We ask the questions

It took a British journalist to put the American Defence Secretary on the spot. Why, asks Justin Webb, are the US media so timorous?

My favourite weapons-of-mass-destruction moment came at a Pentagon briefing a few weeks ago. Just as the storm over the failure to find said weapons was breaking in Britain, deep in the bowels of the Pentagon one of the deputies of the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was asked a potentially tricky question on the subject. His imperious response: "I'm not here to answer that."

And, lo and behold, he didn't. And nobody complained about it.

It reminded me of the famous BBC doorstep interview with Clement Attlee, which went something like this: "Prime Minister, do you have anything to say...?"


British broadcasters have moved on since then. The American media, well...

Just before the Iraq war, David Dimbleby came to Washington to interview Donald Rumsfeld. They talked for half an hour. As you would expect, the questioning was persistent, forensic. Americans who heard the interview were shocked. The world's most powerful nation does not have the world's most powerful press. Specifically, it has no daily forum for the close questioning of politicians - no Today programme, no Channel 4 News, no Newsnight.

Incredibly - in this cultural and political superpower, in this supposed beacon of world freedom - radio stations were reduced to running interviews with experts from the BBC on their airwaves; a plucky station in Boston laid on an hour-long discussion and phone-in to follow the broadcast, during which I had to explain to the listeners that this kind of thing happened all the time in Britain.

What surprised people most was the style. Mr Rumsfeld's answers were followed up. His reasoning was tested. He was put on the spot and not allowed to leave it. When Dimbleby asked him why he had repeatedly referred to the "so-called" occupied territories of the West Bank, Mr Rumsfeld said he might have done it once but certainly not repeatedly.

Dimbleby had the dates and occasions in front of him. The Defence Secretary was forced to concede the point.

What a far cry it was from the Donald Rumsfeld Americans know and love. Strutting his stuff on the Pentagon podium, Mr Rumsfeld is lord and master of all he surveys. The Defence hacks titter nervously at each other and hope to get off with as light a beating as possible. Difficult questions are avoided; difficult questioners are lampooned. Anyone who persists is taken out and beaten senseless. (I made that up, but the atmosphere is genuinely one of laughing menace; a truly independent spirit would not enjoy being a Pentagon correspondent. The Today programme's Andrew Gilligan would not get through the door.)

So why the transatlantic journalistic rift? Are American journalists simply spineless? Do they toe the line because they love the President? Or because their employers do?

The answer, I think, is more complex. Americans in all walks of life have a respect for authority that the cynical Brits jettisoned somewhere around the time of Profumo and Christine Keeler. Americans, remember, still go to church. For all their rhetoric of freedom, there is nevertheless an acceptance of a higher power here in the United States. And an acceptance, too, of unimpeachable motives. President Bush, you may remember, declared the Iraq war won while on board a US aircraft carrier out in the Pacific Ocean. He flew to it on a navy jet, emerging with his flight suit on, looking for all the world like the Top Gun that he never was. I watched the performance live on US television and marvelled at the difference in coverage that there would have been on a British TV channel for a British prime minister attempting the same stunt.

Only once did the anchor people remark to each other - in the most delicate fashion - that the pictures would likely be used by the Bush team during next year's election.

Likely be used! The whole thing was set up for political use - it had no other purpose. The President could have stepped on board the carrier on shore; but it had been slowed down to make sure that it was still at sea. Incidentally, some questions were asked after the event about whether the White House had overstepped the mark with the carrier landing, but they were asked in a tone of hurt surprise, a tone that said: "We trusted you and you let us down." The British media would surely have sunk the whole enterprise.

If a President's motives are generally considered worthy until proved otherwise, the same can be said of the President's appointments. When he appoints a Defence Secretary, your average American is willing to believe that this man or woman is worthy of trust, worthy of respect. He or she is the choice of the President. The journalists charged with the task of questioning the President and his advisers must work within the bounds of a culture that is willing to give national leaders the benefit of the doubt. Even after Watergate. Even after Monica Lewinsky. Even after Wag the Dog.

That's why the BBC's Correspondent programme caused a minor sensation here when it questioned the veracity of the Jessica Lynch story. Lynch was the 19-year-old West Virginia soldier taken prisoner by the Iraqis and rescued by US special forces during the war. [For the full story, see pages 4-5.] At the time, Pentagon sources said - and the American media reported - that Lynch had fought back against the Iraqis; that she had been stabbed and shot; that she had been abused in hospital.

The BBC team went to the hospital and heard a different story. Her injuries, according to the Iraqis, were caused by a car accident; after the accident, she had been brought to the hospital and treated well. The "rescue" had been unnecessary; the doctors had been trying for some time to hand her back.

It does not matter which story is true. The issue is that there were conflicting accounts but the American media overwhelmingly chose to report the Pentagon's version as fact.

Let's be honest, though: much of the questioning of American motives and purposes in the British press is equally one-sided. My heart sinks when junior producers ring from London, enthused by an article in a British paper that proves that the war was all about oil, or that the Zionists are in charge, or that the Vice-President's former company is taking over the world. The view from this side of the Atlantic is that the Brits have axes to grind.

It's still the case, though, that the US media have not covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. And I am glad to be able to report that the Bush administration is properly grateful. I went to see the Vice-President make a speech a few nights ago. He finished with a reference to the war in Iraq, telling his audience: "You did well - you have my thanks."

Were these troops or government officials he was addressing? Neither, in fact: the occasion was the annual dinner of the American Radio and Television Correspondents Association.

It's all very, very cosy. No wonder the BBC table was No 148. Next to the lavatories and the emergency exit.

Justin Webb is Washington correspondent for the BBC