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An American perspective

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 15:17 UK time, Friday, 7 September 2007

We often do stories based on what the United States' leaders, diplomats or military do or say, and I periodically get complaints accusing us of following an agenda set by Washington and giving too much prominence to American policy.

Here’s a recent example which came in about our coverage of US-Iranian relations:

    Once again, the BBC approaches international affairs as an issue worthy of discussion only in so far as American policy is concerned. The real point at issue - Iranian support for middle-eastern extremism - is ignored.

The exchange I had with this listener raised a couple of issues in my mind and reminded me of some of the editorial discussions we had in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks and the US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The World TonightOne reason we give such prominence to American actions and statements is obvious. The US is the most powerful country in the world and its actions have a global impact - whether it be in invading Iraq or turmoil on the US stock exchange, for instance.

But do we - as my correspondent above says - ignore too often what the 'other side' do?

This is what took me back to our editorial discussions during the US attack on the Taleban in Afghanistan in 2001. I was working at World Service at that time and in one morning editorial meeting we were debating what the US strategy in Afghanistan was and what impact American action would have, when one of our specialists on the Middle East made the point that the Americans were in Afghanistan because al-Qaeda had attacked the US in an operation that had clearly been in the pipeline for some time - it was al-Qaeda that had set the agenda, if you like. He said we should not forget that al-Qaeda or the Taleban could be planning further attacks which could help set the news agenda again.

Capitol, WashingtonIt was a salutary warning not to become so preoccupied with what the Americans were doing and planning that we ignored other actors in the story and how their actions could affect events.

The other question listeners have raised is whether we frame our coverage too much from an American perspective, which leads us to give a distorted picture of the world.

I have had complaints that our coverage of the US-Iranian dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme has fallen into this trap. Some listeners have accused us of forgetting the run up to the Iraq invasion when the Americans and some of their allies made allegations about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which turned out to be without foundation. They say we give undue weight to the American allegations against Iran which help reinforce the idea that Iran is a threat to the West.

I think there may be a danger of this and certainly on The World Tonight, we try to make sure we also reflect the Iranian view of its relations with the US and its nuclear programme. In addition, we try to report as wide a range of stories from Iran as we can so that listeners hear more about Iran than the debate about its nuclear programme (last year we were part of the Radio 4 season on Iran which aimed to give a rounded picture of the country).

US soldiers in IraqThis takes me back to an editorial debate we had during the invasion of Iraq. Al-Qaeda had posted a message which had threatened retaliation against the West and one of our correspondents had described the threat as “ominous” in a despatch. One of my colleagues made the point that the Americans were openly talking about “shock and awe” as their tactics in Iraq and this could well seem “ominous” for ordinary people in Baghdad expecting an imminent American assault, but we were not using such language to describe the American statements - a good point which stuck in my mind.

As a global broadcaster, we have to remain aware that people in different parts of the world may view events in different ways and see them from different perspectives. It is also important to reflect these different perspectives on the news agenda to our audience in the UK if we are to help them make sense of what is going on.


  • 1.
  • At 04:11 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • stating the obvious wrote:

But you're not a global broadcaster. You're the British Broadcasting Corporation.

If people abroad want you to be even more anti-USA then you already are then they can pay the licence fee instead of us.

  • 2.
  • At 04:44 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • DaveH wrote:

Quite accurate - indeed, the claim that Iran is backing ME extremism rather overlooks the old adage that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

What is equally worrying is that the recent N24 trailer about your permanent correspondents showed that you have chosen to fill the ME with them, yet there is no permanent correspondent in Berlin, capital of the largest EU state. Your coverage of Europe generally is poor - and yet what happens in Europe will have the biggest effects on our daily lives.

There is rarely anything beyond the main EU nations' central elections and I am sure many people know more US and Israeli leaders than they do Europeans.

While I suppose it is probably easiest to get "filler" footage from the US, I really do not see that most reports from inside the US are worth bothering about as they reacha level of trivia that would never be seen in European coverage.

So, yes, have a good long look at the balance of your coverage, but not just in how the US's current oppoenent is acting.

  • 3.
  • At 04:51 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Alexander wrote:

Out of curiosity, when does the BBC think it's OK to take sides... do you have a policy on that?

As an example, ten years ago Climate Change was a claim made by some scientists and denied by others. Now it's reported as fact, at least most of the time, and the BBC considered holding Planet Relief. On the other hand, with 'cash for peerages' the BBC clearly never felt the evidence was overwhelming (and neither did the CPS).

