Current affairs in the media: US versus UK
Over at The Sharpener there’s a discussion of why blogs allegedly have more political influence in the United States than our home-grown blogs have here in Britain. One reason advanced is the supposed superiority and variety of the British mainstream media compared with their American counterparts when it comes to a range of well informed political views across a wide political spectrum (I paraphrase, I hope not unfairly).
I wonder how far this comparison can be made to stand up? The Times is a shadow of its former thundering self; the Independent too often deserves its Private Eye nickname; the Financial Times is excellent but specialised; the Guardian and the Telegraph are fine papers in their different ways but both have irritating foibles derived from their respective ideological positions, the former often descending into PC puerilities, the latter into offensive if generally comic reaction. By comparison, the New York Times and the Washington Post are outstanding (notwithstanding recent turmoil and troubles at the Times), the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal have their enthusiasts, most other major cities besides New York and Washington have their serious and perfectly respectable print organs, and the FT is very widely available throughout the US. It’s true, as one commentator at the Sharpener has pointed out, that outside the big US cities you’re lucky to find a New York Times or a Washington Post, whereas even the newsagents in tiny villages just about everywhere in Britain generally stock a few copies of most of the UK’s ‘serious’ papers; but that has little relevance to the question of political influence vis-à-vis blogs. For generally balanced and well informed comments on current issues, comprehensiveness of news coverage, and the essential separation of news from comment, I would argue that the New York Times and the Washington Post are superior to any British newspaper with the partial exception of the Financial Times, which is anyway these days almost as much an American as a British paper, and which doesn’t lay claim to the status of a journal of record.
Perhaps the more interesting (and more complex) comparison is between British and American current affairs programmes on television. Watching a couple of the most prominent American current affairs program[me]s yesterday (Sunday), I was struck, as I always am, by how good they are, and how much better than anything on British television, with the possible exception of some of our television news channels. An outstanding example is MSNBC’s Meet the Press. The transcript of yesterday’s programme provides a fair idea of the quality of the discussion, but it’s even better as transmitted, with the introductory remarks by the excellent presenter, Tim Russert, superbly illustrated by selected clips and texts. The combination of round table discussion between outstanding print journalists and pundits (David Broder, David Brooks, Judy Woodruff and William Safire), with questioning of experienced political practitioners (Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff; Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and historian Michael Beschloss), makes for stimulating and informative television. And the striking feature of this and a number of other similar American television programmes, on MSNBC, CNN, CBS and other channels, is that each panel member or interviewee is allowed to say his or her piece at reasonable length, often thoughtfully and deliberately, sometimes hesitating in search of the right word without being interrupted every time there’s the smallest pause for breath or reflection. Russert and other presenters and interviewers, such as CNN’s ubiquitous and admirable Wolf Blitzer, manage to be civil and patient with the contributors, while pressing them on the more neuralgic issues and challenging attempts at evasion. There are virtually no signs of aggressive scepticism or insulting accusation. Enough time is allotted to each segment, even allowing for the tiresome commercial breaks, for reasonably thorough discussion and analysis. Anchors and interviewers exude authority without arrogance, and treat the programmes’ guests with refreshing respect. The programmes are pacy but unhurried.
< Wolf Blitzer
Sadly, almost all British current affairs programmes on both radio and television lack all these qualities. Perhaps it’s partly that our presenters and interviewers are mostly so much younger than their American counterparts, and lack the Americans’ gravitas. Some of the most ferocious young women (especially; some of the young men, too) interviewing on television and radio channels other than the BBC look and sound as if they are barely out of their teens. Always rushed for time, interviewees (especially politicians, but also many other experts and pundits with a controversial point of view) are subjected to serial interruptions the moment they pause to draw breath; interviewers treat them as adversaries, aggressively challenging and contradicting at every turn; some (such as, notoriously, Jim Naughtie) expand their long and rambling questions so self-indulgently that there’s often nothing left for the interviewee to say at the end of them but ‘Yes’. The technique of the open question that draws out an interesting and revealing response is all but unknown to most of our electronic media interviewers. Many seem more concerned with making their names as tough and aggressive inquisitors, and in demonstrating their own expertise and their clever scepticism, than in allowing their victims scope for expressing themselves fully, accurately and informatively. It’s sad to have to acknowledge that these strictures apply, more often than not, to the Today Programme and Newsnight, BBC flagship news programmes both, as well as (to a lesser extent) to The World at One and PM. Panel discussions such as Any Questions and Question Time are constantly distorted by the adversarial choice of participants: the party politicians, selected on the Mendelian principle of one Labour, one Tory and one LibDem, laboriously reproduce the yah-boo inanities of prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, scoring elaborate points off one another at the expense of any attempt at serious discussion of the topic. Much the same applied to last night’s Panorama programme, which discussed a key question of the moment: should we remove our troops from Iraq immediately (i.e. within the next few weeks), or should we leave them there until "the job is done"? Instead of a format like that of the American ‘Late Edition‘ or ‘Meet the Press’ that might have allowed reasonably full contributions from people with experience and knowledge of the issues, Panorama opted for a deliberately adversarial framework with advocates of the opposing views ‘cross-examining’ each other’s ‘witnesses’, each allowed a maximum of around two minutes, followed by even briefer and necessarily even more superficial comments from the many Iraq pundits in the audience. Very frustrating.
Personally, unlike many others, I largely accept the argument of our star interrogators, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, that since parliament has virtually given up any attempt to fulfill its task of holding the government to account, the executive having by various means gained complete control over the house of commons while resisting all efforts to democratise the second chamber, the media are the last remaining institution in the realm that can put pressure on evasive and secretive ministers to reveal what they are up to and why they are up to it. Investigative journalism and probing interviews, even sometimes aggressive examination in front of microphone and camera, often have their place, and we would be an even more ineffectual democracy without them. But we could learn a thing or two from the Americans about serious analysis and discussion of serious issues by people who know what they are talking and writing about, in print, and on television and radio.