Democrats & Liberals Archives

A Distinct Lack of Debate

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman wonders if Tony Blair’s troubles over the David Kelly affair are a sign of things to come for President Bush.

The Labour Party – Blair’s party, currently in power – have been involved in a remarkable war of words with the BBC that has hurt the credibility of both sides. But as a Briton who spent half of last year in America, I believe the reason for this whole debate – and Blair’s troubles – is that this story simply couldn’t happen in the United States. Why? Because the American media would be too scared to start it.

Let me explain my reasoning.

The entire affair was started by an allegation by the BBC. This was not a public allegation by the Conservative Party (the party not currently in power); it was not a public allegation by a politician, or by someone involved with the Ministry of Defence. On BBC Radio 4's Today programme, reporter Andrew Gilligan quoted the still-anonymous David Kelly, and prefaced the quote with:

"But what I have been told is that the government knew that claim was questionable even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier."

Gilligan's report wasn't pre-screened by the BBC; he made the allegation live on air. And there's the difference between American and British news agencies – the British networks aren't so afraid of the government that scripts and reports must be pre-screened by editors [article mirrored here].

Essentially, it's a cultural issue. Tony Blair, while not being directly accessible by the media, is a damn sight more accessible than President Bush. Every Wednesday when the House of Commons is in session, he faces direct questioning from members of the House [RealVideo from 2nd July]. Most of the time, this consists of inanities, such as enquiries about the progress of the Department of Transport in getting a road bypass ordered to save the squirrel population of Chipping Sodbury. But in the middle of crises such as the Kelly affair, it means that the Prime Minister cannot duck behind a series of press secretaries and advisors.

(Of course, he can claim that other, more pressing, engagements must take priority – but the House would generally not stand that for more than one week before his deputy would be facing some very pointed questions indeed.)

The White House staff, on the other hand, are used to having reporters question them gently. If a reporter brings up a tough question, no problem, just evade it. But over here, the Prime Minister answers questions not from the press corps – who can easily be replaced – but directly from his elected opponents, and directly from the man who would take his place if he lost the next election. And that debate is broadcast around the world.

In Britain, the leader must answer questions. The media must, by law, be unbiased. (In fact, the independent regulator is already sniffing around Fox News.) And those two factors mean that Blair is already in trouble.

I wonder what the same openness would do for the United States.

Posted by Thomas Scott at July 29, 2003 11:09 AM