In the future, I can imagine you might face a similar situation with regards to Iran backing insurgents in Iraq (or not), British soldiers being involved in war crimes, or government embezzlement. Are there guidelines on when something stops being 'alleged' and 'claimed,' and instead becomes true?

  • 4.
  • At 06:09 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Malheiro wrote:

It's extremely surprising not seeing any comments on this yet and I'm glad to see that BBC is paying some attention to this issue.
I'm sad to say that, although I take BBC as a very serious organisation, I always take their news about middle east and the Arabic World with a grain of salt, because a feel it tendentious to the American/Israeli side. I don't want to say that it is intentional, but our view of the world is influenced by our background and it's really hard for anyone, even a journalist, to avoid that. It is natural for BBC to side with the US, given the history of that country and Great Britain.

  • 5.
  • At 06:41 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • an American wrote:

As an American living in the U.S., I rely on the BBC News to provide me with more rounded coverage of U.S. events than what I get here. I'm sorry that some (like those above) feel it's too U.S.-centric overall, and I do understand where they're coming from with regards to EU reporting. I'm just glad I've got this resource!

  • 6.
  • At 06:41 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Timothy J. Paul wrote:

As a regular online reader of BBC news and also as a U.S. citizen, I don't believe that you could be accused of taking up for the American point of view. In general, I find your reporting of stories, whether, local or international, to be balanced and fair. When it comes to local stories, they are presented from the UK point of view, just as local stories here are reported.

In fact, it is precisely because I seek the UK point of view that I turn to the BBC. I an assure you that your reporting of a story is very often far better done that what I find here from CNN and others.

Timothy J. Paul

  • 7.
  • At 06:47 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Bob Latimer wrote:

Because of the BBC's vigilance about not just reporting the American side of issues is why I have BBC International as my homepage. U.S. journalists have become lazy and just accept the governments press releases and regurgitate them, rarely challenging them. It's refreshing to read "World" viewpoints on issues, many that never make it to the U.S. media.

60 years in Kansas

  • 8.
  • At 06:58 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • De Leon wrote:

I'd like to echo the first comment. In my travels throughout Europe and Asia this year, the BBC least produces reports from an American Perspective. They do a wonderful job along with CNN of displaying a great deal of discontent and hate for America. Any reducing of reporting by this organization would be of the greatest relief from an American Perspective.

  • 9.
  • At 07:01 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Xie_Ming wrote:

The BBC is, indeed, the ONLY World Broadcasting corporation. A position it has held since 1938, at least.

Weak young people are naturally afraid of heat and the effect it might have on their careers.

How about a section of COUNTERPOINT to follow news and analysis, wherein the Devil's advocate has his say?

  • 10.
  • At 07:10 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • seamus mcneill wrote:

The reason you give so much prominence to American policy is that it gives you marvellous scope for unrelenting criticism.

  • 11.
  • At 07:28 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • A. Alex wrote:

The reality is you cannot reflect the different perspectives of the world simply because you are representing the western view "NOT THE WORLD VIEW". Indeed, it is difficult for you to deviate from US news agenda because you share same values, background and interests. I respect the BBC as a great news organization but when I read your stories I do not take as world stories but just western side of the stories, and then I move on to see other perspectives around the world.

The real tragedy though is when the media become an instrument for politician’s agenda, then you loose what ever credibility you have in the world view. Good example was the Iraq war propaganda campaign. BBC was not completely innocent for that matter either.

  • 12.
  • At 07:48 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Jason Lisburn wrote:

I'm afraid you've committed a telling Freudian slip:

"that al-Qaeda or the Taleban could be planning further attacks which could HELP set the news agenda AGAIN"

Truth as you've so eloquently put it is that the agenda HAS already be set, and further attacks are needed to 'market' it centre stage in people's minds. How do terrorist attacks HELP anything?

Had this 'war on terror' been anything but a fraud and the BBC not working to Intelligence briefs your statement would have been:

"that al-Qaeda or the Taleban could be planning further attacks which could set the news agenda"

The difference is huge. It's shaming. The BBC has become nothing but a propaganda mouthpiece for an undisclosed agenda.

As another example, how about the BBC reporting of the collapse of WTC7 on 9/11 BEFORE it happened (the building is quite visible over the reporters shoulder).

Some of the BBC's work is exemplary, but the problem lies in the editorial; what your best reporters and documentary makers tell us, the editorial 'branch' won't stitch together.

The mask is slipping...

  • 13.
  • At 09:23 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Michael Kenny wrote:

The BBC does not have an American perspective, it has a British perspective. Part of that perspective, though, is a degree of open-mouthed awe at all things American which is greater than in most European countries. That perspective makes all British media outlets look "pro-American", but once the news consumer knows who he's dealing with he can allow for the "skew". And I have never heard anyone complain that a media outlet was unfairly biased against a point of view with which the complainant disagreed!

