Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Righties buzzing about BBC

Thanks to Hdougie for tracking the most recent US rightwing media swarm around the BBC. Ironically, the post is preceded by one about British reporter Robert Fisk, longtime chronicler of the Middle East. Ironic, because this story might be said to begin with Fisk.

Back during the initial US war against Afghanistan, Fisk was reporting from that country when he was violently attacked by a group of Afghan refugees just across the Pakistani border. The article he wrote for the Independent, "My Beating By Refugees is a Symbol of the Hatred and Fury of This Filthy War," was a powerful piece of journalism in which Fisk details his nearly being beaten to death and ends with this quote:

The people who were assaulted were the Afghans, the scars inflicted by us - by B-52s, not by them. And I'll say it again. If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.

That piece launched a fuselage of verbal attacks from US rightwing bloggers – basically, how dare he sympathize with impoverished and homeless third world refugees? Indeed, so ferocious was the attack that a new word sprang into existence in the blogosphere: Fisking, defined by Jargon File as "A point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or (especially) news story. A really stylish fisking is witty, logical, sarcastic and ruthlessly factual; flaming or handwaving is considered poor form. Named after Robert Fisk, a British journalist who was a frequent (and deserving) early target of such treatment."

I have written elsewhere about fisking and the potential spread of anti-British media sentiment among American rightwing media, from amateur bloggers right up the food chain to conservative corporate media such as Fox. Rightie bloggers in particular love to rely on BBC, Reuters, the Guardian et al as information sources for international news, yet also enjoy biting the hand that feeds them, howling worse than Tom Cruise on Oprah about the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation in particular when they don't like what's being reported.

The more British media are seen as a threat to the watered-down version of reality we're fed here, the more the righties are likely to go after them. In particular, BBC's increasing presence here in the US may bring them more than just a bigger audience, it could well unleash the well-oiled rightwing think tank/media apparatus at their door.

UK TV sales up - but not in U.S.

While Jerry Springer is condescendingly stating that British TV is "10 years behind American television", it seems that Brit telly is doing very nicely around the globe, thank you very much. New figures compiled by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Pact, the independent producers' trade body, state that, overall, UK TV exports rose 6% in 2004, to hit £534m, or nearly $1 billion. (Here's the original pact press release, which also includes a downloadable PDF file with information on UK TV Export figures). The United States is of course hugely important for UK producers, with four dollars in every ten being made through U.S. sales. DVD sales are increasingly important, leaping 25% in a year. Media Guardian notes that the U.S. "was by far the biggest foreign market for DVDs of British TV shows, accounting for £62m of total sales." However, there is some bad news. The report notes that, although North America still accounts for about 40% of all UK media export revenue – some $418m in 2004 - "sales to North America posted an overall 5% decline over 2003 figures." So take away the DVD sales and there's a significant weakening in the U.S. market. Is this just a function of the weak dollar, or is something else going on?


Addendum: It's worth noting a a previous Pact press release, from February, that focuses on another report, by the Television Research Partnership (TRP), suggesting that "the UK is the world leader in the creation and distribution of international TV formats" - something we've talked about before in this blog. According to the report:
    Titles like Pop Idol, Changing Rooms, The Alphabet Game, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Weakest Link, and Ready, Steady, Cook, have helped UK TV companies secure a dominant 45% share of the international TV format market by hours and a 49% share by the number of titles across the channels studied.

    According to the report, the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire alone has been licensed or optioned to 107 countries. And on TV channels in the US, Canada, Germany, Australia, Italy and the Netherlands, formats from the UK were more numerous and accounted for more hours than formats from any other exporter.

However, the more recent Pact report states that revenues from format sales and co-productions are down compared to 2003 (when they increased). Pact argues that this is because
    UK formats rights holders are increasingly taking on the production responsibility of formats in other territories around the world, as opposed to just licensing the rights to an overseas broadcaster or co-producing them with a local production company. In these instances, revenue is counted by companies as production income and not as sales revenue – from which the exports statistics are compiled.

British companies that produce their own overseas versions of formats include Fremantle Media, TWI, RDF, and The Television Corporation.

