and knowledge. It concerns government policies that promote transparency and sharing of government created knowledge and data. It involves government and private sector investments in information provision and technology, including telephones, telegraphs, libraries, and Internet access. It includes policies like subsidies for postal delivery, education, and even the building of schools.”

  3. Bill – thanks for the thoughtful questions. On your first question, I think that journalists can go too far in scoring debating points, but I think I’d rather err on the side of aggression. Of course, an aggressive reporter in a competitive market can lose the ability to interview public figures in the future, which leads nicely to your second question about competition.

    If the BBC is the only game in town, or at least so powerful that it has to be dealt with, then politicians have to deal with it and can’t duck questions or refuse to talk to it. In a world of wild competition, politicians can grant “exclusives” to reporters who will softball them or otherwise do things to make them good (i.e., questions like “Mr. President, why do you love America so much?”) I think that in this regard, wild competition can be bad for news media, at least insofar as market competition for eyeballs and profits can also drive news outlets towards infotainment and/or Hard Copy.

    There’s a great irony here – the two most respected television entities in terms of hard news are the BBC and arguably PBS in the US. Both are essentially government entities, although they are largely firewalled off from political interference through a combination of law, norms, and the ability as media to scream bloody murder if the government tries to mess with them. But on the other hand, a state-owned media is usually not a recipe for a vigorously independent press (see, e.g., Russia, Burma). To the extent that the legal framework is indeterminate here, I’d argue again that it’s underlying cultural norms about the importance of a free and independent media that are more important than formal legal rules (or even the presence of absence of competition) in terms of sustaining intellectual and political freedom.

  4. Frank – I agree. I’ve found Jack’s work (especially his essay in NYU about expressive infrastructure a few years ago) really persuasive in terms of framing the real issues at stake when it comes to modern expressive culture and its relationship to First Amendment guarantees.