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BBC World Dis-Service

02.25.2002 | RADIO

Criticizing the BBC World Service for the quality of its coverage is a bit like complaining that your desert canteen imparts a metallic taste to the water. At least you aren't dying of thirst.

BBC World Service is a godsend for any American looking for "War on Terror" coverage that isn't tainted by the parochialism and borderline jingoistic bent of US news organizations' broadcasts. Even our beloved National Public Radio is falling down. They've become so fearful of raising the ire of one special interest group or another, they've returned to their standard middle-of-the-road flavor of "objective" reporting. Their focus is back on what they do better than anyone — human-interest pieces like the fate of Mullah Omar's unfinished mosque in Kandahar or the return of traditions surrounding the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in Afghanistan. To get hard-hitting international news, you have to go to the BBC.

And yet, a BBC tendency that I used to find only slightly grating has become so pronounced that I've become a bit...ungrateful. It isn't the hauteur that invariably says "you silly, silly non-British people." And it isn't their often-simpering treatment of third world leaders. It's the choices they make about who to interview. They've covered the response to the September 11th attacks in the way they cover just about every other development.

Announcer: And now we go to correspondent Jonathan Cooke in the United States to learn about the general mood there....
Cooke: I've come to the third grade special education classroom of the Adna R. Chaffee School in Barling, Arkansas to find out what the general reaction to the terrorist attacks has been. Mrs. Edna Caruthers is the teacher here in room 12. Mrs. Caruthers, what do Americans make of these heinous crimes? Do people feel that the terrorist attacks are simply the delayed result of America's arming of the Mujahadeen in their war against Soviet occupation?
Caruthers: It's sad. Really sad. We have to kill whoever did this.
Cooke: Yes, sad. Indeed. Now I'm talking with one of Mrs. Caruthers' students — Cindy Ward of Barling. Do you think that President Karimov of Uzbekistan should allow US and British ground troops to be staged in his country?
Ward: I think...umm...God bless America.
Cooke: Yes, he will, no doubt. How do you see the perceived coziness between the Bush Administration and the leadership in Islamabad affecting the situation in Kashmir?
Ward: I can't really say. But I think we should go to war.
Cooke: Well, there you have it then. Tomorrow I'll find out what American military analysts are making of Tony Blair's call for 'proportionate, targeted' action by speaking with a nine-year-old Boy Scout in the candy aisle of a West Memphis, Tennessee Walmart.

On most nights I listen to the BBC Newshour program while I wash the supper dishes. As I stand at the sink, I'm at least seven thousand miles away from Afghanistan. When a BBC correspondent reports widespread Afghan support for continued US bombing in southeastern cities, he bolsters the statement with "random" interviews of the locals. Everyone he speaks to sounds like they wouldn't mind having a laser-guided bomb dropped right on their head.

And then I remember: the World Service is funded directly by UK Foreign Office grants. The BBC's guidelines state that the World Service "aims and priorities must be agreed with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office." How would the UK's state department feel about a report that revealed that some innocent Afghans would like the bombing to stop? Could the BBC correspondent find nobody who thinks it's time to stop dropping bombs that seem to easily go astray of terrorist targets, despite their technological advancement?

Perhaps it is unseemly to ask more of an organization that offers information in 43 languages. But as other outlets cut back their budgets for international news, the Service's 153 million weekly listeners are sure to be joined by more and more people hungry for worldwide coverage. How hard is it to run a quick survey or poll? In the very least, we deserve a one-sentence explanation of how the correspondent came to choose the interviewees as representative of the general population.

Perhaps it's time to add a corollary to that old law of information consumption "consider the source." Consider the source's choice of source.

About the Author
David Allen Forrester is a writer living in New England.
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