BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Here in the States, many column inches have been devoted to the question of the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but so far George W. Bush has yet to feel any serious heat. Not so in the UK. Prime Minister Tony Blair is being slowly char-grilled in the fire of accusations that he used false intelligence reports to lead the country to war. The most scathing criticism of the Blair government comes from a BBC reporter named Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan claims to have spoken with a top intelligence officer who charges that Blair presented Parliament with a dossier that exaggerated the Iraqi threat. The British press has dubbed it--: the "sexed-up dossier."
BOB GARFIELD:Enter Blair's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, the Ari Fleischer of England. Andrew Gilligan's secret intelligence source names Campbell as the culprit to "sexed up" the dossier. Now the feud between Britain's biggest broadcaster and the government has turned personal and nasty. While Campbell and Gilligan threaten each other with lawsuits, debate about the missing weapons of mass destruction has been all but lost in the furor. Trevor Butterworth is a research fellow at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. He laid out the details of the case.
TREVOR BUTTERWORTH: Andrew Gilligan said that a key government dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been made sexier by the inclusion of a piece of information which said that Saddam Hussein could deploy bio-terror weapons within 45 minutes. Three days later, in an opinion piece for the Mail on Sunday Gilligan indicted Alastair Campbell for being the one who made sure this sexy bit of information got into the report over the objections of intelligence officers. Now that's a-- you know, that's a pretty big charge to level on the basis of a single anonymous source--
BOB GARFIELD: But the BBC is standing by its man, is it not?
TREVOR BUTTERWORTH:In the sort of war of words and threats of lawsuits that have followed this event, the BBC have stuck behind Gilligan, who of course memorably said that the people of Iraq were now more afraid after the fall of Saddam Hussein than they, they were during his reign. And I guess they're gambling on one important thing which is that there is a great public suspicion of the spin-doctoring, and the idea that Campbell is this un-elected center of power kind of spinning and shaping and weaving doesn't necessarily play very well with the British public.
BOB GARFIELD:The BBC has made its reputation the world over for being an honest, independent broker of the news. But its style certainly seems to have changed of late. It seems to be more willing to engage in opinion-based reporting or at least more flamboyant reporting. Is BBC changing its news values?
TREVOR BUTTERWORTH: Well yes, it is clearly changing its news values, and there are a couple of reasons for this. One is the fact that every person who owns a color television in Britain must pay around 150 dollars in tax which goes directly to supporting the BBC. As a result, BBC programming carries no advertisements, but they are supposed to provide a certain amount of public affairs programming. Now part of the BBC charter insists that when it comes to controversial issues they provide impartial and accurate reporting, and for years they were the benchmark of that neutral sort of stentorian tones of this-is-the-news-from-London. However -- the, the problem is that the BBC was once a monopoly. Now it faces huge amount of competition from other networks which don't have the requirement to produce the same amount of public affairs broadcasting. So how do you make a news story compete with a drama? Well, you have to [LAUGHS] -- for what of a better word -- "sex things up."
BOB GARFIELD: So to some extent the new style that we're seeing on the BBC suggests a, a sort of ratings-grab.
TREVOR BUTTERWORTH:Exactly. One of the key examples of this that we've been exposed to in America has been the BBC documentary Saving Private Lynch. John Kampfner who produced this documentary which basically accuses the Pentagon of using Jerry Bruckheimer to create its media policy wrote in a recent opinion piece in a daily newspaper that he considered the -- on the one hand/on the other hand style of journalism to be dull and meaningless. Now the problem with journalism that tries to be entertaining is that [LAUGHS] it isn't often very accurate. But they have of course played to a certain constituency in Britain which tends to think of Republicans as dangerous lunatics and Americans as vaguely moronic -- a constituency that's quite happy to trash Israel.
BOB GARFIELD:Do you believe that this is some sort of irrevocable decision made by the BBC and that they are headed inexorably on the path of the Fox News Channel or do you suppose that they might just be feeling their way in this new competitive environment and will eventually pull back a few steps to more resemble the BBC of old?
TREVOR BUTTERWORTH: I'm not sanguine. I mean-- it's really difficult to say whether the BBC are going to find a way out of this, because unless they do something to shore up standards, this is going to be a routine occurrence, and the more it becomes routine, the more the portfolio of charges grows against bias and inaccuracy, then the more the license fee is going to be in danger, which at least for non-news affairs programming would be a, you know, a devastating loss.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Trevor, as always thank you very much.
TREVOR BUTTERWORTH: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD: Trevor Butterworth is a research fellow at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. He joined us from Washington.