In Committee Room 10 of the House of Commons one evening last week, the Conservative Party's media committee told senior executives of the British Broadcasting Corporation just what they thought of coverage of Britain's near-war in the South Atlantic. A Tory, who took a more relaxed view, said later that he had never before seen his colleagues in such an ugly mood.
On emerging from this lion's den, the BBC's chairman, George Howard, said laconically that he "acknowledged the strength of feeling" but wasn't willing to apologize for what the BBC had done.
The basic charge critics make is that the BBC has been too even-handed between its own country and Argentina. Because of President Reagan's initial--and continuing?--attitude toward the Falklands crisis, "even-handed" has become a pejorative to many in Britain. Uglier words--"treachery" and "treason" among them--have been used against the BBC.
The controversy over media coverage when a nation's armed forces are in action is one familiar to Americans from Vietnam War times, but Britain has seen nothing like it since the Suez affair in 1956. In addition, the BBC has two problems distinct from those of United States press and broadcasting.
As a public service broadcasting organization, operating under royal charter, it is independent of politicians. Its finances come principally from license fees paid by its viewers and listeners. The size of this license fee is periodically fixed by the government. There has recently been a much- needed increase. One of the nastier rumbles in the Westminister lobbies last week was: "You're lucky you're not looking for a higher license fee now."
The second difference from the American experience stems from an aspect of British society. The great eye-opener for a British journalist who works in Washington is the apparently instinctive openness of government and politics there contrasted with our instinctive privacy.
In this event, the political debate has proved a reticent affair. There is no doubt that the nation is united in outrage at Argentina's invasion. According to opinion polls, Margaret Thatcher's dispatch of the British fleet to the South Atlantic has overwhelming public support, as well as that of the Labor and other opposition parties in Parliament. But there are, and have been since the start, significant differences between them, about how to get the Argentines out, and about the long-term future of the Falklands.
Conservative MPs with serious doubts have not spoken up clearly in the House of Commons itself. One who did so at a private "back-benchers" committee meeting says he was hissed and booed. But in the Westminister lobbies, such MPs speak freely to journalists. Quite early in the crisis, I gave an estimate that about one- fifth of Tory MPs had reservations about the circumstances in which force should be used, that a larger group wanted a tougher policy than the government's, but that the majority in the center was content with what Thatcher was doing. But because of the public reticence of the doubters--"not sticking your head above the parapet" is the metaphor drawn, symbolically, from trench warfare--the viewer or listener had to accept my word for these estimates.
But last week, two Conservative and two Labor dissidents were interviewed on the television program "Panorama." It was made clear that theirs were minority views in their parties. I went into the lobby that evening without having seen the live transmission. A government whip jocularly advised me to go back for my steel helmet. Sure enough, the flak from Tory right-wingers was fierce.
Reasoned criticisms of "Panorama" have since been made, including one by its presenter, Robert Kee. What was worrying in the original spasm of rage was the intolerance of some MPs about their own colleagues' right to express minority views on the air. There have, after all, been other broadcasts in which only MPs supporting the government have appeared. Those who are more royal than the queen have scarcely been suppressed by the BBC.
So to most broadcasters, the issue is whether Britain is to have a proper public debate on the air waves or whether Thatcher, encased in the Union Jack, is to be immune from advice and criticism, unless it is delivered in Parliament.
As far as the BBC is concerned, there can be only one answer to that. As a recent recuit from Fleet Street, I can perhaps say without false modesty that its worldwide reputation has always depended on a scrupulous dedication to independent reporting, including times when this has embarrassed British governments. The BBC's overseas services are jammed by totalitarian countries of right and left not because they tell lies, but because they tell the truth, and because they are believed.
Last weekend, Prince Charles defended independent broadcasting on just that score, and the prime minister herself now wants to cool the quarrel. As for our listeners and viewers, an independent survey conducted after the "Panorama" program showed that four out of five wanted the BBC to continue to give a full range of opinions. That is what it will do.