BBC to Fox News: "We're not leftie" (but you're pretty "rightie")

The right-wing media in both the U.S. and Britain have been taking pot shots at the BBC lately.

First there was the broadside delivered by former BBC correspondent, Robin Aitken, who claimed in an interview with Damian Thompson in the right-wing Daily Telegraph (May 14, 2005, p. 21 - registration required) that there is a "a culture of 'institutionalised Leftism' at the corporation" and "a centre-left consensus within the BBC that colours its entire output and undermines its solemn pact with the public to present the news impartially". That provided the spark to allow other right-wing newspapers to jump in, including the following:
  • Murdoch's News of the World ("BBC has Leftie Bias says Reporter," May 15 and a Leading article, "Truth about BBC Bias" the same day)
  • the Daily Mail ("BBC's Bias to the Left, by an Insider," May 16, p. 22, and a commentary piece by Melanie Phillips on the same day: "Partial, prejudiced and institutionally Leftwing. At last, and from an insider, the damning truth about the BBC", p. 12)
  • a sideswipe by The Sun (May 17), and
  • a sample of outraged anti-BBC letters to the editor.
The evidence of institutionalized left-wing bias in the Aitken article, however, seems pretty sketchy - based on a limited set of personal experiences and a lot of perceived slights and general disgruntledness with the institution, sort of along the lines of Bernard Goldberg's swipe at CBS in his book Bias. (See Eric Alterman's book, What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News, for a well-researched rebuttal to Goldberg and other promoters of right-wing perceptions.)

Back to the BBC. Less than a week later, on May 20, 2005, the Wall Street Journal propelled the story across the Atlantic. In an article headlined "An Aunt with an Attitude", Scott Norvell, London bureau chief for Murdoch's Fox News, made the claim that "BBC producers are so institutionally leftwing they do not even consider alternative views." (I'd link to it but it's pointless since the WSJ requires paid subscription for you to read any of its content - so here's the Media Guardian report to read.)

The focus of Norvell's slam on the BBC is its coverage of the recent Malcolm Glazer takeover of Manchester United. According to Media Guardian, Norvell talks of the story as the BBC's "'perfect platform' to peddle 'its anti-free market ideology'". He is quoted as arguing that the BBC framed the story as "an effort by a rogue financier with a funny beard and no heart, who wants to 'take Manchester away from the people and into the hands of market forces'." (For the record, here's my take on the Glazer/Man U saga.)

Not content with slagging off the Beeb, Norvell goes on to take a swipe at all of British broadcasting. States Norvell:
    The influence of the [centre-left] groupthink goes far beyond the BBC and now permeates the cliquish world of British broadcasting in general . . . Almost everyone in the television business has worked for the BBC at some point . . . and now carries the torch of institutional leftism.

Then Norvell says something intruiging. He argues that viewers watch Fox News (in America - Murdoch's UK TV news arm is satellite-delivered Sky News) because the presenters are "open about where they stand on particular stories. That's our appeal . . . The Beeb's institutionalised leftism would be easier to tolerate if the corporation was a little more honest about it." That's very interesting. Fox's news chief stating that the organization is conservative and is open about it. I always thought that Fox News wanted to paint itself as unbiased - the whole "We Report - You decide" thing. The brilliance of Fox, after all, has been to present itself to its conservative viewers as the only unbiased news source in a world dominated by media lefties. It sounds like Norvell is now saying something different.

Anyway, the BBC's response was a bit slow (maybe they hoped that they could just ignore Fox and it'd go away), but they've finally fired back. Helen Boaden, the BBC's director of news, defended the Corporation in the pages of the Wall Street Journal (and reported in The Guardian).
    She said she "strenuously" denied such partisanship at the BBC and said the David Kelly affair was proof of the BBC's "search for truth in the face of concerted political pressure and threats - no matter the colour of the government".

    Ms Boaden said BBC correspondents went to great lengths to give the Glazer family's side of the story despite having had requests for interviews and comment persistently turned down.

    "The BBC did not take a position on the takeover bid and the 10 O'Clock News did not, as Mr Norvell claims, state that it was 'bad for shareholders'. We simply reflected the unhappiness of the fans."

