“Appalling, if true.” Probably false.

Did the BBC spike a story about a British Army hero for fear of alienating anti-war viewers. Maybe. But right now the evidence would have to gain weight to become thin.

The BBC spiked a proposed program about the heroism of a British soldier “because it feared it would alienate members of the audience opposed to the war in Iraq.” Awful, isn’t it?

So says Glenn Reynolds. Eugene Volokh links to Glenn, but adds the caution that the story is based on an anonymous source, so we don’t know if it’s true.

That sounds right. So how likely is the story to be true? Not very, I’d say.

It was published in the Sunday Telegraph, until recently part of the Hollinger International empire of Conrad Black (with Richard Perle on the board of directors) and sometimes described as “the house organ of the Tory party.” When it was sold, the new owners decided not to change its editorial spin. A quick Google search shows that the reporter &#8212 Chris Hastings, Sunday Telegraph’s “arts and media editor” &#8212 is a chronic Beeb-basher, which is his right, and perhaps even his job, but which doesn’t provide any reassurance about his objectivity.

The only quote in the story is attributed vaguely to “a source close to the project.” Now who might that be? Someone in the BBC, or someone in the production company. The story would gain credibility if it were sourced to the BBC, but the reporter carefully avoids that. A shy inside leaker? Maybe. But much more likely the reporter got a call from someone in the production company: not exactly an unbiased source, I’d say.

Note that the company is now negotiating with the ITV network to run the show; the story seems well-calculated to inflate its value. So what we have here is a complaint by a producer who tried to peddle a program to a major outlet and failed, and is hoping for some publicity to peddle it elsewhere. That doesn’t mean the story is false, but it gives no independent reason to believe it to be true, even if it’s what the source sincerely believes. (I have had dozens of op-eds and journal articles rejected for publication. In every single case, that was the result of bias, stupidity, or ignorance on the part of the editors and reviewers, never as the result of any deficiency in my work product.)

Note also that the story never asserts that anyone in particular said that the reason the piece was dumped was that it might alienate anti-war viewers. How likely is it that anyone in fact ever said that, or wrote it down, even if it were true? I can’t imagine someone at the Beeb saying, “So sorry, old chap, we’ve decided to reject your program because it goes against our political biases.”

Again, if this were an inside leak, the leaker might well know the real reason. But that claim isn’t even attributed to the anonymous source. The reporter makes that claim in his own third-person-omniscient voice.

Unlike some leaks, then, this seems to be a case where roughly no credence should be given to the asserted motives, as opposed to the fact that the program was cancelled.

No doubt the Telegraph, like many warbloggers, is deeply resentful of the fact that the BBC got the Iraq story mostly right when they were getting it disastrously wrong. Moreover, it’s a profound embarrassment to libertarian theorizing that a state-owned media outlet turned out to be more independent of its government than the supinely credulous privately-owned media &#8212 not just the Murdoch and Hollinger chains &#8212 in the United States. (See, for example, under “tubes, aluminium,” “Tillman, Pat,” and “Lynch, Jessica.”) The story mentions that “the Ministry of Defence is believed to have been supportive of the project and was offering the film-makers technical advice.” No spin there, surely?

Governments always have ways of getting their side of the story to the public. Freedom of the press, like freedom of religion, is partly a means of providing safe platforms for dissentient voices. So insofar as the BBC is persistently bucking the government, even at times unfairly, that seems to me preferable to the opposite case.

Now I’m not a consumer of the BBC, other than occasionally getting the World Service on the radio. Other than what seems to me a noticeable anti-Israeli bias, I don’t know anything first-hand about the quality of its newsgathering or the extent to which it is in the grip of a single ideology. Perhaps the story as reported is precisely true, and reflective of persistent ideological dishonesty on the part of BBC management. But we have, as of now, scant reason for believing that.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com