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Lessons from a BBC blunder

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The world of journalism has just suffered another one of those ethical train crashes that from time to time cause dismay, anguish, and, one hopes, self-examination. Although it happened across the Atlantic in Britain, there are lessons to be pondered by US press, politicians, and public.

Over the years, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been held up as an example of accuracy and reliability. But now it is reeling after scorching charges of sloppy, inaccurate reporting of its claim that British Prime Minister Tony Blair manipulated - specifically "sexed up" - intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein's Iraqi weapons arsenal in order to justify the case for going to war.

Mr. Blair vigorously denied the charge, and a British judge was assigned to investigate. After months of inquiry, the judge, Lord Hutton, has ripped the BBC's reporting, and cleared Blair. Amid abject statements of apology, the BBC's chairman has resigned, followed by its director general, and the reporter who aired the story.

US journalists still are recovering from the discovery that New York Times reporter Jayson Blair invented interviews, lifted quotes, and plagiarized and fabricated material in a string of stories. The scandal brought down the paper's two top editors.

It isn't the first time great journalistic institutions have been misled by sources, or betrayed by staffers. When such disservice to readers, or listeners, or viewers is discovered, they must go public, correct the error, apologize, and take disciplinary action.

In the case of the BBC, the issue is complicated by the fact that it is a government- funded broadcasting service. But it is jealous of its independence, and in the assertion of that independence, its journalists are sometimes wont to lash out at the hand that feeds them.

The Weekly Standard a few months ago quoted a sometime BBC commentator, Janet Daley, as writing in the (London) Daily Telegraph: "BBC staff often say proudly that it is their responsibility to oppose whatever government is in power. Well, actually, it isn't. Examination and analysis are the business of tax-funded journalism. Opposition is the business of mandated politicians."

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