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 sinceDr. 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."

Of course, with nearly half the British population opposed to the war, it would seem only natural that such divisions should extend into the newsroom. Indeed internal tensions in the weeks preceding the war's outbreak were so high, BBC senior staffers were officially barred from marching in antiwar demonstrations, lest their reputation for objectivity be compromised.

In the end, bias may be in the eye of the beholder. How else to explain that while the British Left excoriates the BBC's newscasts, the American Left is increasingly championing them? Katha Pollitt, a long-time columnist for The Nation(perhaps America's most strident mass-market antiwar publication) saluted the BBC for its inclusion of antiwar sentiment and -- don't tell Alice Mahon -- its detailed "discussion of the bombing of civilians."


Fergal Parkinson is as fascinated by the American media as Kulchur is by Britain's. He's just finished a story for the BBC on the reaction of several American newspapers to the Defense Department's request not to run al-Jazeera-aired pictures of dead or captured U.S. servicemen. The Miami Herald, a publication few immediately brand as liberal in tone, "turns out to be quite left-wing," while he says the New York Times -- pilloried by conservatives for its alleged arch-liberal agenda -- turns out to be anything but.

"TheHerald is determined not to sanitize this war," Parkinson notes admiringly of his interview with Tom Fiedler, that paper's executive editor. "Tom Fiedler chose to ignore the Defense Department because he said, 'War isn't clean.' If soldiers are dying, people need to know that. If prisoners of war are being captured, we need to know that. In his view -- and in my view -- he made the right decision. Publications like the New York Times chose not to show those pictures. He can't understand that, and I can't understand that either."

Fiedler told Parkinson of the key factor American newspapers played in ending the Vietnam War, recalling the eventual appearance of U.S. body bags on their front pages as the "turning point" in eroding that conflict's home front support. It's a role Parkinson says the Herald is prepared to repeat.

It's also a role that the radical wing of the antiwar movement, frustrated at its seeming impotence so far, is counting on. For anyone who has visited antiwar rallies over the past few months, the prevalence of posters equating George W. Bush and John Ashcroft's homeland security moves with Nazi imagery is highly disturbing. It's a viewpoint best summed up in University of Miami professor Jennifer Uleman's pronouncements to a Coral Gables teach-in this past November. Living under Bush was "how Germans must have felt" during the Weimar Republic, Uleman argued, comparing the president's policies to "the slow rise of National Socialism." To applause from several hundred attendees, she warned the audience not to be "good Germans" and concluded: "Something equally powerful is developing today."

This relativism finds its logical end with Columbia University professor Nicolas De Genova, who, drawing a similar round of applause from the 3000-strong crowd at his school's own teach-in on March 26, declared that "if we really [believe] that this war is criminal ... then we have to believe in the victory of the Iraqi people and the defeat of the U.S. war machine." As reported in Newsday and Columbia's campus paper, The Spectator, De Genova built on the spirit of Uleman's "good Germans" analogy. "The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military," was his advice to antiwar activists. Referring to 1993's televised scenes of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by Somali paramilitaries, De Genova added: "I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus."

Such thinking may be morally repugnant to many -- including Kulchur -- but for Parkinson, it's all part of healthy debate, one he wishes the American media would give equal time to. "A BBC panelist asked how the suicide bomber who killed four U.S. Marines differed from a cruise missile launched via boat into Baghdad," he recalls of the previous evening's news broadcast. "The whole point of war is to adapt, and this is just the Iraqi forces adapting their tactics. And that's a point of view I've only heard on the BBC. And it's important that the BBC give voice to that perspective."

Kulchur would posit that comparing coalition troops who are carefully trying to avoid civilian deaths -- often at great self-risk -- with Iraqi troops firing from behind human shields, setting ambushes around soldiers waving white flags, and placing artillery batteries in residential neighborhoods, isn't just flawed logic; it's downright perverse.

Parkinson remains unmoved. "The BBC is entirely neutral," he counters. "The BBC is not trying to justify the war for the British government or for the Iraqi government. We're simply reporting what is fact, and the fact is, civilians are being killed as well as coalition forces."

These matters are more than merely academic for Parkinson. He returns to England next week to complete his "chemical training" and a possible reassignment to the Middle East as the BBC rotates in a fresh crew of correspondents. He's already finished his two weeks of "combat safety" preparations, living alongside a brigade of British Special Forces soldiers, learning how to report while dodging grenades, keeping an eye out for land mines, and administering first aid. With several British journalists having already been killed in Iraq, one would imagine Parkinson to be a bit tense. Instead he displays a remarkable sense of gallows humor.

"The BBC is covered insurance-wise if I get shot now,"he deadpans, before passing along some helpful battlefield advice. "If somebody opens fire on you, don't crawl behind a car door like you see in the movies. Car doors are actually very thin, the bullets go right through. Get behind the car to hide." His training crescendoed with a mock-kidnapping, complete with blindfold. "Then I was tortured for a bit," he adds.

Tortured?

"They stand on the back of your head," Parkinson continues matter-of-factly. "The secret is not to become the leader, not to speak out, not to object." In a group of captured combatants, he explains, the one who garners the most attention is usually the first one killed.

But what if Parkinson is grabbed by Iraqi soldiers along with a group of noncombatants. Say, a party of journalists? What's the plan then?

Parkinson pauses and then breaks into a wide grin: "We all point to the French guy, the AFP [Agence France-Presse] reporter! He's the leader!"

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