The Whole World Keeps Watching

The BBC's man in Miami says the war for public opinion is as intense as the war for Baghdad

There's no need to mince words with the BBC's Miami correspondent, Fergal Parkinson. Kulchur is delicately dancing around the differences between the BBC's newscasters in England and the local reporters featured on South Florida's television screens. But Parkinson bluntly jumps in: "You see fat people on the BBC."

Well, now that you've mentioned it, yes -- there's an assortment of body types helming the BBC News broadcasts, including the stocky 32-year-old Parkinson. And few of them would be allowed near the business end of an American camera.

"The BBC really puts an emphasis on ability rather than looks," Parkinson explains, sitting inside the South Beach high-rise condo that, thanks to digital editing and transmission equipment, doubles as a home for himself and BBC producer Charlotte Ward, as well as a fully functional news bureau. "When I sit here and watch the local TV news, and somebody's talking to me who's six-foot-three with fantastic cheekbones, great hair, and false teeth, I think, 'Do they know what they're talking about?' I'd love to get these guys alone and ask them if they know where their facts are coming from. They'd crumble!"

Parkinson is willing to make some exceptions. WTVJ-TV's (Channel 6) Nick Bogert shares his distaste for "sports-styled" reporting that focuses on personalities instead of issues. And then there's ... well, that's about it. "The rest are all clones," Parkinson snaps. "They all look the bloody same!" He reserves a special ire for WSVN-TV's (Channel 7) metronomic anchor, Craig Stevens: "Is he a robot? Somebody should check him for a pulse."

But as Parkinson sees it, the distinctions between the BBC and Miami's newsmen are more than cosmetic. And they go deeper than simply glossing over the stark contrast between the city's rich and poor, forgoing investigative sleuthing in favor of rehashing national events, and largely ignoring what he deems crucial local stories -- Florida's ban on gay adoption or the "miscarriages of justice" he sees regularly inside area courtrooms.

"American reporters accept official explanations too quickly," he says. "The Columbia shuttle disaster is a perfect example. A lot of the American reporters I was working alongside in Cape Canaveral were concentrating for too long on the actual disaster, instead of starting to ask questions like: 'Was it a fundamental problem with NASA that led to the deaths of these astronauts? Was NASA cash-strapped? Were administrative cuts responsible for these people's deaths?' A British journalist will always look at the negative angle, the alternative angle. It has a lot to do with our tabloid press -- they're constantly questioning, looking for scandal."

Where the BBC has been charting a different course most dramatically has been in its ongoing coverage of the war in Iraq. Though BBC footage was a staple on CNN during the last two weeks of fighting around the Iraqi town of Umm Qasr, the reporting -- based on the same set of images -- couldn't have been more different. On CNN, with the BBC's own audio feed turned off, retired Gen. Wesley Clark (a figure some have floated as a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate) played armchair analyst, waxing poetic over the coalition troops' rapid march to Baghdad with a Pollyanna-ish glee not seen since Dr. Strangelove's gum-chewing Gen. Buck Turgidson. The firefights around Umm Qasr were just a minor detail, Clark opined, and certainly nothing that would derail the overall war plan. Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC all followed much the same chipper line.

The BBC's reporters were singing a much gloomier tune, focusing on British soldiers pinned down by shadowy Fedayeen irregulars, and highlighting the Iraqi civilian casualties caught in the crossfire. As for their military analysis, in lieu of cheerleading competitions, British commanders found themselves verbally sparring with "embedded" reporters out in the field.

Not everyone considered this a sterling display of journalism. To some, an antiwar bias was producing results just as propagandistic as anything on Iraqi state TV. "If the BBC was renamed the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation, it could not bring more comfort to Saddam," charged London tabloid News of the World.

Some of the criticism even came from within the BBC itself. The network's own Qatar-based defense correspondent, John Adams, attacked his colleagues for their "one-sided" coverage. In a memo leaked to the British Sun, Adams wrote to his BBC News department heads: "I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering 'significant casualties'. This is simply NOT TRUE... Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving 'small victories at a very high price?' The truth is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and the costs still relatively low."

At the same time, though, the network has come under fire from British leftists who call it little more than a government mouthpiece. Alice Mahon, a Labour Party member of Parliament and prominent antiwar figure, echoed John Adams when she blasted the BBC for its "one-sided coverage of this war." But Mahon's complaint was that far from overplaying civilian bloodshed, "in the interests of justice and democracy, this self-imposed silence on civilian casualties must be ended."

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