But Ms Boaden's retort also included the following:
    "The majority of the UK believes the BBC to be impartial and the BBC to be the most impartial broadcaster in Britain (and increasingly across America and the rest of the world). Perceptions of bias will undoubtedly linger among individuals and among those of particular political perspectives. However faced with the huge spectrum of BBC output and an overwhelming commitment to impartiality, those 'perceptions' will be outweighed by the evidence."

I like the reference to "those of particular political perspectives". Now who could that be? And what might be those "political perspectives" of which she speaks? Could this be code for the "rightie" ideologues over at Fox News? Why yes, I think it is!

This brings to mind a final point of mine. I'm tired of Fox and others slagging off "leftie" media and "leftie" this and "leftie" that. The use of the diminutive in this case is insulting - because it's nearly always intended to be so in the contexts in which the word is used. (Calling the Japanese "Japs", women "girlies", and Pakistanis "Pakis" is insulting for the same reason). It's time we heard Fox News consistently described as "rightie" - as in "those righties on Fox News are up to their old tricks again." Fair's fair, after all. :-)

Friday, May 27, 2005

Robert Fisk in The Progressive

Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, is interviewed by Alternative Radio's David Barsamian in the June issue of The Progressive. Fisk's reporting has earned him a good deal of controversy, especially in the United States, because of his refusal to accept the platitudes of the U.S. and British governments. In this interview he's asked about various aspects of his almost 30 years of reporting in the Middle East. As Barsamian notes, "In an era of drive-by journalism, where reporters turn up in places only when there is a major crisis, Fisk is a throwback to an earlier period when journalists would stay in a country for many years and learn the language and customs and develop and mine contacts." His perspective, which is always fascinating, is largely missing from Western reporting on the Mid-East generally, and Iraq in particular.

Unfortunately Fisk says little about the British press in this interview, though he does comment on the U.S. mainstream media in a couple of places. For example, on Seymour Hersh:
    Fisk: Seymour Hersh, with the possible exception of John Burns [of The New York Times, though he is in fact English], is about the only American journalist doing his job in Iraq. He doesn't have to go there, but by God, we're learning what's happening from him. The banalities in the American mainstream press are certainly not worth reading. We do not fully understand, for example, that there are 20,000 to 30,000 armed mercenaries from South Africa, Ireland, Britain, and America. They are a law unto themselves. They shoot, they kill, and they don't care. There is no law, no justice, nothing.

When asked about these "security contractors," Fisk rejects the term. "They're hired armed men," he retorts. "I call them mercenaries. I don't call them security contractors. I leave that to The New York Times and The Washinton Post". That sideswipe at America's two leading agenda-setting newspapers is another insight into what Fisk thinks of the U.S. media generally. (He could have mentioned that British media also often refer to them as "security contractors" or "private contractors"; perhaps his sense is that British coverage is more critical of the role of these individuals.) Anyway, it's a compelling view of what the crisis in the MIddle East is all abouut, and well worth a read.

(BTW, if you want some more background about Fisk from a few years ago, here's another interview transcript, also from The Progressive, from July 1998. This interview gives you a better idea of the stature of the man, and what makes him tick, without all the baggage of Iraq.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

In America, blame the media - it always works

Each week seems to bring new evidence of how cowed the U.S. news media have become under the current Bush administration. The latest example is the cowering response by all the country's media to the vicious and undeserved administration attack on Newsweek over the retraction of its anonymously sourced story about the Koran being flushed down a toilet in Guantanamo Bay by U.S. interrogators. Yes, the use of anonymous sources always causes some credibility issues to arise, but the viciousness of the official response is breathtaking, and quite scary, given the clear record of dissembling and mass death associated with the administration's own Iraq War record. I brought this up in my mediaville blog, but this issue has a place in London Calling because, along with the repressed British secret memo story, it provides perhaps the clearest evidence yet of how the U.S. news media are still unwilling and/or incapable of taking on the Bush administration over the Iraq debacle - and why so many Americans are looking overseas for their news.

