BBG Watch Commentary

British Prime Minister David Cameron was not ousted as Voice of America (VOA) speculated he could be, but has returned to Downing Street with the Tories winning the general election. It was Ed Miliband who resigned as Labour leader after his party’s disappointing general election showing.


BBC Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 9.34 AM ET

It was not in the same category as “Dewey defeats Truman”, an incorrect Chicago Tribune headline in 1948, but U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) still managed to embarrass itself with its unnecessary and wrong speculation of David Cameron’s political ouster in UK general elections Thursday while BBC, Deutsche Welle (DW), Al Jazeera and even Russia’s RT stayed away from making such risky predictions. SEE: Voice of America speculates Cameron could be ousted in UK vote, BBC and RT coverage more cautious, BBG Watch, May 7, 2015. By the way, when shown the Chicago Tribune headline, President Truman told the press, “That ain’t the way I heard it!”

Voice of America’s headline at 12:00 PM ET May 7, 2014 said: “Britons Vote in Close Election That Could Oust Cameron.” That’s not technically and factually an incorrect headline in the style of “Dewey defeats Truman,” but it was certainly a suggestive one that could easily turn out to be wrong, and it did. It should have never been written that way.

The lead sentence in the VOA report read: “British voters are going to the polls in a very close election that could make a Scottish party the power broker and oust Prime Minister David Cameron.” Again, Voice of America was reinforcing a message that could easily turn out to be wrong, and it did.

The VOA report continued with more similar assertions without any warning to readers that public opinion polls before elections are not always reliable. Several of these Voice of America news report assertions turned out to be wrong. Speculating on outcomes of foreign elections, unless it’s Russia’s President Putin running for yet another term where there is little doubt what the final result will be, is not wise and would not have been allowed in this form by previous VOA management teams. Could the Voice of America post a similar headline about U.S. elections? Anything is possible. This kind of speculation on election outcomes is generally bad news.

VOA: “Public opinion polls indicate Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative Party will fall well short of a parliamentary majority, even with his current coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats.”

VOA: “The Labor Party, under Ed Miliband, is expected to get about the same number of seats as the Conservatives, but experts say Miliband will have an easier time finding partners for a new governing coalition.”

VOA: “The election is so close that it will likely be well into the wee hours of Friday before the results are known, and possibly several more days before party leaders can negotiate the formation of a new government.”

Shortly after 5 PM ET Thursday, BBC was already reporting that the Conservatives were comfortably ahead of Labour in the general election. The Conservatives are confident David Cameron will remain PM with early general election results suggesting the party will be close to a majority with 316 MPs to Labour’s 239 MPs, BBC reported Thursday evening.

Also, according to BBC, “If the exit poll is accurate, Mr Cameron will be able to remain in Number 10 as the head of a minority government without the need for a coalition – although he might have to rely on the support of the DUP or the Lib Dems.”

According to a later BBC report, “David Cameron says he hopes to govern for all of the UK as a BBC forecast gives the Tories 325 seats – enough to form a slender majority in the Commons.”

“Even if Labour leader Ed Miliband was able to persuade the Lib Dems to join the SNP in backing a Labour government, he would not have the necessary numbers to get his legislative programme through Parliament in a Queen’s Speech,” BBC also reported.

BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg observed that “This is turning into not just a bad night, not just a terrible night, but an absolute out-and-out disaster that threatens the existence of the Labour Party in Scotland.” “And there is very little comfort for the Labour Party elsewhere,” she added.

It turned out to be quite different from what Voice of America was suggesting earlier in the day in its “Britons Vote in Close Election That Could Oust Cameron” news report by VOA correspondent in London Al Pessin.

It is not clear whether the headline of the Voice America report was written by Mr. Pessin or by VOA editors in Washington, DC.

Mr. Pessin is a senior VOA foreign correspondent and the VOA London Bureau chief. He is the author of June 2014 op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, “Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real.”

Mr. Pessin wrote in June 2014: “Using taxpayers’ money for objective broadcasts is the ultimate expression of confidence that people around the world will recognize the value of the United States — not because we as a nation tell them how right we are but because Americans respect them enough to let them decide for themselves.”

The British voters have indeed decided for themselves.

It was announced last month that VOA director David Ensor will soon be leaving his post and a new director will be appointed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The VOA Newsroom in Washington has a newly appointed chief. But the organization still badly needs far reaching structural and managerial reforms, if nothing else, to tighten up Voice of America’s news reporting standards which have declined precipitously in recent years. If any new legislation forces VOA management to truly adhere to all of the provisions of the VOA Charter, not just some of them, it would would be a step in the right direction.

This may be easier to accomplish if the new and improved bipartisan Royce-Engel bill to reform the BBG is reintroduced in Congress, passed by the House and the Senate, and signed by the President. Some had criticized various aspects of the original legislation, which was unanimously passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the full House, but not taken up last year by the Senate. Others said that critics were vastly exaggerating fears of Voice of America losing its journalistic independence while ignoring mismanagement which had already damaged VOA’s credibility and effectiveness as an objective news source in a major way.

While people may disagree about some of the original bill’s language (we don’t know what the new language may be), without smart managerial reforms, Voice of America will lose what little may be left of its influence and credibility.