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Saturday, March 19, 2005

The British Press

This week Slate has been running a series by Sarah Lyall, a New York Times bureau reporter in London, called 'An American Perspective on the British Press', which is both quite good and quite annoying, because I had been toying with writing just such a piece.

One thing that I, and the rest of my family for that matter, have always enjoyed about British broadsheets (the serious newspapers, as opposed to the tabloids, which I'll get to later in this post) is how much less seriously they take themselves than their American counterparts. This is particularly true in regards to objectivity, for so long the Holy Grail of American journalism, because British papers make no pretense of following higher principles. As openly partisan institutions, they are generally a lot more fun to read than, say, the serially stuffy New York Times. This straight-forward angling worries Lyall, who says that "With so many points of view, so much spinning, and so much news-page can seem impossible to answer the simplest of questions: What happened yesterday?" While I can understand her position as someone who has grown up with the American journalist tradition and (presumably) went to the kind of journalism school that hammers home the importance of objectivity, I don't think it's that big a deal. Once you've cracked the codes as to who the papers are writing for (The Guardian for bearded and be-sandaled geography teachers, The Daily Telegraph for harrumphingly retired colonels in the Home Counties, The Daily Mail for net-curtain twitching Middle England) then it is quite easy to correct in your mind for bias and reach some kind of objective understanding of what happened.

In fact, using this technique, the easiest way is to buy multiple papers, like my parents do. They get both The Guardian and The Times, and generally figure that the truth lies somewhere between what is presented by the two of them. Personally, I like the fact that the different parts of the British media are quite open about their ideological biases, unlike the constipated liberalism of the NYT that hides under its status of 'the paper of record' or Fox News's ludicrous 'We Report, You Decide' motto.

But that's the broadsheets, which, although they seem quite remarkable to American eyes, are nothing compared to the feral alien-ness of the tabloids. Sure, there are tabloid newspapers in American cities, but they are but a pale shadow of their British counterparts. The two we've got here in New York, The Daily News and The New York Post come across as sober and starchy compared to the salacious prurience of the British 'red tops'. The New York tabloids cover celebrity gossip to a certain degree, as well as weird stories, but are nowhere near as single-minded in their hounding of their celebrity quarries, nor are they as funny. Perhaps my favorite tabloid in Britain is the Evening Standard, which is the London evening paper run by Associated Media. Quite often I would disagree very strongly with its right-wing politics, but what I've always enjoyed about is that it is so shamelessly what it is, and glories in it: maniacally London-supremacist, open when it hates someone (whoever their photo editor is is particularly cruel), and prone to publishing all kinds of scaremongering and salacious nonsense. It doesn't take itself seriously, unlike the New York tabloids (which sort of do, although the News is a much better paper than the Post), and is consequently all the better for it.

I think that the differences between the American and British mainstream media can also explain part of the reason that political blogging has made less of an impact in Britain. In America, the media has, until quite recently, generally been quite neutered. This is especially true outside of big cities where decades of media consolidation have reduced local papers to collections of clippings from the wires. Much of the American media has been, for decades, lacking the pizzaz of the British press, that entertainment quotient, that passion. In reveling in its own somnolent sobriety, it has completely ignored the fact that a lot of people want to read something fiery, with open and unashamed bias, and that most people who are serious consumers of media are sophisticated enough to decode what is presented to them. Thus they've left the door open for the bloggers to build substantial audiences quickly, because the bloggers are genuinely providing something different from the American mainstream media: open spin on the day's events for the portion of the population that wants it. In Britain, contrastingly, the media provides, cheerfully, the full range of bias already, such that the biggest British bloggers only attract a small fraction of the traffic that goes to American sites like Instapundit and Daily Kos.

|| RPH || 10:44 PM || |