Over the Guantanamo/Koran story, Frank Rich, in a Sunday New York Times piece (reprinted in Truthout.org), noted the insane lengths to which Scott McClellan went to successfully draw attention away from the real story, and pin the blame on the media, thus:
    "Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care," said the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, as he eagerly made the magazine the scapegoat for lethal anti-American riots in Afghanistan. Indeed, Mr. McClellan was so fixated on destroying Newsweek - and on mouthing his own phony P.C. pieties about the Koran - that by omission he whitewashed the rioters themselves, Islamic extremists who routinely misuse that holy book as a pretext for murder.

    That's how absurdly over-the-top the assault on Newsweek has been. The administration has been so successful at bullying the news media in order to cover up its own fictions and failings in Iraq that it now believes it can get away with pinning some 17 deaths on an errant single sentence in a 10-sentence Periscope item that few noticed until days after its publication. Coming just as the latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll finds that only 41 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq is "worth fighting" and only 42 percent think it's going well, this smells like desperation. In its war on the press, this hubristic administration may finally have crossed a bridge too far.

What, the administration going too far in unfairly slamming the media and being held to account for it!? Not if Patrick Healy, writing in the same "Week in Review" in Sunday's Times is to be believed. He recounts a battery of statistics (many of which I've mentioned before) showing just how low public trust has gone in the U.S. media. Here are the most stomach-churning examples, fyi:
    In the post-Watergate 1970's, some 25 to 30 percent of Americans reported to the Harris Poll that they had a great deal of confidence in the press, more than they had in Congress, unions or corporate America. In the 2005 poll, the press ranked only ahead of law firms, with 12 percent reporting high confidence in the media.

    Another poll, in 2003 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that 66 percent of Americans see news reports as slanted, compared with 53 percent in 1985. Even more stunning to some analysts, 32 percent judged news organizations to be immoral, up from 13 percent in 1985.

    "Today we have a case where the public is suspicious of the values of the news media as well," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "I don't know if it's a crisis, but it's a hell of a growing problem."

    For the first time, Pew also asked Americans in 2003 if they believed some news organizations, which were not identified, were becoming too critical of America. Nearly half the respondents, 46 percent, said yes; 48 percent said no.

    "More people think media companies are motivated by profit, and put stories on the front page to serve that interest, and that reporters are motivated by their own career advancement more than any concern about the country," Mr. Rosenstiel said.

    Perhaps an even more dire forecast came in another Pew report, Trends 2005, which found 45 percent of Americans saying they believed little or nothing of what they read in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago.

So, no problems for the Bush administration spin doctors there, then. Even as their poll numbers plummet, they can clearly continue to blast the pernicious media - whose own popularity numbers will always be lower - and get away with it. No charge is too outrageous to throw at the media in America, as Scott McClellan proved last week. Tony Blair could never have got away with such a bald-faced attack in the United Kingdom, where the news media still have a bit of life in them. And that is surely what makes the British media so attractive to critical-thinking Americans.

Americanized media fare - bland and blander

Richard Edwards, writing in the most recent issue of Flow, makes some interesting points about the importation of British media products into the US market. He argues that the easy access to such content in its original format means American audiences are apt to be disappointed at the watered down American versions.

As we’ve repeatedly pointed out on this blog, the same might be said about news as well. Americans can more easily than ever access British news – be it BBC, the Guardian, The Economist, etc. – and American products, to use Edwards’ words about entertainment fare, are “often pale by comparison.” Much has been written in the US media recently about a renewed need for accountability, credibility, etc. but none of the hand-wringing accounts seem to address this aspect – part of what may be used to hold the US media accountable is access to different information via media from other countries, especially those of the Anglosphere. If we continue to have administrations that shut out and to a certain extent shut down the US news media, then elite audiences will not willingly subsist on the anorexic US version of the news.

For example, last week, media watchdog FAIR again pointed out that the so-called Smoking Gun memo out of the UK that clearly shows the lies behind the war on Iraq has been completely absent from the US network news. Yet, we’ve heard over and over about the Newsweek retraction of a piece of information that appears to have been already repeatedly reported and proven true. Limiting themselves to these narrow alleys of accountability while refusing to confront the bigger picture will ultimately not help the US media regain its market share or audience respect.

