BBC America and The Virtues of a Free Press
Like 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.