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On Watching America from Britain



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It is strange to think that, in all likelihood, I am afforded no more comprehensive a view of American politics as a result of actually living in the United States than is my family back in England; for, even in this primary season, and long before the general election starts, the coverage in Britain is already extensive. ‘Twas ever thus, as far back as I can remember: When I was eight years old, dispatches from the contest between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush were so ubiquitous that, tired of the whole thing, my mother stopped listening to the radio for a month. She was not alone, but, though BBC studies commonly conclude that license payers want to hear “less of America,” this popular attitude is somewhat contradicted by the stratospheric viewing figures that U.S. election seasons invite.

America holds such a privileged place in British news reporting that travel writer Bill Bryson observed in his classic Notes from a Small Island: “If your concept of world geography was shaped entirely from the content of British newspapers and television, you would conclude that America must be about where Ireland is, that France and Germany lie roughly alongside the Azores, that Australia occupies a hot zone somewhere in the region of the Middle East, and that pretty much all other sovereign states are either mythical (e.g. Burundi, El Salvador, Mongolia, and Bhutan) or can only be reached by spaceship.”

The last point is slightly exaggerated, but not by much, and Bryson’s observation applies as well to politics as to geography. India, which is both the world’s largest democracy and a former British colony, and whose people have come to Britain in droves since they gained independence in 1947, secured only the briefest of mentions when, in 2009, it held a plebiscite that involved 714 million people. (India’s electorate is bigger than the U.S. and EU’s combined.) India is a long way away from Britain, but propinquity provides no guarantee of attention; neighboring France is lucky if it receives a couple of day’s bookended coverage and, perhaps, a lackluster post-vote analysis in the back of the Sunday broadsheets. Japan, meanwhile, the world’s third largest economy, is discussed solely in esoteric radio broadcasts, of the sort found on Radio 4 at three o’clock in the morning; and China, the world’s second largest economy and allegedly a rising star, is talked about in hushed tones, mostly amid sketchy warnings of a New World Order. America’s elections, conversely, are covered wall to wall, in such depth and detail that its politicians become household names in Britain. The BBC coverage of 2012’s election, which will be held in November of this year, started in October 2011. It is no exaggeration to say that America’s elections get more attention than Britain’s own.

It would be all too easy to explain this anomaly away with shallow reference to Britain’s past, and lazily to conclude that, because Britain is an island that once boasted a formidable Navy and a vast empire, it is inevitably less parochial than most. There is some truth to this, but it doesn’t explain why America is the object of interest as opposed to anywhere else. That Americans speak English certainly helps — rhetoric is a dish best served in one’s native tongue — but Canadians and Australians speak English too, and their elections don’t get a lookin. And yes, America is a superpower; but so will China be, and so was the Soviet Union, and neither have thus far invited the same curiosity nor are likely to do so.

Ultimately, America’s politics is exciting and vibrant and raucous in a manner that no other country’s can match, and, despite their love-hate relationship with it, the British find the spectacle hard to resist. Americans speak in a plain-style that is unheard of the United Kingdom, and the differences between candidates, especially on “hot button” social issues are more pronounced. There is a certain schizophrenia at work here, however: In France, a politician wishing to scuttle a free-market proposal need only breathe the words “American-style” and he will have got himself halfway to its defeat without having to so much as put down his wine glass; likewise in Britain, where the cruelest accusation that one can throw at a politician is to charge that he sounds American. But, in truth, the British can’t get enough of it. Tony Blair, who epitomized the “American-style” politician that the British profess to hate, never lost an election, guiding his Labor Party into power in 1997 with the largest majority in its history and relegating the Conservative Party to its smallest percentage of the popular vote since 1832.

One must not confuse the quantity of American news in Britain with quality, however. Justin Webb, having spent five years as the BBC’s North American editor, famously complained upon his retirement from the role that the BBC treated the United States with “scorn and derision” and afforded America “no moral weight.” This much is blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever watched the state-run news channel, but, even when the paucity of the reporting is not the product of outright hostility, the British ostensibly find it much harder to check their preconceptions at the border when reporting on American stories. Alistair Cooke noted in 1970, with more than a hint of frustration, that the British still have not given up their image of the United States as Britain writ-large, and that this can often lead to an infuriating tendency among British writers reporting on America to maintain a set of British assumptions that simply don’t apply. I will never forget watching former BBC North American editor Matt Frei rendered literally speechless when, after the tragic Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, he couldn’t find anyone at the afflicted college to tell his cameras that firearms should be banned. One ugly consequence of this is that the British generally hold strong opinions about American politics, without the deeper framework around which to hang the swathes of information that they have been fed.

Still, it is better to have an imperfect conception than none at all, and whatever the state of the two countries’ leaderships (and the less pleasant attitude toward America’s oldest partner than has emanated from 1600 Pennslyvania Avenue during Obama’s administration), at least this aspect of the special relationship is still in tact. It can be guaranteed that whoever wins the White House on November 6 will make his victory speech in front of millions of fascinated British eyes, even if some of them are reluctantly rolling in their sockets.



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