No facts, please -- we're British

Americans are flocking to feisty British papers for news about the war. But there's a reason the U.S. media fails to follow up on the Brits' "scoops" -- they're frequently not true.

Published November 9, 2001 8:16PM (EST)

On Oct. 26, the London Times reported the grim news that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida had "acquired nuclear material for possible use in their terrorism war against the West." Though the unnamed "intelligence sources" who provided the paper with its breathless scoop insisted that bin Laden did not have the "capability to mount a nuclear attack," they feared that "he would do so if he could."

Capitalizing on those fears, a second Times article, headlined "Dirty Bomb Could Wipe Out Thousands," suggested that "bin Laden's bomb, if it exists, consists of nuclear waste wrapped around plastic explosive." A dirty bomb, the paper warned, "would spew lethal radioactivity over a considerable distance, causing many casualties and rendering whole neighborhoods uninhabitable."

Finally -- in the unlikely event that there were any Times readers still unafraid of nuclear winter blowing in from Afghanistan -- a third piece put the "chilling" information into a properly shocking perspective: "This is the leaden shoe delivered by Western intelligence agencies that has long been waiting to drop."

But the shoe hasn't yet dropped for thousands of Americans puzzling over the absence of such sensational stories in their own press. As Rick Karr reported for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," more and more Americans have been turning to news sources outside the United States in search of "information and opinions they can't get from U.S. news organizations." Given the absence of a language barrier, the prime beneficiaries are the Web sites of British newspapers. According to a survey by Jupiter Media Metrix, Guardian Unlimited -- the Guardian's online site -- has attracted 600,000 American readers, while the conservative Daily Telegraph has gained 500,000 since Sept. 11.

"Those of us who want to understand the full ramifications of the U.S. "war on terror" are finding that big chunks of the story are severely underreported -- or missing entirely -- in the U.S. media, wrote Bruce Mirken in the San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 28. "Nearly every time I check the British papers like the Guardian or the Independent, I find at least one significant story that has been ignored or buried by our domestic press."

Maybe for good reason. Consider the London Observer's stunning Sept. 30 scoop: "Devastating attacks on bases controlled by Osama bin Laden are set to be launched in the next 48 hours as part of a tightly focused military operation approved by U.S. President George Bush and backed by Britain," the paper reported. Air and missile strikes would be followed, the paper continued, by "an airborne assault deep into Taliban-held territory -- led by helicopter-carried troops of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division." Exciting, yes; true, no. The clock ticked until Oct. 7 before the air campaign began, and the first reported ground action was an itsy-bitsy raid by Delta Forces and Rangers on Oct. 20.

That's not to say that the British press never beats its U.S. counterparts on a story. It has a distinguished record of covering the world at war, and can claim credit for creating the very first war correspondent, when the Times' William Howard Russell marched off to the Crimea in the 1850s to cover the British and French war against Russia. Russell's reports on the neglect of British wounded roused the British public to press for changes in the military, and turned him into a celebrity.

Britain also gave us novelist and journalist George Orwell, who joined the BBC in 1941 and worked for the Indian section of its World Service, an institution renowned for delivering accurate and unadorned news to millions around the world.

In recent years, Robert Fisk (the Independent) and John Simpson (BBC) have become familiar names to many Americans for their aggressive reporting in the Middle East and Bosnia. Their stories are at times controversial -- Andrew Sullivan rapped Fisk on Thursday as a "terrorist-supporter" -- but their commitment to serious reporting is not in question. Those who watch "The Newshour With Jim Lehrer" will also know that it relies on Britain's Independent Television News (ITN) for much of its foreign footage and reporting. In recent years too, the British press was much quicker than its American counterpart to pronounce Jesse Jackson's peace-making in Sierra Leone a disaster, and to draw attention to the catastrophic flooding in Mozambique.

But the current conflict with bin Laden and Afghanistan has shown the flaws of the British press tradition. Laurence Eyton, the British managing editor of Taiwan's Taipei Times, has been monitoring the wire services since the conflict began, and has been struck by the inverse relationship between British newspaper scoops and the resources they have on the ground. "To someone who knows how news works, and who knows how Asian-style rumor mills work, there has been an attempt to find exciting news that has treated the most unrealistic speculation as being a nugget of pure fact," he said via e-mail.

"I expect a lot of misinformation comes from the Northern Alliance -- every British paper seems to have a man with their forces -- and the difference between the Brits and the Americans is that the Americans have sources in Washington they can tap to ask 'is this true?'"

The problem for British reporters, said Eyton, is that not only do they not have access to the kind of American sources that are actually running the war, they don't, thanks to Britain's long-standing culture of secrecy, enjoy access to their equivalents in the British Ministry of Defense. "They just don't have any way of cross-checking," he said.

But why let scrupulosity about facts and corroboration get in the way, as they say, of a good story? In the tale of bin Laden's nuclear threat, for example, the Times simply took an allegation by unnamed "intelligence sources" and larded it with circumstantial evidence and speculation. There are thousands of words happily filling column inch after column inch, but there is little of the kind of reporting and verification necessary to propel the story into print in the United States. Of course, the charge could turn out to be true, which would mean that President Bush was being economical with the facts when he said in France on Nov. 6 that bin Laden is trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

But even the Times ultimately conceded that -- ahem -- "there is still no published hard evidence" to support their secret sources' claim. If you never have to name a source or verify information, the merely plausible can be news. (It is worth noting that on the day the Times published this story, the rival Guardian and Telegraph did their best to pooh-pooh it by emphasizing official government skepticism about the claims.)

