The Very British Broadcasting Corporation

The Very British Broadcasting Corporation

In their more pessimistic moments, the British like to think of the BBC as one of the few national institutions that actually works.

In their more pessimistic moments, the British like to think of the BBC as one of the few national institutions that actually works. Parliament may have ceded many of its powers to Brussels, the Royal Family may be turning into a particularly grim Whitehall farce and not even a fascist dictator would have a hope of getting the trains to run on time, but the British Broadcasting Corporation is revered for upholding the values of a bygone age. Most Britons would no sooner question the Corporation's integrity than they would the punctuality of Big Ben.

Hence the shock and dismay - and, ultimately, the cynicism - that greeted the publication in January of Lord Hutton's report into the circumstances leading to the death of the government weapons expert, Dr David Kelly. After weeks of fevered speculation in the media - most of it dwelling on whether Prime Minister Tony Blair would manage to survive the criticisms expected to be levelled against him by the law lord - an official regarded as the epitome of honest, incorruptible justice - the report's findings were all the more devastating. While the government largely escaped censure, the BBC found itself castigated for its lax editorial standards. On the day the report was published, the Corporation's Chairman, Gavyn Davies, announced his resignation. The following day came an even more grievous blow as the director-general Greg Dyke fell on his sword (or rather, was gently eased onto the blade by an unsympathetic board of governors),  to be followed later in the week by Andrew Gilligan, the journalist whose suspect reporting of comments made by Dr. Kelly had been the original source of the controversy.

But if Mr Blair was largely absolved from blame, the public seemed unimpressed, and before long he was once again on the defensive. Given the choice between trusting the prime minister or the BBC - known colloquially as "Auntie" - the British public appeared to choose the latter. As a result, the Corporation has managed to portray itself as the victim of an Establishment conspiracy. The truth, however, is that it has undermined its own  reputation through its own tendentious reporting.  Given the growing influence of tabloid values in the broadsheet press over the last 20 years - a point that many British journalists prefer not to dwell on  - the BBC has played an increasingly important role as an arbiter of good reporting.  But today most of its news and current affairs output adheres to a shallow, left-liberal consensus.  In the months after September 11, the lack of balance has become all the more striking. An instinctive hostility to American values and policy has become the house style.

It would be reassuring to think there has been a groundswell of public indignation about this lack of balance. Sadly, there isn't. The reason is that another - rarely discussed - factor is at play here. The BBC's core middle-class audience supports the BBC because both harbour a fundamental distrust of the US. Many Americans view Anglo-American relations as suffused with the reassuring warmth of a Mrs. Miniver screenplay.  As historians such as Angus Calder have shown, casual anti-Americanism was widespread in Britain during World War II and middle-class disdain for those uncouth but increasingly powerful ex-colonials on the other side of the Atlantic dates back at least as far as the era of Fanny Trollope.  In the War on Terror, it has become even more pronounced. The lower down the social scale you go, the more likely you are to find pro-American sentiments: the "lower orders", the people who have led the steady growth in the satellite TV market are the people who flock to Florida every summer. For the middle classes, America remains, by and large,  the home of the gun lobby, political extremism, the death penalty and MTV.  It is, of course, a ridiculously lop-sided view, but it is the conventional wisdom. American opinion-makers, in their rush to applaud Tony Blair's courageous stance on Iraq, ignore this inconvenient fact. 

Is this an alarmist view of the special relationship? After all, opinion polls regularly show a clear majority of Britons express greater warmth towards America than towards countries of the European Union. (The veteran pollster Robert Worcester - himself American-born - has expressed surprise at how durable the figures have proven.) But I suspect that statistics tell only part of the story. For one thing, expressing a liking for Americans in general is not the same as approving of America as a country. One of the observations I have heard most frequently in the last two years is:  "I don't have anything against Americans. It's their government I can't stand."  More importantly, the generally positive  poll figures could be masking the level of hostility within the professional and middle classes.

For some reason, this is a subject that is rarely addressed on either side of the Atlantic. British anti-Americanism is, you could say, the dirty little secret of the War on Terror.  Americans, understandably, prefer to remember the images of the Star Spangled Banner being played at Buckingham Palace in the days after 9/11. But that was, in its way, as much of a media event as the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad last spring. Washington insiders rightly talk of the need to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world, but there is plenty of work to be done in the towns and villages of Britain too.


*Clive Davis, a 2003 media fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes for The Times and is the "Letter From London" columnist of The Washington Times.