  • 14.
  • At 10:16 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • John wrote:

DaveH is absolutely right. We get reports of US happenings that are of little or no significance to us in Britain, while European or world affairs of more direct relevance are sidelined.
The BBC is fascinated by all that is American. A recent example: when a hurricane was heading for the Caribbean, the faint possibility that it would reach Texas (or Florida?) was given as much prominence as the imminent arrival in Jamaica and Mexico. And rather than tell us how many millions of Mexicans on the Yucatan peninsula might be in peril, we were told that it is a popular holiday destination for Americans. As if, without that fact, it was hardly worth mentioning.

  • 15.
  • At 10:21 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Rochelle wrote:

As an American I find that I appreciate the BBC approach to news much more than its counterparts in the US. It appears that you have a much more global approach to your news coverage than what we normally get in the US. Biases ... perhaps ... but I haven't seen blatant bias in favor of the US. In fact, I find your perspective on news from or in or involving the US quite refreshing most of the time.

  • 16.
  • At 12:03 AM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • Rob wrote:

What surprises me about not only the BBC but all the media ( even Aljazeera ) that almost every fight around the world now is labeled a terrorists action. Mostly connected to Al Qaida. It shouldn't take to much selfawareness to realize that you are being played for a fool. Do you realy think this could be true?
War and fighting are as old as humans. They happened and probably will happen all around the world for years to come. But they happen for all sorts of reasons.
You make the world believe there is a common enemy. A goal to unite against. Something that is so bad it is alright to bombard countries and their people, women and children indiscriminately. Because the threat to the world is so great.
That is what you and all the media engaged workers should realize.
It gets embedded in the society. There are only terrorist out there.
You and other media outlets have been helping spreading fear. Creating this global enemy.
My experience is that the world is complex. The view you give is to narrow, simplified maybe. I do not claim to know what has happened anywhere then in my own surroundings but everytime i hear Afrika, terrorist, Afganistan, terrorist, Iraq, terrorist,russia, terrorist, ...
you hear Al Qaida, Al Qaida, Al Qaida.
Stardom you have given to Osama Bin Laden. If he speaks the world trembles.
That is what you help create. And i think you should feel responsable for it.

  • 17.
  • At 02:33 AM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • Irina Somerton wrote:

The BBC does NOT at all have a "pro-American bias" in policy terms.

What it does have, however, is a perfectly understandable tendency to skew its focus towards reports concerning US politics, US foreign policies and the US economy.

This is quite understandable because of the importance of these factors and their impact on Britain as well as on the rest of the world, due to America's economic and military power.

In addition, one should not overlook or discount the historical and cultural factors that render America of special interest to the British, just as they make Britain of special interest to Americans: the shared history of Britain and America, the English language, the economic ties, the 'strategic' (i.e., intelligence sharing) ties, the cultural ties, etc., make America very accessible and familiar to the British, just as, again, they make Britain very accessible and familiar to Americans.

The same phenomenon that some viewers have mentioned - the reporting of US-based stories by the BBC - occurs in the other direction, very frequently, in the US.

ALL of the American news programmes do reports on interesting happenings - some trival, some significant - in Britain. For example, there have been numerous reports in recent weeks on Big Ben having been temporarily silenced, and on the new female Beefeater at the Tower of London.

Trivia of that sort occurring in other countries almost never turns up on the US news programmes. And the same point is true where significant news stories are concerned. For example, when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as PM, there was a lot of interest in that event shown on American news programmes, as well as a lot of anxious analysis of whether Brown would maintain as close a relationship with the US as Blair had done.

The contrast of that, with the skimpy interest shown by the US news media in the replacement of Jacques Chirac by Nicholas Sarkozy as President of France, was striking, especially in view of Sarkozy's attempt to mend fences with the US government, after so many years of the anti-American Chirac.

The explanation of that is that Americans are more interested in having a close and good relationship with Britain than in whether there is a good or bad relationship with France.

The BBC's tendency to be more interested in what happens in America than elsewhere in the world is duplicated and perhaps exceeded in the US news media.

It's a mutually visible aspect of the Special Relationship, folks. what's wrong with that?

  • 18.
  • At 02:47 AM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • Christina wrote:

Many more conservative Americans feel that the BBC news is biased slightly towards anti-Americanism. However, as a Canadian-American that spent 3 years residing within the M25, I realise that the BBC news tends to be moderate in term of British reporting...and (not suprisingly) probably biased towards a European perspective of world issues. That said, I am always impressed by the scope of the reporting.

