BBC America and The Virtues of a Free Press

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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.