‘The Beeb’ Beams War Home to Yanks : Radio: American Public Radio supplements its news with BBC reports from London, offering a European perspective on the conflict.
U.S. news coverage of the Persian Gulf War has a new accent. More than 100 public radio stations across the country now carry BBC World Service programming live from London. Many news-hungry Americans, when they can tear themselves away from CNN and network television broadcasts, are eating up every crisply-spoken word.
“Americans hear the BBC and say that must be true,” said Ruth Hirschman, general manager of KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica. News read by BBC announcers has an effect on American ears that Hirschman calls “the Leslie Howard syndrome,” essentially an equation between a British accent and everything that is “honorable, noble and truthful.”
BBC World Service programs such as “Newsdesk” and “24 Hours” have long been a global staple on the international shortwave radio bands, but relatively few Americans listen to shortwave. Now, however, a link connecting London’s Bush House BBC studios and member stations of the American Public Radio network via transatlantic fiber-optic cable and satellite is bringing “the Beeb” to household FM radios. As a supplement to their American-based coverage of the allied war against Iraq, stations such as KCRW and WBUR-FM in Boston currently carry five hours of BBC news daily.
“The inclusion of the BBC gives us a more fully-rounded coverage,” said Jane Christo, WBUR’s general manager. In her view, the BBC provides an American audience a European perspective on the war and has “a less insular quality” than home-grown news coverage.
A BBC profile of Saddam Hussein, broadcast in the early days of the war, Christo said, was “more dispassionate” than the picture given of the Iraqi leader by American reporters: “That story said something I hadn’t heard before. It was not filled with rhetoric. It was very objective.”
The growing presence of the BBC on American radio airwaves goes hand-in-hand with the international success of CNN’s television coverage of the Gulf War. In both cases, instantaneous electronic coverage of allied bombing raids, military press conferences and Iraqi responses feeds a seemingly insatiable global appetite for up-to-the-moment news.
KCRW broadcasts BBC World Service programs as part of its “War Watch,” which includes Gulf War coverage by National Public Radio, CNN’s radio service and locally produced programs. “The appetite for learning and experiencing new ideas is at an all-time high,” Hirschman said.
Transplanted Europeans are among the BBC’s new American FM audience. Shirley Williams, a former Labor MP and founder of the Social Democrat Party, now teaching at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is no longer forced to tune in the BBC at midnight on her shortwave radio:
“The great difference between American and BBC coverage has been that while American opinion seems to be more unsettled than British opinion about the war, the BBC paradoxically carries a much wider variety of views.”
For Americans, tuning in to the European perspective of the BBC and the globe-hopping capabilities of CNN may open their eyes to more than the effects of bombing raids, said Ben Bagdikian, author of “The Media Monopoly” and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.
“I would hope that with CNN and the BBC that an important part of the American audience would begin to see how parochial the networks and the print media are,” Bagdikian said, calling the BBC a “serious news service” and much of American news “semi-entertainment.”
In a crisis like the Persian Gulf War, he said, American networks “parachute in a celebrity anchor who, after adjusting his trench coat, delivers his authoritative summary of what’s going on.” By contrast, Bagdikian said, BBC correspondents typically have long-standing assignments and can provide “a global perspective.”
Not all Americans are entirely sanguine about BBC coverage. Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University and former editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, worries that Americans may be unduly swayed by the Leslie Howard syndrome.
“You have to be skeptical,” he said, particularly when the source of news is unfamiliar. “When the effort on all sides is to control information, all sources of information are welcome. At the same time, any source of information, British or otherwise, I’m a little concerned about. I don’t know the care with which they verify information.”
In the BBC’s defense, Bagdikian responded: “There are such things as track records and reputations. The BBC has been the most-believed news service in the world, and that doesn’t come easily.”
The inroads that the BBC World Service is making on the American news audience may mean that public-radio stations will continue to carry its programming even after the war ends. WBUR’s Christo, however, would have to see some further changes in traditional British-based reporting.
“If I had my wish,” she said, “they’d leave out the cricket scores from Cardiff.”