BBC BIRTHDAY PARTY CLOUDED

Some birthday.

BBC television marks its 50th anniversary this week, an occasion being toasted this month and next with exhibits and rich galas in London, New York, Washington and Los Angeles. The BBC is on its own nostalgia trip, moreover, airing special fare noting its origins and its enormous growth into the world's greatest broadcasting institution.

But hold the cards and telegrams.

Dear old "Beeb"--the exporter of so many swell goodies to the United States and inspiration for "All in the Family" and other American comedy hits--is in danger of having some of its candles blown out.

Even as the BBC celebrates, it is still financially tenuous and--yet worse--is facing its biggest threat ever from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's BBC-bashing Tory government.

News and public affairs programs are the prime targets.

Bias is today's four-letter word, though.

The BBC is biased to the left, according to many Conservatives, who are demanding that the BBC--whose impartiality is mandated by royal charter--mend its ways or else.

"No government will ever believe the BBC is on its side," a senior Thatcher aide said. "Politicians like people who love them, not those who don't."

He charged, however, that the BBC "is falling from its high standard of objectivity, and people want to know why it can't get back to it."

Objectivity, though, is in the eyes of the beholder. "There is a blurring of news and comment on the BBC," said Tim Brinton, a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) and former BBC presenter (as news anchors are called here). "I want the BBC to remain as independent as possible. But the price of independence is balance. If I was a BBC investigative reporter," Brinton said, "I'd be looking over my shoulder."

Exactly.

"Morale is extremely low here," a veteran BBC investigative reporter said about the huge Conservative/BBC row blazing across newspaper headlines. "It's pretty hard to get going in the morning if you know that everything you do stands a chance of getting spiked by your editor on the grounds that it's not good for the BBC."

Because it may not be good for the prime minister and her party.

Perhaps that was on the minds of BBC editors last week when the BBC delayed reporting the embarrassing resignation of Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Jeffrey Archer over a widely reported call-girl scandal.

Asked about self-censorship by BBC news staff in response to the barrage of Conservative criticism, BBC Assistant Director-General Alan Protheroe replied: "If they feel so unmanned by a political party, I want them to get out. They're lily-livered. Let them go somewhere else. If people will be intimidated by a party and witlessly extrapolate from that that the BBC is crumbling, they should get off the ship now."

Protheroe called the Conservative attack politically motivated and the latest in a campaign to label BBC journalists as "pinkos. That is garbage," he said.

Thatcherites, observers say, are merely reflecting a traditional conservative mistrust of public institutions. And the BBC is very public, its money coming from an increasingly controversial license fee (currently $85 per color set) that is established and collected by the government.

Hence, for all its arrogance, bluster, size and tradition, the British Broadcasting Corp. seems terribly fragile these days.

Depending on your critic, it is either too sprawling, too poorly managed, too politically opinionated or all of the above.

It is an octopus, embracing two national TV channels (competing with two popular commercial ones) as well as four national and 30 local radio channels (most Britishers still prefer their 64-year-old radio system to TV, whose BBC schedule appropriately appears in a weekly BBC magazine titled Radio Times).

The BBC is also bloated. The present cost-pinching of American TV has not reached the BBC. There are 30,000 on the TV and radio payroll, at a splatter of sites, and its swollen public relations department alone employs 350, probably more than the combined PR staffs of ABC, CBS and NBC.

The BBC does seem to be a management haze, its top hierarchy being a government-named board of governors, chairman and director-general whose ways are frequently mysterious and inexplicable.

"So inept bureaucratic cretins are determining our fate," a documentary producer charged. But who makes what decisions is open to debate. "You never know who's running the BBC," said another documentary producer, echoing a widely held opinion.

Charges of left-wing bias may seem faintly familiar in view of the recent decision of America's PBS to conduct an internal review of its program policies in response to mounting conservative charges of a leftward PBS drift. The global witch hunters are cueing up.

The debate here is much louder, though. Was October the jarring month that cracked the BBC's back?

Item 1: The BBC retreated and abruptly agreed to pay a combined libel settlement of nearly $750,000 to two Tory MPs accused in a 1984 BBC public affairs program of having ties to alleged right-wing extremists in the Conservative Party. The costly settlement--coming after BBC management had stiffened behind the program and vowed to fight the suit--was a humbling defeat that triggered Conservative demands for the resignation of BBC Director-General Alasdair Milne. There were also loud rumblings that despite its reputation for independence, the government-beholden BBC had bowed to political pressure in backing down. "That's absolutely not true," Protheroe said.

