Ill Winds in the North

Brinkley and Lyall

Ill Winds in the North

Brinkley and Lyall

Ill Winds in the North
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Oct. 22 1998 9:56 AM

Brinkley and Lyall

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Dear Alan,

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I've read all the big papers this morning. I've read the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, even the Financial Times--this can take hours--and I still don't know what to make of the economic stories flying around the front pages. It seems that Rover, a British subsidiary of the German car company BMW, is on the verge of laying off 2,400 workers from its plant near Birmingham. The government has blamed sluggish productivity, and Peter Mandelson, the trade secretary, has told the workers to do a better job. But the Tory opposition is blaming the government for being too complacent in the face of looming financial disaster.

Anyway, it took me about two hours to figure all that out, because the papers have played around with the story so much that the actual events have gotten lost. Most of the papers focus on yesterday's Parliament debate, in which the Tory leader attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Blair accused him of "idiotic hysteria." Others talk about a gaffe made by the governor of the Bank of England, in which he seemed to say that it was okay to have higher unemployment in the north, if it was lower in the south. Some of the papers focus on how much they hate Peter Mandelson. The Guardian actually looks at the productivity question and shows how many fewer cars per person the Rover factory produces than other factories. The only paper that presents the facts soberly, so that you can actually understand what exactly happened, is the Financial Times.

Are you getting better at cutting through the thicket and finding the news?

But when your head starts to spin, there's always ... the feud of the day. Today brings two good feuds. We have the liberal journalist Polly Toynbee dousing the conservative journalist Bruce Anderson with red wine at a lefty party in which he was "chanting mischievously in a moment of boredom in support of the arrested former dictator Augusto Pinochet." And we have Jeremy Paxman, a television anchor famous for his attack-dog style, who wrote a negative article about a hotel in a newspaper last week and is now being attacked in turn by the hotel. Apparently, its 19-year-old receptionist, who is unflatteringly portrayed in his piece, is so upset that she's had to take a vacation to get over it.

The papers love this stuff--it doesn't require any thought on the part of the reader (or the writer); it confirms people's prejudices (Toynbee is a humorless liberal feminist and Paxman is rude and sneering and supercilious) and, let's face it, it's kind of fun to read. It beats learning about the economic crisis at Rover any day.

Best,

Sarah

Alan Brinkley is history professor at Columbia University and author of The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. He is teaching at the University of Oxford, England, for a year. Sarah Lyall is a journalist who writes for the New York Times from London.