From my own observation of having lived and worked in both the United States and Britain the main difference between media coverage of politicians in both countries is that of deference, or an almost complete lack of it amongst the British media. Or should I qualify such a bald statement? After all, no one could accuse some American talk show hosts of being meek and mild, and the experience of President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affairs, is testament to the robust and unforgiving nature of the press pack once the scent of blood reaches collective nostrils.
But what is different is the separation of factual reporting from comment, which is the benchmark for newspapers with a justifiable claim to journalistic professionalism, by which I mean the New York Times, Washington Post and similar publications. As a rule of thumb, if Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech on global warming, it would tend to be reported straight by the US press. If Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman gave a similar speech, the British news media would immediately check what type of emissions emanate from her Ministerial auto and check to see whether her windows are open and the central heating left on. Virtually no public utterance, even the most inane – well preferably the more inane the better – is not minutely examined for any signs of hypocrisy. Harman, for instance is currently being pilloried in the press for backing into another vehicle while talking on her cell phone, with journalists enjoying a field day quizzing legal counsels as to whether the hire of a good lawyer got her off with a lower fine. This is a minor indiscretion of course, but then this is a small island with a cut throat national media, and a twenty four hour media to boot, which like the beast it can sometimes be, must be fed.
When it comes to television on both sides of the Atlantic, and by that I mean cable, satellite and broadband, the roles are slightly reversed, not in the levels of vituperation on show in Britain, but by the fact that sponsorship rules and those governing impartiality, are different. In Britain if a Government Spokesman launches an attack on the Opposition, the Opposition has to be allowed to respond. This used to be the case in the United States until President Ronald Reagan changed the law – something that Conservative Opposition leader, David Cameron is promising to do if he wins the British General Election in May.
Be that as it may, the relationship between the British political class, and the Third Estate, is now so corrosive and cynical, that very few of the practitioners are prepared to take each other on face value at all. Today the media barely bothers to cover the law making process in Parliament and largely ignores Parliament – unless of course there is some theatre to be had in the weekly joust that is ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’. In the set piece, confrontational lay-out of the British House of Commons, ‘PMQs’ as it is known is studied and reported on the basis of who manages to lay a glove on the other – Prime Minister or Opposition leader. Such is the competitive nature of reporting politics and the difficulties in keeping the attention of the wider public, scandal, hypocrisy, hubris and opportunism, are what many journalists – and of course the politicians who feed them, salivate over. To an extent it was ever this. Samuel Johnson’s coffee house meetings came alive through salacious gossip, and the dank Tudor Court of Queen Elizabeth 1, still provides a benchmark for the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of ruling elites.
Healthy scepticism, robust comment, and above all, good solid, investigative reporting should be part and parcel of any vibrant democracy. To a large extent all the above are alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic. But here is the rub; comment is free, reporting the facts and discovering the truth costs money. It says a good deal about the declining resources that the news media in Britain devotes to these more noble arts of the journalists’ trade, that it took a freelance investigative journalist, Heather Brooke, to probe and pull the Freedom of Information Act so comprehensively that for the first time a window was opened on the corruption of the Parliamentary expenses ‘system’. For it emerged that a ‘system’ barely existed, and many Members of Parliament had thoroughly abused what passed for one.
Heather Brooke, by the way is an American living in Britain.
Declining circulation, especially amongst the populist tabloids is feeding a frenzy of back-biting. Although Britain’s notorious libel laws ensure the rich and powerful are fully able to defend themselves, politicians are fair game. Woe betide and law makers who runs to the Courts shouting ‘libel’, because such action is likely only to provoke more ribaldry. But then the lampooning of public figures is also part and parcel of a very ancient tradition that goes back to the times of cartoonists Hogarth and Gilray.
But since we live in a culture of ‘sound bytes’ and ‘spin’, and since the political parties are largely stuffed with technocrats, there is little reporting or comment to be had on any profound ideological differences. And here then is the real danger.
In the months leading up to the election of President Obama, the hope and expectation of large swathes of the American electorate was palpable. Real change was in the air, and the enthusiasm of voters lining up to cast their ballot was there for all to see. In Britain, with what should be a deeply important, change making General Election barely four months away, there is no enthusiasm or hope at all. The political class – whatever the party – dare not utter any real truths for fear of being hounded by sections of the media in search of the daily fix of a ‘political gaffes’. All too many journalists, busily looking over their shoulders to see which part of their operation faces the axe next, are concerned with the minutiae of personalities over policies. And few who have any real personality or originality are either attracted or welcomed into what is now a well and truly ossified political system.
The public in Britain know this. Fewer now vote in elections. Hardly anyone joins a political party and fewer people buy newspapers. These are bad times for democracy, and in Britain at least as economic recession still bites, an invitation for extremists to fill the vacuum.