Item 2: Only last week, the Conservatives charged the BBC with pro-Libyan and anti-American/Thatcher bias in its news coverage of last April's U.S. bombing of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, launched from British bases.

Previous British governments, including former Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson, have also attacked the BBC. But last week's self-serving salvo--inspired by Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit apparently with Thatcher's approval--was an unprecedented assault building to a "High Noon" that could affect the future of British broadcast journalism.

Incredibly, Tebbit backed the Libyan coverage charges with a critical 21-page, line-by-line comparison of two BBC newscasts with two others on ITV, the nation's commercial TV network that Conservatives insist is fairer. The attack was so sharp that even some Conservatives publicly questioned Tebbit's tactics.

Meanwhile, the BBC was readying a detailed rebuttal to this latest criticism even as Tebbit was reported to be preparing additional charges of bias.

After America bombed Libya, Thatcher again bombed the BBC. To an outsider, used to subtler government pressure on the media--Spiro Agnew's criticism of the press notwithstanding--it's almost too bizarre to be believed.

America's PBS viewers think of the BBC as embodied in the tweedy correctness of silvery Alistair Cooke, host of the dignified "Masterpiece Theatre." BBC programs have been the heart of that series, whose theme song alone stiffens your upper lip.

That is our BBC, though, not the embattled BBC whose costume dramas are sometimes rapped by Tories as undermining government programs and national ideals.

This week, moreover, some Conservatives were charging that a yet-to-be-aired BBC drama on health was maligning the National Health Service and that the program sounded like a Labor diatribe. That would be like the White House criticizing NBC's "St. Elsewhere" for being unpatriotic.

An irony is that even the shrillest TV news here is stuffy--even musty--compared with the vast majority of Fleet Street's shrieking Loony Tunespapers that operate freely and often irresponsibly.

Unlike them, though, the BBC is constantly having to live up to its own greatness and virtuous tradition.

How has this calamity befallen a BBC so stuffed-shirt when it began its first "illustrated" news in 1954 that it refused to show news readers on camera lest a shifted facial muscle reveal an opinion?

Not overnight. During Thatcher's seven-year tenure alone there have been numerous instances besides those already cited, of the government accusing the BBC of slanted coverage.

They include criticism by Thatcher and other Conservatives in 1982 that BBC coverage of the Falklands War was unpatriotic.

The BBC suffered a crushing blow to its reputation in July, 1985, after additionally acceding to the home secretary's "request" that it yank a scheduled Northern Ireland documentary featuring an interview of an official of the outlawed Irish Republican Army. The program was later aired with minor alterations only after BBC and ITV journalists struck in protest of political interference. Protheroe contends that the BBC was planning to temporarily withdraw the program anyway and that the strike was irrelevant.

Then last September, Conservatives charged a BBC docudrama with being left-wing propaganda, and a writer of another docudrama claims he was asked by the BBC to make it harsher toward Thatcher.

The present bitter tiff has temporarily overshadowed the ongoing crisis of BBC funding: whether the license fee should be dropped in favor of a pay-per-view system, supplemented by advertising or left intact. There's already strong feeling for the "privatizing" of radio.

The BBC is in a Catch-22. It has imported such lesser-brow American series as "Dallas" and "Dynasty" to attract a large enough audience to justify its license fee, which falls hardest on the poor. But purists then cite these shows as evidence that the license is too high for the value received.

"The BBC has got this great reputation, but it never does anything original," a young BBC producer complained. "Whenever you see anything creative, it's on Channel 4 (the newest commercial channel)."

In many ways, though, the BBC is still grand and unique.

One of its 50th anniversary specials is a two-hour documentary tracing its bumpy relationship with the nation's prime minister. It's a remarkably candid self-appraisal that includes episodes of early BBC incompetence and dishonesty, Wilson's paranoia about BBC coverage and a taped conversation of Thatcher's press secretary pressuring the BBC to share its Falklands footage with ITV, then reporting to Thatcher that he'd succeeded.

Far more extraordinary, though, is an addition by the program's BBC narrator that censorship of the 1985 Northern Ireland documentary "showed how vulnerable the BBC could be to political pressure."

That is a startling public confession and the kind of performance that has always set the BBC apart from other global broadcasters.

"All this Conservative fuss over the BBC is so typically British," said a Fleet Street newspaper reporter who covers entertainment. "Why must we try to fix something like the BBC that already works? Why don't we fix something that doesn't work--like the phones?"

Amen--and happy birthday.

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