April 29th, 2008 by Rightsideup

I experienced the BBC’s wonderful journalistic independence once again this morning during a visit to London. On Radio 4, which is probably the closest equivalent to PBS stations in the US because of its focus on spoken rather than music content, they had two guests on to discuss the notion of whether the US was morally bankrupt.

In the BBC’s version of balanced coverage, this meant that both guests agreed with the statement, but only disagreed on how far gone the US is and whether it can be turned around. One of the guests – Will Self – is a professional basher of America (and the UK, for that matter – perhaps that’s where the balance comes in). He trotted out the usual tropes about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what he called America’s “prison gulag” (no, not Guantanamo, though that also came up, but the prison system itself), gerrymandering of congressional districts, the influence of lobbyists etc.

The other guest was Simon Schama, who as a historian knows his history but apparently not current affairs. He made a bizarre comment at one point that “the Bush government was actually removed from office in Congress in 2006” which rather betrayed his ignorance of the US political process or at least a clumsy way of talking about it. (worryingly, he’s apparently working on a documentary called, “The American Future: A History”, which will be shown before the US elections in November).

Predictably the discussion varied only in the strength of the adjectives applied to the phrase “morally bankrupt” (completely, utterly, astonishingly etc), but perhaps the most telling moment was when Schama was trying to make a positive point about America’s exportation of democracy to Iraq. He said that, whatever one believed about democracy in the US, in Iraq they had recently had an election with no gerrymandering or lobbying, and asked the host Jim Naughtie whether those elected in this manner wanted the US to immediately pull out. Naughtie responded with a mumbling and entirely disingenuous “I don’t know,” to which Schama bravely responded, “Yes you do” but it was dropped at that point. Apparently having an opinion as a BBC host is fine unless that opinion agrees with the facts but is in conflict with the BBC’s narrative on a particular news story.

Having missed the beginning of the segment it wasn’t until the end that I realised the trigger for the discussion was a debate which is being held this evening in London on the topic, “America has lost its moral authority.” According to the event website, Schama is actually one of those opposing the motion, which is a little worrying. The other two opposing the motion are not the most obvious candidates either – Martin Amis and novelist Howard Jacobson. There are no Americans on the panel, on either side. It’s yet another reminder that the default position for most educated Brits is to hate America and believe that all its values amount to nothing more than a fairytale.