An American Perspective on the British Press

Many Approaches to the Same Issue
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 18 2005 3:54 PM

An American Perspective on the British Press

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"Don't Treat Us Like Idiots," the government-hating Daily Mail splutters in an enormous headline across today's front page ("us" is the Mail reader; the person being scolded is Prime Minister Tony Blair). In case the reader wants actual newsy details, a subhead says that an election poster unveiled with great fanfare by Labor yesterday—which claims that the Conservative Party would, if elected, cut public-service spending by £35 billion—is "based on a blatant lie."

Other papers covered the poster campaign news differently, of course, depending on their political temperament and general level of sobriety. The left-leaning, scrupulous Guardian tucked it away on Page 11, focusing on the dispute rather than taking sides. The Daily Telegraph, which would rather kill itself than say anything nice about Tony Blair, mentioned it on Page 1 but only inside a schadenfreude-laced story about how voters prefer Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, to the prime minister.

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The Times covered the story straight but made the Labor poster the subject of two scathing attacks by two of its columnists. The Independent, always eager to march to the beat of a different drummer, buried the issue on Page 19; the aggressively tawdry Daily Sport, a girlie magazine disguised as a daily paper, didn't mention it at all, as far as I can tell, having no room left after stories like "Hookers Had 40 Gurkhas a Night at Millionaire's Brothel" (Gurkhas are Nepalese soldiers in the British army).

British newspapers have always taken a point of view; this makes them fun as well as infuriating. Because their readers are more fickle and demanding than in the past, the papers have to work doubly hard to distinguish themselves from one another, to sparkle at the newsstand, to take a point of view, to draw consumers in. This smorgasbord of coverage is one reason that I read as many papers as I can each day. (You can't read them all; you would go insane.)

Unfortunately, all of this reading brings you no closer to any objective truth. With so many points of view, so much spinning, and so much news-page editorializing (British papers don't tend to make the same distinction between news and editorial pages that American papers do, considering everything part of the same agenda-pursuing whole), it can seem impossible to answer the simplest of questions: What happened yesterday?

In the old days, Britons tended to read one newspaper and stuck to it for life. Even today, older friends sometimes ask what paper you "take," as if they are talking about milk and sugar in your tea; the answer (as with your milk-and-sugar habits) instantly places you in a certain political and cultural spot. The distinctions among the papers are particularly apposite on weekends, when buying even one newspaper is an enormous commitment of time and, eventually, space in the household rubbish bin (imagine carting home several equivalents in heft to the Sunday New York Times every week, as we do in our masochistic household).

Loyalties are shifting, though. A few years ago, Telegraph buyers defected to the Times by the thousands when the Times started a vicious price war, slashing the cost of its paper. The ailing Daily Express has hemorrhaged readers in recent years, losing out to the thriving Daily Mail. The Guardian has successfully stolen readers from the Independent, although the Independent stole some of them back last year when it daringly switched to a tabloid format while keeping its broadsheet content (the Guardian is planning a similar switch). My English in-laws, who grew up believing that reading anything other than the Times was slightly scandalous, changed briefly to the Telegraph a couple of years ago, but only because the Telegraph sent them a free subscription.

For a newspaper-loving person, living in a country with so many perspectives to choose from can be a real liberation. And while the levity and sometime immaturity of the British press can be maddening, it can also, at times, be a welcome change. When American journalists—with their high-minded principles, their snooty self-regard, their First Amendment—confront Britons about the lack of seriousness in their papers, Britons generally counter with complaints about the paint-drying tedium of the American press. Most British journalists would rather be locked in a broom closet with no food than convey the appearance of taking their profession seriously—even when they do take it seriously. And sometimes you start to see their point: An American friend sent me an exasperated e-mail this morning saying that she was thoroughly sick of the debate raging in the United States about whether American newspapers have too few women op-ed columnists. She had just read yesterday’s dispatch about the breast-fest in the British tabloids.

"Even the boobs in my face every morning would be a relief compared to this," she said.

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.

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