When O'Reilly Takes On the BBC
The call came around 2 in the afternoon from a woman at the Fox News Channel asking if I would consider appearing in a few hours on "The O'Reilly Factor." I was initially wary but still interested. Wary because of the combative reputation of the program's host Bill O'Reilly, yet interested because it is the top-rated "news" show on cable television, reaching millions of viewers each day.
The topic sounded compelling: "How well is the BBC reporting the war against Iraq?" As the CEO of a media firm that produces two web sites dedicated to examining and distributing global media, the ongoing coverage of the war from different perspectives is something I am currently consumed with. Moreover, I had recently seen several emails from BBC News chief Richard Sambrook concerning the network's inner debate over how best to cover the war.
The peg for the segment I was being considered for was an internal memo written by BBC defense correspondent Paul Adams and leaked to Britain's Sun newspaper. Adams told his network supervisors, "I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering 'significant casualties.' This is simply not true. Nor is it true to say - as the same info stated - that coalition forces are fighting 'guerrillas.' It may be guerrilla warfare but they are not guerrillas.
"Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving 'small victories at a very high price'? " Adams demanded. "The truth is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and costs still low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected."
When the story of Adams' discontent broke, Sambrook responded in a public way. "Nobody, including the media, has the full picture of what's going on," he told the BBC's Breakfast program. "Reporting the war is about putting together fragments of information. We're all trying to work out this jigsaw and what the overall picture is." He added that verifying facts was particularly difficult when engaged in live, continuous coverage.
"The difficulty with a 24-hour news channel is you're trying to work out live on air what's true and what isn't," Sambrook said. His comments closely echoed what he had written in his emails.
Adams' memo appeared the sort of thing one tosses off in the heat of a private moment, replete with forceful but exaggerated language, and intended to make an impression upon, no doubt, overburdened superiors such as Sambrook. In comments to the London Telegraph, a BBC spokesman described it as "the kind of debate about editorial tone that's going on in newsrooms all over the world.
"This is an immensely complicated and difficult story and the big challenge for the BBC, as for other broadcasters, is getting the balance right. We think we get it right most of the time but we know we don't always," he concluded.
Instead of spinning the story and pretending they never made mistakes, Sambrook and his colleagues admitted that they were human, while making the point that that the "fog of war" sometimes obscures the beacon of truth – at least initially, and particularly on live television. Any honest practitioner of journalism will tell you as much.
It soon became apparent, however, that the "O'Reilly Factor" should be instead called "The UnReality Factor," and that host, the author of the best-selling "No-Spin Zone," inhabits a space more like the "News Twilight Zone" than anything else on television.
"Isn't the BBC really putting out propaganda," his booker asked. "It's own correspondents are saying so." When I demurred, she sounded frustrated - after all her job was to find an "appropriate" guest in a couple of hours, and the clock was ticking. "What about what Andrew Sullivan said – that the BBC should really be called the 'Baghdad Broadcast Service?'"
"That sounds like hyperbole," I responded. "Even Sullivan can't really believe that the BBC is deliberately distorting the news to favor the Iraqis."
She sounded disappointed that I sounded so difficult – or perhaps so reasonable. In any event, we agreed that arguing over whether or not the BBC was actually in the service of Saddam was getting us nowhere.
"I'll have to talk to Bill and get back to you," the booker concluded. "He has the final say over who comes on the show."
An hour later she called back. "I'm really sorry, but this isn't going to work out for tonight," she said. "You would be great talking about the general media coverage of the war, and overall issues of objectivity and balance. But tonight Bill is looking for someone who has more of a sense of what goes on inside the BBC itself."
I reminded her of the emails on the topic received from inside the BBC. "I don't think this is going to work out for tonight," she insisted. "But I'll definitely keep your phone number and put you on sometime in the future!"
Rory O'Connor is the CEO of Globalvision Inc.