The perils of relying on unnamed sources were amply illustrated by another sensational scoop from a British paper, this time during the war in Kosovo. The Observer, a Sunday paper owned by the Guardian, excited worldwide attention by claiming that the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade had been bombed, deliberately, by American jets because the Chinese had been supplying the Serbs with intelligence information. The claim was based on high-level but unnamed intelligence sources, and buttressed by what appeared to be impressive circumstantial evidence, including the fact that only the intelligence section of the embassy had been destroyed.

The heavyweights of the American press seemed unaware or uninterested, leading many people here to suspect a dereliction of duty at best and a conspiracy at worst. (At the time, I wrote critically about the American media's failure to take this story seriously.) And then, almost a year later, when the story and the war had long faded from public attention, the New York Times delivered its verdict. The 4,178-word investigation, based on interviews with 30 officials in Washington and Europe, documented a catalog of error, incompetence and bad judgment, but it found nothing to suggest deliberate intent. The only reason the intelligence section was destroyed is that several other bombs that hit other parts of the embassy failed to explode.

Again, perhaps, the British newspaper really did get the story, and the New York Times and all the other American news organizations that looked into the allegation simply failed to get the right people to talk on the record. Left-wing muckraker Claud Cockburn (father of Nation scribe Alexander Cockburn) once gave British investigative reporter Paul Foot three pieces of advice: "Listen to the loons"; a single source in high places is worth a million official spokespeople; and "never believe anything until it has been officially denied."

On the other hand, the road to paranoia is paved by a lack of evidence.

From the very outset British foreign reporting has been haunted by a spirit of fecklessness. After winning fame and distinction for his reporting in the Crimea and India, William Howard Russell had to leave America after antagonizing both North and South during the Civil War. His critical and opinionated dispatches hit the first low in war reporting when he arrived late for the Battle of Bull Run at Manassas in Virginia (his companion overslept) but still managed to report that the retreating Union troops were "cowards."

Thus did the world first meet the bumbling British reporter abroad. Less a type than a gin-soaked theme with variations: tabloid hack, dilettante Oxbridge graduate, lunatic publisher -- they would all be memorialized by Evelyn Waugh in his scorching satire of desert reporting "Scoop," which, even today, stands to journalism as "This is Spinal Tap" stands to heavy rock. Yet Waugh actually drew on his own experiences covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 to pen the story of the accidental dispatching of William Boot, a nature correspondent for the Daily Beast, to cover a potential revolution in East Africa.

The further misadventures of British foreign reporters did not go unnoticed by their American colleagues. In the 1950s, Joseph and Stewart Alsop had a few short but deeply unkind words in their book "The Reporter's Trade" for the daily Times' casual attitude toward reporting on foreign conflicts as far away from the action as possible. And though, writing a decade later, Stewart Alsop conceded that "the very best writers in British journalism were better writers" than their American counterparts, they were still not better reporters.

Though the American media is not without its own complement of boobs and miscreants, the contrast to British journalism has only grown in the past decade. In an article for Britain's New Statesman in 1998, Nick Cohen noted that the British media's "obsession with personalities, opinion, light features and lifestyle pieces" was "killing the art of reporting." Young journalists, he lamented, were no longer required by union rules to serve a three-year apprenticeship at local papers where they might learn about government or the law; instead, they could ascend to the national papers straight from college, where they would learn that the quickest way "to get ahead" was to get a column. "Locally and nationally news reporting is dying," he concluded.

The view is shared by other British journalists. Michael Elliott, former Washington bureau chief for the Economist and now an editor at large for Time magazine, said in a talk at Columbia University in 1998 that for all the great writing in British newspapers, he had little confidence he was reading much in the way of reporting.

The problem is primarily economic. Britain is the most competitive news market in the world, and news reporting -- especially international reporting -- is pretty darned expensive compared to columns about the travails of gaining or losing weight (step forward "Bridget Jones's Diary"). "Executives did sums," wrote former Independent Sunday editor Ian Jack in his 1998 introduction to "The Granta Book of Reportage." And their cost-benefit analysis was ultimately driven by what Jack called "the specter of the reader's boredom, the viewer's lassitude."

"'Stories are important because they sell newspapers; therefore they will be bought, stolen, distorted, spun, sentimentalized, over-dramatized and should all else fail invented to woo a public which has 10 national dailies to choose from, and another nine on a Sunday," he wrote. Only the Financial Times has kept faith with the kind of straight reporting that gave the New York Times its chill authority. Otherwise, Britain has succumbed to a media culture that "places a high premium on excitement, controversy and sentimentality, in which information takes second place to the opinions it arouses." Even the BBC has suffered, according to a critical Atlantic Monthly assessment by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who argued that a decade of bad management and a fragmented British television market have contributed to a decline in standards and resources.

Perhaps the most illuminating criticism of the new wave of online Anglophiles comes in the form of praise for American news values by Guardian reporter Gary Younge. In 1996, he wrote in glowing terms about the volume of reporting he was required to do and the level of editing he was subjected to during a three-month exchange program at the Washington Post. At first it was a "culture shock," he wrote, especially "for a British journalist reared on the staple diet of 'Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.'" But "when your piece was finished, you felt you had produced the definitive work on the subject."

Journalism, by definition, is not definitive; it can only be a rough draft of history. Nevertheless, some drafts are more thorough than others. As Younge told Guardian readers in Britain, "thoroughness is American journalism's stock in trade and sometimes, clearly, they can be overzealous, but anyone looking to use this as an example of the superiority of the British journalistic tradition should turn the page now."

By Trevor Butterworth

Trevor Butterworth is a research fellow at the non-partisan, non profit Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington DC. He is former editor of the media criticism web site

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