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Monday, March 22, 2004

BBC still plays a vital role

LONDON -- The British Broadcasting Corporation has one of the longest and respectable histories among the world's public-service broadcasting organizations. Since its establishment in the 1920s, it has built up an enviable reputation for independence and reliability.

This took a knock recently when the BBC was criticized by Lord Justice Hutton following his inquiry into allegations that it had wrongly accused the government of "sexing up" intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Hutton came to the conclusion that the BBC's report was unjustified and that the BBC had wrongly refused to correct its story.

Hutton's conclusions led to the resignation of both the chairman of the BBC governors and the corporation's director general as well as to an unprecedented apology from the BBC.

The government was pleased with Hutton's judgment, but many British observers, while accepting that the BBC had behaved irresponsibly, were not persuaded that the government was blameless. The failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq suggested to many not only that there had been a failure by the intelligence services in their evaluation of the information they had collected, but also that the government should not have presented its case for attacking Iraq in apocalyptic terms. It had, for example, said Iraq was capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

This controversy has given additional impetus to the discussion of the issues that must be resolved in the review of the BBC's charter now under way. The BBC is currently funded by a compulsory levy of £116 per annum on all occupants of houses containing television sets. Failure to pay the levy can lead to fines or imprisonment -- even if such an occupant never watches BBC programs. As there is an increasing choice of commercial channels, he or she, indeed, may never need to view BBC programs.

A significant number of viewers resent being forced to pay for something they do not want. The levy annoys the commercial television stations, which depend on advertising revenue to fund their programs. They regard many BBC programs funded by the license fee as unfair competition. The license fee is also criticized as being regressive on the grounds that the rich and the less well-off pay the same fee. Many who do look at BBC programs criticize the management of the BBC for "dumbing down" -- using the income from the license fee to produce populist programs.

The last BBC director general, whose background had been in commercial television, is regarded as having been partly responsible for this trend. The BBC management's argument has been that as everyone pays the license fee there should be something for everyone in BBC programs.

It is probable that the license fee will continue at least for a few more years while analog broadcasting prevails. But when digital services replace analog -- by 2010 according to schedule -- it would be feasible to move from a license-fee system to a subscription service since digital services can be encrypted and nonsubscribers denied the service.

At present, unfortunately, only a little more than half the population in Britain can receive digital terrestrial TV.

Apart from the license-fee issue, there is much argument about how the BBC should be governed. The BBC governors, who are appointed by the government to represent a wide spectrum of opinion, are responsible not only for overseeing the way in which the BBC is run but also for ensuring that program content is fair and unobjectionable.

The governors have been criticized as amateurs who do not understand broadcasting and as being dominated by the management. Some critics argue that the BBC should come under the same regime that applies to commercial broadcasters. Others say the BBC governors should be much more professional and more independent than they have been in recent years from the management that they are charged with overseeing.

Every government, whether Labor or Conservative, comes into conflict with the BBC at one time or another when in office. Ministers find it difficult to accept that a publicly funded body can and will criticize their actions and does not reflect their interpretation of events.

During the Iraq war, ministers were annoyed that the BBC maintained their correspondent in Baghdad throughout the fighting and that the BBC did not always report what ministers wanted to see or hear.

Ministers, officials, political parties and their members have frequently objected to the BBC's pursuit of investigative journalism and would like to see these activities curbed. Most Britons, however, who attach great importance to the political independence of the BBC, appreciate the value of investigative journalism that seeks no favors.

The BBC should make some changes in content to conform to its public service remit and to justify its license-fee income. The governors should also become more independent. But I have no doubt that the maintenance of a strong independent broadcasting corporation is very much in the interests of British democracy.

One thing can safely be said. The BBC compares well with other public broadcasting organizations. In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has ensured that his organizations continue to dominate the media. In Russia, the media are subservient to President Vladimir Putin. In the United States, public-service broadcasting has very little influence and the big commercial channels dominate the scene.

In Japan, NHK has not, as far as I am aware, shown any inclination to follow the BBC in investigative journalism. This is a pity. Japanese journalism, with its adherence to the exclusive reporters' club system, maintains far too cozy a relationship with the authorities.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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