The BBC is a global broadcaster in some senses, (World service and satellite coverage), but the audience here is certainly not global in understanding in oh so many ways!

In this country the public and the press is often very critical of what Americans know of the rest of the world, while we also gobble up American culture by the bucket load. But this only serves to show our own ignorance and hypocrisy.

My mother was born and brought up in Burma - a daughter of the empire if you will. When I was young someone asked "did she have slaves?" When I pointed out that they did not have slaves in the East and that the pupils in her school and her friends were British, French, German, Burmese, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Siamese, Australian ...

Well, they were quite incredulous. That was more than 30 years ago. 5 years ago I had almost the exact same conversation with someone else.

We are superlatively ignorant of our own history and the role we play in the world - so how can we judge others in the offhand manner that we judge the US?

When you broadcast to the UK about the US, I think you forget that people here simply do not understand America and her people.

I once joked that the US is a nation of people standing round the edge looking in. A touch unfair, perhaps, but I had good reason for being to flippant.

If we want to ski, we go to Switzerland. If we want to sunbathe we go to the Med. If we want to play golf we go to Portugal. If we want desert we go to Africa. If we want forests we go to Norway ... you get the picture.

If an American wants surfing - they have some of the best in America. If they want mountains, they go to the Rockies. For Desert they go to Arizona. For Theatre they go to Manhattan.

To be quite honest, they have absolutely no reason to leave their country - and most don't. Their exposure to other cultures is what people bring to them.

Despite the various military actions taken by the States over the last 60 years, the vast majority of the US dealings with other countries has been very benign and has revolved round the Dollar - the most convertible currency on the planet. The same countries that "hate" the "Imperialistic US" spend billions of dollars trading in, erm, dollars. I could joke that Bin Laden buys his arms in Dollars because he gets a better exchange rate. Trouble is, it could well be true.

When you report a global story it is nearly impossible not to make it US biased because of the way that both the US and the UK are intrinsically wrapped up in other countries (The British by history, the US by money), but most people do not understand that because they simply do not understand the US.

As an old Indian friend once said, "Independence allowed me to be proud to be Indian. But because of our linked histories, I am proud that I can tell you that in English."

People need the US - not the culture, or the politics, but the existence of a large, successful lump of mankind. It does not bring stability or hope or solutions, but it creates a centre that the rest of the world can revolve around. Previously it was the British Empire, but currently it is the US. Hating it is optional, needing it is mandatory.


  • 20.
  • At 04:39 AM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • Brent wrote:

You may be focusing more on American issues than perhaps you should but as an American, I can tell you that the BBC approaches them differently - and usually more intelligently and fairly - than American media sources do. Maybe there needs to be more European coverage; I'm not the right person to judge that, since I'm not European. But not, the BBC's reporting on what it covers is not from an American perspective. There's a certain amount of criticism, perhaps too much at times, but I've never seen the BBC indulge in the complete biasing of reporting that goes on routinely within entirely too many American media sources.

  • 21.
  • At 09:01 AM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • Mike Daly wrote:

I find it an astonishing admission that you need to be reminded there are at least 2 sides to each story. If you focus on the facts rather than opinions then you wont fall into the trap of naively repeating the propaganda of the protagonists. I don't think there is too much US coverage, but there isn't enough coverage of other world matters because they are pushed out by celebrity stories, sports news, trivia and endless speculation about what might happen. The British public deserves better. Please inform us and educate us instead of trying to entertain us.

  • 22.
  • At 12:00 PM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • Beshka Ringstad wrote:

I am an American who reads BBC News because I can't get anything but pro-Bush propaganda from the major broadcasting and print media in the U.S. I'm not familiar with your particular column or show, but I find that even British news can have a pro-Western bias. It would do well to share the perspectives of others. The Iraqi death toll means as much to me as the American and British military death tolls. A life is a life.

Every question invites its own answer -change the question and you get a different answer.

In fact, one cannot really discuss "the BBC" as a single entity, simply because there are different BBC's all mixed up together. In my experience, there is a distinct hierarchy: The World Service radio is clearly the best informed with a wide range of (opposing) viewpoints -but unfortunately cannot be heard without internet here (which in turn is difficult with a dial-up connection). The commercial BBC WORLD on cable is probably the most trivial and uncritical (most CNN like). In between, the national radio (radio 4) is probably preferable to TV. When in Europe, I thought Newsnight and "This Week" seemed particularly obsessed with promoting conventional US supporting viewpoints regarding economy and the global suppression of dissent. However, even "This Week" featured Mark Mardell -which livened it up no end.

