We often hear about the importance of the separation of power among the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. But for the general welfare it is just as important to maintain a clear separation of government and the Fourth Estate, as Thomas Carlyle, the English 19th Century historian, called the press.
Dr. David Kelly, a 59-year-old scientist, was found dead on July 18 with his wrists slit. He was the British government's expert believed to be the source for the BBC's accusations against the Blair administration of having "sexed up" a government dossier on the threat from Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. The BBC said that the source was from the intelligence services, and when that turned out to be false, some of the blame initially directed at Tony Blair shifted to the BBC.
A July 23 editorial in London's Daily Telegraph points out that "BBC journalism exhibits the same 'agenda-setting' mentality.... The BBC's bias against the war led it into grotesque distortion of reality." History repeats itself. Winston Churchill's access to the radio broadcasting state monopoly in the 1930s was blocked by John Reith, the BBC director, who was an admirer of both Hitler and Mussolini. Radio broadcasting was then the only way Churchill could reach the masses and inform Britons about the growing Nazi threat. But Reith was an appeaser, like Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. Reith wrote in his diary that the Nazis "would clean things up," and about Churchill: "I absolutely hate him." He must have turned in his grave when, last November, it was announced that Churchill was the winner of BBC's poll on the greatest Briton ever.
The BBC started as a private company with an exclusive license in 1922, and became a state broadcasting monopoly in 1927. According to historian A.J.P. Taylor, the arrangement suited both political parties: "Conservatives liked authority; Labour disliked private enterprise." Among the BBC apparatchiks it was considered in bad taste to talk about ratings. After all, it was they who defined what good taste meant in Britain. Since every TV set in the U.K. pays a tax that goes directly to the BBC, its income does not depend on viewers' acceptance or advertisers. The BBC ceased to be a television monopoly in 1955 when a license was granted to Sidney Bernstein, a Socialist who launched Granada Television. Today, Britons can watch over 100 channels, but the BBC's clout remains powerful.
The English poet John Milton wrote in defense of the free press in "Areopagitica", as far back as 1644, arguing for unlicensed printings and the free competition of ideas. In the U.S., hundreds of successful penny dailies started publication in the early 1800's. But the British government kept economic control of the press until 1861. A tax on advertising (until 1853) and the newspaper stamp duty (discontinued in 1855) prevented a popular press from developing. The first mass circulation British newspaper, Daily Mail, was launched in 1896.
Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), editor of The Economist and one of the most influential journalists of his time, spoke of a natural weight of the different sections of public opinion, warning that once force is thrown into the balance it is a matter of chance whether it is thrown on the side of the false or the true result.
In the U.S., both National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) enjoy the privilege of government support, and their programs are often accused of a leftist bias. But at least in this country, thanks to our Founding Fathers, we do not have government news agencies, like France's Agence France-Presse, Spain's Agencia EFE, and Mexico's Notimex, nor the many other news services of Latin American countries that feed government propaganda to deceive their own people.
Just as a clear separation of Church and State ensures our freedom of religion, the non-involvement of the government and political parties in the media should be one of our top goals in the new century.