As for entertainment fare, Edwards argues one strategy might be to stop changing the British shows being re-made, instead “keeping more of their UK flavor. Not all British TV imports are homogenized and Americanized beyond recognition to their UK counterparts. Many shows retain their British sensibility along with their UK stars.” This is an interesting idea – but such an approach would remind viewers much more often of the origins of the show, drawing attention to the US-UK media connection that seems to have been underplayed in both countries.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

You say football, we say . . .

In more important news, whereas Galloway's rants were relegated to A3 -- if he was lucky -- the Manchester soccer team ownership situation was clearly seen as more important to American news audiences, at least in Southern California. The LATimes granted that important story A1 status this morning.

Doctor Media, having been brought up in a red-blooded American NASCAR household, doesn't have a lot to say about the situation with this girlie man sport but does note that the LATimes -- with this story following on the heels of its dispatch of the much beloved columnist Pat Morrison to cover Charles and Cow's marriage -- is seeming a bit Anglophilic lately.

More on Galloway

Just a brief note on Galloway and the media from the Left Coast -- he did make it above the fold on page 3 of the LA Times, not A1 of course, but still the second most important slot for international news in the paper. (The press is busy with the LA election of a Latino mayor for the first time in more than a century . . . that is, if Arnold doesn't call in the Minutemen.) The article included the summary blurb: "George Galloway tells senators their oil-for-food probe is a cover-up for the war. Amid the vitroil, he denies any illicit deals. "

The article, which apparently required reporting from the United Nations, Washington and Moscow (best cover all the bases least his majesty's lackeys demand a retraction), also featured Galloway's takeout quote: "Most people think the real villains of the piece in Iraq are in the White House and in the Republican majority."

However improbable, LondonCalling does relish the fantasy of a stream of other Brits bringing the rough and tumble parliamentary communication style to the floors of US Congress. Yeeha indeed.

Explaining Galloway and the U.S. media

A ha!

After the befuddlement I expressed in the previous post, along comes Rupert Cornwall of The Independent to explain it all for me. In a fine background piece he's got a pretty clear opinion on just why the U.S. media took a huge bodyswerve over the Galloway hearings. Very interesting! I think he might be overselling the "rigid respect" the U.S. media are supposed to have for Congress (Congressional hearings in particular can get pretty heated). And I still think the underlying problem in the media's continuing current queasiness over all things Iraq. But in his general contention Cornwall is definitely more right than wrong. Here's how he explains it:
    . . . the US media too did not know quite what had hit it. For all its imperfections, Congress - in particular the Senate part of it - commands a rigid respect. Coverage of it tends to be strait-laced and humourless. Into this primly arranged china shop crashed George Galloway, to deliver a public broadside against US policy in Iraq, and the US system, unmatched since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

    In Britain, the prospect of such a confrontation would have sketch-writers and columnists salivating days in advance. But that is not the American way. Honourable exception should be made for the New York Post, Murdoch-owned and the nearest thing in the US to a Fleet Street tabloid. "Brit Fries Senators in Oil" was the headline on a news story that noted the "stunning audacity" of Mr Galloway's performance, how he had caught Mr Coleman and his colleagues "flatfooted" (only one of whom was left when the chairman brought the embarrassment to an end).

    A brief perusal of the US press suggests that the Post's Andrea Peyser was also the only columnist to weigh in. As might be expected, she excoriated Mr Galloway as a thug and a bully, "a lefty lackey for butchers". Mr Coleman and his subcommittee had let the side down, she wrote. "Our Senators did not pipe up. Rather, they assumed the look of frightened little boys, caught with their pants around their ankles, nervously awaiting punishment." She concluded: "It's time to take the gloves off, senators. Kick this viper where it hurts."

    But anyone expecting such colour in the more august broadsheets will have been severely disappointed. The Washington Post and The New York Times devoted only inside-page coverage. The Times noted that Mr Coleman, despite being a former prosecutor, seemed "flummoxed" by Mr Galloway's "aggressive posture and tone". Both singled out the MP's debating skill. It is a skill on which, alas, American politics place little premium.

Well, there you have it! I'm also gratified to see mention made of the exception to the rule provided by the New York Post - "Murdoch-owned and the nearest thing in the US to a Fleet Street tabloid". This fits in nicely with DoctorMedia's recent musings about the Brit-saturated U.S. tabs.