Considering the current state of the world -as a result of American dominance -I would think it would be a matter of self-survival to understand better the consequences of the (American) policies that one is implementing or supporting around the world. Only after we understand these effects can we try intelligently to deal with political debates. Opinions are poor facts and need less reporting than "conditions on the ground". The Philippines seem to be completely off the radar for the BBC -unless for some trivial "human interest" story. Presumably, American complicity in the poor conditions evident in the country is too obvious to bear any serious scruteny.

Presenting a true picture is also somewhat difficult (apart from the philosophical problems of perception and cognition) because a true view of American activities around the world might cause one to be accused of promoting terrorism. One might be forced to conclude that we were supporting policies that were doing more harm than good in the world.

Ultimately, it seems, American viewpoints do define the general (western) perspective -especially definitions regarding who are the goodies and who are the baddies. Even France was punished by America for choosing the wrong side -so our freedom is apparently less than we are told it is.

However, if there is a chance that we do happen to be on the side opposing the angels, then perhaps we would be wise to look more carefully at both friends and enemies in future.

* 17.
* At 02:33 AM on 08 Sep 2007,
* Irina Somerton wrote:

"The explanation of that is that Americans are more interested in having a close and good relationship with Britain than in whether there is a good or bad relationship with France."

According to his published "letters From America" On March 1st Alistair Cooke (who had impeccable pro-Amrican sentiments) ended his broadcast by saying: "The glory of the Marquis de la Lafayette, his two hundred year year investment in Franco-American goodwill, appeared for the moment to have been liquidated in a day: The day the french sold those jets to Libyia."

Earlier, Cooke had explained how without Layfayette there might not have been a successful armed American revolt against British Imperial domination. It seems that both memories and special relationships have short lives -and can change rapidly as neccesity and the wind dictate.

  • 25.
  • At 08:46 PM on 08 Sep 2007,
  • Al Hough wrote:

One must remember at times that many Americans use the BBC as the best source for news, not only of the world but for the United States. The questionable quality of news in the United States requires a reading and listening to the BBC.

  • 26.
  • At 06:12 PM on 09 Sep 2007,
  • GUY FOX wrote:

We Amerikans don't need the BBC to give us an Amerikan perspective. We already get plenty of that propagan-duh from the corp-rat owned media here in the $tates. What is the rest of the world saying?

  • 27.
  • At 08:55 AM on 10 Sep 2007,
  • John O'Donnell wrote:

I found your whole piece rather strange. If we take the Iran nuclear issue the whole point is they want parity with Israel which already has nuclear weapons. Yet I have never heard this mentioned in BBC coverage of the issue, indeed I have never heard Israel mentioned, presumably because then you would have to question why it was acceptable for Israel to have nuclear weapons but not Iran. I do not see how you can talk about balanced reporting when there are clearly questions you are not prepared to ask.

  • 28.
  • At 07:41 PM on 10 Sep 2007,
  • Dave R wrote:

John #14's example of the hurricane, where Auntie Beeb put Dean into the context of US visors to Mexico didn't impress us here in Cayman either. Jamaica has a lot of points of contact with the UK, but ffs they've had their independence for 40-some years. We're still tied to the UK's apron strings and have thousands of both UK-born and paper Britons resident. Strangely we only catch the BBC's eye when there's some peripheral mention of our banking laws.

I think the BBC does concentrate on US issues PERHAPS more than they need to.

As for the BBC taking a US position that is CRAZY. Only an ultra left-wing liberal would say such a thing. This claim is plainly from a Euro-centric perspective. As an American that just spent 9 months living in Europe I assure you that the "American perspective" is not featured prominantly in any Euro news source I have encountered.

  • 30.
  • At 04:25 AM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Jonathan Jones wrote:

My main beef with the BBC is its tendency to conflate fact and opinion. News articles should not contain opinions -- only facts. Opinions are things that reasonable people can disagree upon. Opinion articles should be clearly marked as such.

At the end of a factual and well-done report of Gen. Petraeus' testimony before recent Congressional hearings, the BBC reporter stated matter-of-factly that Bush cared more about the implications of Petraeus' testimony on domestic politics than about what is actually going on in Iraq.

Not only is this an opinion that would be vigorously rebutted by many reasonable people, with no place in a news report, but it is an absurd opinion, at that. Why would Bush, a lame duck President who seems satisifed with 25% approval ratings, be focused on the domestic political effects of Petraeus' speech?

I sometimes wonder whether the general leftwardness of Europe and the media make reporters think that views Americans would consider center-right are only held by a small lunatic fringe. It's the most charitable reason I can come up with.

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