Don’t box the Beeb

Variety Editorial

The BBC is at the center of a political firestorm, this time over a news report alleging that the British government “sexed up” a dossier to heighten fears that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.

There’s also a growing contingent that believes the BBC may have “sexed up” or not properly vetted its own report.

The scientist who was apparently the only source for the story, Dr. David Kelly, committed suicide late last week on the heels of bruising Parliamentary questioning about his role in the affair.

The highly charged controversy comes at a tricky time for the Beeb. It is already dodging bullets from local critics who claim its coverage of the Iraqi war was not impartial, from Israeli officials who allege it’s relentlessly pro-Palestinian, and from right-wingers Stateside who deride it as the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corp.”

To make matters worse, the BBC is just beginning the latest round of politicking to have its 10-year royal charter (i.e. its funding) renewed by the government — this at a time when feisty commercial competitors across Europe are questioning the very logic of publicly funded broadcasting.

This is not the first time that the British pubcaster has carped at a government: It has a long, healthy tradition of criticizing official policies, from those of Winston Churchill to those of Margaret Thatcher, and indeed sees its role as that of defender of the public trust.

Nonetheless, this latest incident has particularly galvanized Beeb detractors, including editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal, who believe it may be time to pull the plug on the pubcaster’s $2.6 billion annual license fee funding.

That its journalistic practices are as rigorously investigated as it prides itself on doing to others is a good thing: Using this incident, however, to reduce the BBC to the status of a cap-in-hand PBS would be a blow to freedom of the press.

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