Well, thanks for the (near-) reality check, Rupert Cornwall. I'm left thinking that maybe my trouble is that I'm still thinking more like a Brit than a Yank!

Oh dear.

George Galloway on Capitol Hill

George Galloway's fiery defence of his integrity before a Senate committee on Tuesday made big headlines in Britain, though it caused barely a ripple in the U.S. news agenda. Yet Galloway's appearance - the first by a British politician who was being interrogated by the U.S. Senate as as a hostile witness - was great political theatre, searing in its vigor and downright condemnation of the Senate and the entire U.S. government. As the BBC noted,
    Far from displaying the forelock-tugging deference to which senators are accustomed, Mr Galloway went on the attack. He rubbished committee chairman Norm Coleman's dossier of evidence and stared him in the eye. "Now I know that standards have slipped over the last few years in Washington, but for a lawyer, you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice," the MP declared.

Galloway continued along much the same lines:
    I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims did not have weapons of mass destruction.

    I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to al-Qaeda.

    I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to the atrocity on 9/11 2001.

    I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.

    Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong and 100,000 people paid with their lives; 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies.

This should be the sort of compelling spectacle that - a la Richard Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 commission - the media should salivate over. The Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow is quite a charismatic figure (and an arrogant, media-hungry, prickly yet thuggish prima donna). He's got a compelling Scottish accent (Americans love that!). In the recent UK general election he used popular - and especially Moslem - opposition to the Iraq War in his constituency to defeat a young Blairite black woman (name of Oona King, who just happens to be the daughter of American civil rights leader Preston King). There's enough material here for a mini-series! Yet what little coverage there was of Galloway's appearance seemed set on trivializing the content of his testimony by focusing on his Scottish roots and mannerisms - a sort of "Braveheart on Capitol Hill" frame, too nutty to take seriously. Beyond that, little attention was paid to what he actually had to say.

Now I know George Galloway is barely known over here. But you could say that about many news figures the media anoint (albeit fleetingly) as instant news "celebrities" (e.g., Chandra Levy, Pvt. Jessica Lynch, Lynndie England, "runaway bride" Jennifer Wilbanks - and even figures such as former weapons inspector Scott Ritter and Richard Clarke himself). But it's what Galloway so compellingly represents that makes this story so potentially newsworthy. And, btw, it was the Senate report that initiated this story in the first place, charging that Galloway, an elected British MP, was given credits for Iraqi oil by Saddam Hussein - but without offering him the opportunity to defend himself! And meanwhile Galloway continues to draw investigations into his conduct - his name is far from being cleared. Frankly, his demeanor and behavior are so odious that they make many anti-war activists squirm (whenever Galloway does his anti-war bit, I find myself sympathizing with Tony Blair!) There's bags of conflict here! Galloway should be the Big Meanie that everyone loves to hate. And now he's riding into Dodge for the Big Showdown! Come on, is it me or should this be Big in News-land, at least for a couple of news cycles ... no? Am I missing something? I don't think he did any studio interviews on the cable channels (though apparently Wolf Blitzer on CNN characterized his testimony as "a blistering attack on US senators rarely heard" in the Senate). The BBC's piece on U.S. media reaction is pretty flimsy. Even NPR's coverage was fleeting. I dunno - let's say the media's studied lack of attention just seems a bit odd, to say the least.

Could it possibly be that this is more evidence of the news media's gun-shy attitude, post-U.S. election, toward any stories that in any way call into question the administration's fundamental handling of the Iraq War? And no matter how much we might dislike him personally, doesn't Galloway represent something (anti-war, Moslem opinion) that needs to be taken seriously - yet almost never is in this country? Or is that just too out-of-left-field for the safety conscious news media to handle? Much easier just to trivialize the story and bury it.

Or am I being too cynical?

(Check here for a full video clip of the testimony.)

Read all about it (in London)

OK kids, let's all put on our thinking caps and try to answer this super dooper question:

How many days does it take the stunning confirmation that a multibillion dollar war (costing thousands of innocents civilians their lives) was based on lies cooked up months in advance of when the "decision" to go to war was supposedly made take to cross the Atlantic?

Minutes?
Hours?
How about, oh say, 10 days?

