Wednesday, September 03, 2003

After Judgment Day

The War on Terror is a peculiar in many ways. It lacks the linearity of past conflicts, with their clearly defined edges of battle and their secure rear areas. It is also one of the most limited yet all-encompassing wars the world has ever seen. Limited in that one side has purposely refrained from employing its full military potential. Encompassing in that the conflict involves a comprehensive clash of civilizations and belief systems. These contradictory characteristics suggest that at one level, everyone may be spared the ravages of war, yet another level it means that nothing will escape unscathed. One thing is certain, those who survive will not be what they were.

How this applies to news organizations is particularly interesting. Both Little Green Footballs and Biased BBC devote their efforts, for the Nth time, to denouncing the bias of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC's coverage, it may be recalled, was so offensive to the sailors of the HMS Ark Royal  that they decided to turn it off. Israel has limited the access of BBC correspondents and barred senior officials from talking to it. The BBC is also engaged in severe political conflict with sitting Labor government of the United Kingdom, each side accusing the other of -- propaganda. Given that accounts are typically settled at the end of a war, how will the BBC fare at the end of the War on Terror? That will depend on two things: who wins and how destructive the War is.

At the end of the World War 2, many enemy media stooges were either sentenced to prison terms like Ezra Pound, or hung like Lord Haw-haw. While the BBC has probably not crossed into enemy's camp yet, it is important at this early stage to establish where that boundary lies so that no one strays across the frontier accidentally. Some may question whether treason can be applied to journalism at all, however twisted, however false. But that is ridiculous. There always comes a point when journalistic acts have consequences that cannot be drawn back, as the David Kelly affair illustrates in a cautionary way. The problem is to identify that point before exceeding it.

The boundary will probably lie near liability. A news organization which tacitly cooperates with the mining of a civilian road in exchange for the opportunity to record the explosion or is treated to an opportunity to film an ambush may have crossed the line. A news organization which can be shown to have prior knowledge of a terrorist attack would be in a similar case. Simply mouthing enemy propaganda may not be cause for punishment under the current public mood. But that may change. An attack on a major city with nuclear or biological weapons, which is an eventuality the BBC risks, might alter the perception of treason. Mass grief creates its own political standards, its own political force. The BBC may believe that a high handed sneer can stop a demented crowd. They would be wrong. Yet barring a terrorist-inspired Armageddon, the chief risk to any would-be journalist, from a humble blogger to the mighty BBC, is who will be the victor.

Ironically, if America wins the War on Terror, the BBC can expect to escape unscathed. Unless the news organization engaged directly in acts of sabotage or active cooperation with the Islamist enemy, it is doubtful whether the American people would take the trouble to do anything other than go back to watching the Sunday gridiron football. But if the Islamists win, the knives will be out. It is manifestly clear that anti-Americanism is no defense against Islamic punishment. No organization was more viciously persecuted than the Marxist Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. No writer more mercilessly persecuted than the former leftist, Salman Rushdie. No pixie dust blocked the truck bomb headed for the UN Headquarters in Baghdad. No Algerian Communist Party card gave immunity to Islamic terrorists in Algeria. No chants of 'Death to America' kept the Shi'ites at Najaf safe. Not the most ardent cries of solidarity kept Robert Fisk from being beaten within an inch of his life by Taliban sympathizers. A world under Sharia law would be the worst possible for the BBC.

There is something disgustingly craven about an entity whose courage stems entirely from the conviction that those who it reviles will be too decent to strike back. Perhaps the most appropriate fate for the BBC is simply to remain what it is. Still, it is comforting to know that if civilization should perish under the heel of Islam the destruction would encompass those who jeered loudest as the valiant manned the walls.