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BBC Bringing 'Sophisticated' News to America

By Gerard Baker

To much fanfare, and a fair amount of predictable gushing from its liberal admirers in the US, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned bureaucracy that bestrides the UK cultural and political landscape like a colossus, launched a 24 hour news channel in America last week.

Billboards in Manhattan bellowed the BBC's message to passers- by, promising that the corporation would be bringing "news beyond your borders" into Americans' parochial little lives.

The Beeb, as it is known back home, evidently senses an opportunity. It is steadily expanding its deals with public radio stations across the country to carry its World Service news. Online it is already far and away the most used website based outside the US.

Emboldened, its mangers now clearly think the time is now ripe to enter the US TV news market and offer a distinctive product. A few years ago the former boss of the BBC attacked American television news for too slavishly following the government line. Instead the BBC now says in its publicity, it will offer "both sides of the story".

Roughly translated this means the BBC thinks that, while the vast majority of Americans are morons who are perfectly content to swallow right-wing rubbish from their political and media masters, there is an educated and sophisticated elite on the coasts that feels somehow its worldview is underrepresented by the current giants of the mainstream media in the US.

This might come as surprise to Americans casually familiar with the output of CNN, CBS, NBC or ABC but the BBC is happy anyway to add its own little three-lettered logo to the vast and steaming alphabet soup of liberal bias.

Why should anyone worry?

Let me instantly declare an interest. I'm an employee of the Times of London, part of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp global media company, and I'm also an occasional contributor to Fox News here in the US. If you think that makes me an imperfect commentator on the BBC, let me also say that I worked for the corporation for seven years.

The truth is, whoever says it, that the BBC is a publicly funded leviathan, accountable to virtually no-one but itself with increasingly global ambitions, ambitions that in a world of rapidly converging media outlets, are eminently achievable.

It's certainly true that the BBC is run by some of the very cleverest people in the UK. Its drama remains unsurpassed, its entertainment highly popular and it exports its output around the world.

But its producers and managers share one thing in common -a public-sector, European liberal, metropolitan elite view of the world.

Now this is all very well and unobjectionable to the ordinary viewer if all you're watching is elegant and expensive productions of Anna Karenina or the progenitors for shows such as Survivor or American Idol.

But it creates some very visible problems of truth and fairness in the free world when you're talking about the globe's largest news provider, which is what the BBC now is.

BBC News is produced by a very large team of ideological confreres, who, with a very few exceptions subscribe to the smart London set's view of the modern world.

This thinks, roughly, that capitalism is some sort of conspiracy by evil men against the ordinary working stiff and that big government and higher taxes are the only route to a fair society.

It believes that Europe is the acme of human civilization and that if only Britain and America would emulate it (or in Britain's case, completely subsume itself within it) the world would be a much better place.

It declines to call Islamist terrorists terrorists because the word is a value-loaded one, but it never fails to pore in infinite detail over every "atrocity" committed by America or British forces in Iraq.

It thinks in any case that the war on terror was all got up by oil industry tycoons and clever neocons and that there is no real threat from violent political Islamism at all.

It believes Palestinians are the innocent persecuted victims of violence and imperialism (a recent Jerusalem correspondent memorably confessed to weeping openly when she caught sight of Yassir Arafat's coffin at his funeral in Ramallah) and that the murder of innocent Israeli citizens is on a moral par as victims of war with the killing of Palestinian terrorists by Israeli forces.

It scoffs at religious belief (the last head of its vast religious affairs department was an agnostic), but it holds the doctrine that man--made global warming is true with the passion of any enraptured spiritualist awaiting Judgment Day.

It believes passionately in equal rights for homosexuals, though of course it urges cultural sensitivity when dealing with countries where such "deviancy" is rewarded by execution.

(For examples, almost daily, of all of these traits, see websites such as biased-bbc.blogspot.com)

But it is in its America coverage that it come gleefully into its own.

To the BBC's editors and reporters America is a country of backward, grass-chewing, Bible-toting religious fundamentalists, ignorant of almost everything that goes on beyond their shores. Americans are obese, gun-wielding fanatics devoted to despoiling the planet with their greed for ever larger cars and ever heavier hamburgers. The US is a country of grotesque inequalities of income and wealth in which the few rich laud it over the indigent many, fuelled by tax cuts and the hacking away of welfare programmes.

Its political coverage at least is balanced. This says Republicans are greedy, warmongering crooks but Democrats are no better - they're merely paler versions of ignorant nationalist capitalists.

BBC reporters travel the country in a state of bewilderment and bemusement at the pathos of it all. They approach their subjects like missionaries venturing into a leper colony - with an odd mixture of contempt and pity, the perfumed handkerchief stuck firmly under the nose to prevent contamination. Safely back in Washington and New York, of course, they all live high on the hog, fully enjoying the fruits of American economic success and low tax rates. Oddly enough they're nearly always reluctant to leave the imperialist superpower for the social democratic nirvana back home and many find ways to extend their tours.

And now the BBC wants to bring all of that accumulated knowledge and reporting expertise from around the world into American homes -and beyond.

Last month Mark Thompson, the corporation's director general, told the Financial Times that his long term aim was to take on Google and Yahoo as the principal global provider of information.

Of course, you don't have to watch, so what's the problem?

The problem is that while the BBC funds some of its international coverage from commercial sources, its prestige and brand prominence owe entirely to its vast $5bn worth of public funding back home.

This is paid for by a compulsory (yes, this is Europe after all) levy on every household in the UK (on pain of imprisonment for non payment).

Steadily using its privileged poll tax base and the massive resources it provides, the BBC is strangling creativity and enterprise - not just in domestic television and radio, but on the web. With more and more newspaper and magazine readership moving online the BBC is well placed to knock lumps out of large numbers of local and national newspapers - all the while stealthily tilting the world's political consciousness firmly leftwards.

In happier times, Americans' exposure to the BBC was limited to gems such as Fawlty Towers and Are You being Served?

In future it will be no laughing matter.

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email: gerard.baker@thetimes.co.uk

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