A Brit's-Eye View of the News
Monday, February 26, 2007; 8:14 AM
Katty Kay was looking over the lineup for her BBC newscast, which was packed, as usual, with serious global news: The Iranian president making provocative remarks on his country's nuclear program, followed by surging violence in Somalia and a report on a British terror trial.
Glancing to her right, she saw a "Just In" headline on CNN: "Britney in Rehab."
Bemused, Kay tapped out a message, without details, to her editor in London: Should they mention the suddenly bald pop tart? Not at all, Steve Reilly replied.
Moments later, a second message from Reilly appeared on her computer: "Ah just saw that she has entered rehab. Yes we will do it."
They did it in all of three sentences, for viewers don't turn to her nightly "BBC World" telecast for the latest Britney Spears hijinks. They expect Kay to take them to countries and delve into subjects that barely rate a mention on American newscasts.
"For our niche audience, if you want this stuff, this is the only place to get it," says Kay, who has lived in Washington for a decade. And the audience is no longer quite so niche: Kay reaches more viewers in this country than most cable news hosts. But unlike, say, PBS's "NewsHour," she must calibrate her content for a global audience.
The three-year-old "BBC World" is seen by 1 million Americans, about 80 percent on PBS stations (including Washington's WETA at 6 p.m. weeknights and WHUT at 7), and much of the rest through the cable channel BBC America. Around the world -- it does not air in Britain -- the half-hour newscast claims to reach 65 million viewers each week.
Kay, 42, brings a European perspective to her job, a no-nonsense demeanor to the anchor chair and a fresh perspective on the familiar. She is conversant enough with Beltway politics -- and witty enough on the air -- to be in demand as a pundit on Washington chat shows, but she also understands the animosity toward America.
On trips home to London, Kay says, "I almost got to a state where you didn't want to say you lived in America." Kay would find herself defending the United States, arguing that friends were being intellectually lazy by allowing their distaste for the Iraq war to turn into a condemnation of an entire country.
But the war also helped fuel her broadcast's popularity. "There is some sense in the States that people haven't been getting the full picture," Kay says, especially among those who feel "the administration hasn't always been quite straight with them."
During the runup to the war, says Kay, "some of the reporting became jingoistic," and she noticed "the extent to which the administration was being given something of a free pass." By contrast, she says, "the British media has always been very questioning of the motives for invading Iraq, and of the situation after the invasion."
Now, though, she sees her American counterparts catching up: "The people no longer buy the line that the press should be cowed into not reporting what they're seeing because the administration might say they're only reporting bad news."