The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) has been an icon of public broadcasting since it was founded in 1927, and is often mentioned as a model worthy of emulation in the campaign for an authentic public broadcasting system in the Philippines.
Its first director-general declared that impartiality is the essence of professional broadcasting. It has a reputation for independence, a virtue supposedly assured by the funding of its television, radio and online services through a mandated share in the license fee on every transmitting device (e.g., TV and radio sets) sold in Britain regardless of what government, whether Labor or Conservative, is in power.
That independence hasn’t always sat well with the politicians, however. For example, as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher — the same Thatcher who died last week and whose long, problematic watch has been widely criticized in the UK, although not in the Philippines — sacked its director-general in 1987, for, among other offenses, BBC’s “bias” against the Conservatives, especially during the Argentina-UK war over the Falklands (Malvinas), when BBC was accused of giving equal time to the statements of both Argentine and British sources. Critics say the BBC has since then never been the same again.
The BBC has not been immune to other controversies. It has been criticized for bad reporting, among others, and, in 2012, for example, for compromising its ethical standards in connection with charges of sexual misconduct against one its staff.
One of the latest controversies to dog the BBC is its late March decision to send a team of journalists to North Korea with a group of students from the London School of Economics (LSE) to clandestinely produce a documentary on that country for airing in its “Panorama” series. BBC has since been criticized for supposedly deceiving the students, putting them in danger, and compromising any future LSE attempts to undertake research in other countries.
But the only people they deceived, said BBC reporter John Sweeney, were the North Koreans. Criticized by, among others, some of the students and by the group Universities UK which represents about a hundred British universities, Sweeney and BBC argued that the documentary was in “overwhelming” public interest in the context of the tensions on the Korean peninsula, and the threat of a thermonuclear war the North has made against both South Korea and the United States. Some Western news organizations were mildly critical of BBC, but others defended its tactics because of the documentary’s “public interest value.”
While there is no arguing that understanding what’s going on in North Korea is a matter of public interest, the bottom line is whether the risks to which BBC exposed both the students as well as themselves was worth it.
In BBC as in the rest of Western media’s eyes, North Korea is “reclusive,” as well as “the hermit kingdom.” It is ruled by an irrational, despotic head of state. It is “unpredictable,” “unstable,” “brutal” and “irresponsible,” a “rogue state” once described by former US President George W. Bush as part of the “axis of evil” involved in the funding, promotion and instigation of global terrorism.
And yet BBC risked discovery — by a state it and its Western media counterparts regard as totally merciless, unpredictable and brutal — that the students it was using as a “shield” (LSE’s description of what BBC did to its students) and its journalists had entered North Korea under false pretenses, and could have been thrown into prison at the very least. Its own conception of what North Korea is underscores its own recklessness-with the very lives, or at least the liberties, of the group it was with as well its reporters’ — it has been accused of.
Meanwhile, the argument that “It was only the North Koreans we deceived” not only burns bridges to that country for BBC and any journalist who may in the future want to report on that country even if he or she would be in compliance with its laws. It also confirms — in black and white; in words it can cite — the North Korean government’s belief, or bias, if you will, that journalists will lie for the sake of a story, and can’t be trusted.
Beyond that, however, is the disturbing implication that as far as deception goes, there are entities, perhaps an entire people or an entire government, that journalists can deceive with impunity, apparently on the presumption that being in that category depends on the media organization’s and journalist’s judgment.
It’s not only arrogance but also a declaration of bias and entitlement. It puts journalism on the same footing as those governments and States that for whatever reason are in an antagonistic relationship with another government or State. The BBC entered North Korea with the same preconceived notions about what the North Koreans and their government are as those States and governments antagonistic to it.
Which leads us to the documentary itself, and back to the question of whether it was worth the risks BBC took to film it. What will make it worth it is whether it has something earthshakingly new by way of information or insight into a country that has been talked about, analyzed and reported to death, despite its alleged reclusiveness. (Some Western news agencies do operate in North Korea.)
Judging from the preview BBC has presented, which, echoing others before it, describes the country as “bleak” and “depressing,” “poverty stricken,” etc., it’s hardly any different from similar attempts in the past to make sense of what’s happening in that country.
If BBC’s current troubles are of any relevance, it is the need for those advocates of public broadcasting in the Philippines to appreciate the complexities and nuances inherent in discharging the news media responsibility of obtaining, processing and disseminating the information the public needs so it can arrive at intelligent opinions about the world.
Among the usual points raised whenever developing an authentic public broadcasting system in the Philippines is discussed is the need for assuring the system’s financial independence. True enough, financial independence being crucial to editorial independence. But while it should be the main thing, is not the only thing.
As relevant is the need to constantly remind the practitioners who will man the system of the ethical and professional pitfalls that lie in wait for those who have chosen journalism not only as a career, but also as a commitment to meeting the human need for knowledge and understanding. Journalism’s not just a job, and while the story’s important, how a journalist gets it and at what cost are as vital.
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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
April 18, 2013