Editor & Publisher initially reported Saturday, then updated their story earlier this week that the US media has finally bothered to pay a little attention to the so-called Downing Street Memo (see earlier posts on the UK election by HDougie for the details). The Times of London reported the story on May 1 but E&P says there was little to no attention here until May 6 when Knight Ridder carried a report. Now the LATimes has weighed in as has the Washington Post. E&P says the Post only did so after many reader complaints to their ombudsman. The NYT has just been too busy what with their incisive reports on the latest "Star Wars" movie-length commercial and their investigations concerning important medical breakthroughs for sufferers of cellulite.

Better late than never Salon also weighs in today, noting the enormous amount of attention that the Newsweek flap over whether the Gitmo wardens were busy flushing Korans has received in comparison to this little ole story.

The US media, now cowed into submission by the Bushies, better realize sometime soon that their lack of reporting on such important matters will continue to drive serious American news audiences to media outlets in Britain and anywhere else that has the cojones to give us the truth.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Buying Manchester United

I can't help but comment on the latest attempts in the long-running saga of Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner (and Rochester-born) Malcolm Glazer's attempt to buy Manchester United Football Club. The latest news shows just how bitter the saga has become - especially following Glazer's previous failed attempt late last year. This time he looks set to succeed: he already now "owns 74.81% of the club - just short of the 75% he needs to take it private." What's going on? Maybe Glazer sees an opportunity to run Manchester United like an NFL club.

I should say that I feel strangely conflicted by this development. I don't want to see this corporate raider take over Man. U, any more than I wanted to see Rupert Murdoch buy the club a few years ago . . . and I'm definitely not a Man. U supporter, I'm not a die-hard soccer/football supporter, and I'm not even English (I have my own private hell of following Scotland's national team from one national embarrassment after another). But in my gut, I still see something about football culture that represents a challenge to a sense of U.S.-instigated global hegemony. Maybe I just feel deep down that "the Yanks" (including ex-Aussie Yanks) should just stay the hell away from European football (just as Europeans should flee from "American Football"). It's like worlds colliding! Now why is that?

Back to last December: At the time of Glazer's last effort I pointed to a fascinating piece by Slate's Daniel Gross. Now there were many compelling points made in this piece, but the most compelling, I think, was not about Glazer himself, or Man. U, or the English Premier League itself, but rather the comparison it makes between NFL and the English game. This point's been made before, but it bears repeating:

    The NFL is socialism for billionaires, with revenue splitting and a salary cap. The enforced parity ensures that a few teams don't dominate the league year after year. By comparison, [English] soccer is a class-based system. The clubs are sorted into different divisions. There is no salary cap. And the wealthiest and biggest clubs—Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool—constitute a sort of permanent nobility.

In some ways this might sound fatuous, but I think it retains the essence of truth. It's also a characterization that might be about to be swept away. Until recently, as Gross points out, "Man U. fans have had a fun time painting Glazer as the owner of a mediocre team in a grotesque sport that has the gall to call itself 'football'. And owning an NFL team is seen as nothing like owning a Premier League club." All true. But that could be about to change. And I don't think Man. U fans are having quite as much fun at Glazer's expense anymore. Up to now, owning or part-owning a major European club has still been as much about prestige, class, "nobility," and Love of the Game as about money (note that much the same used to be true about owning a Fleet Street daily, before Murdoch came along - I'll explain why I bring this up below). For Glazer, you can be sure that it's all about the money! And in the American system, you make it almost impossible not to make loads of money. Thus, the point about the American game in the quote above is telling.

Anyway: The story of a U.S. corporate raider sweeping in with a huge leveraged buyout to take over a highly regarded English business, further leverage the exploitation of its brand identity, and reconstitute it as a vastly more profitable entity - an entity that is truly global in its orientation - normally wouldn't make big news anymore. But this story is big news, and has resonated far beyond the business pages. But think about this: To do what he wants to do Glazer has to sweep aside those die-hard organic elements of the club - mostly the fans, but maybe also the traditionalists in the Football Association - who feel that the club "belongs" first and formeost to them, and not to the bean counters and the forces of global capitalism. I know it sounds odd, but this does have echoes of Rupert Murdoch's monumental 1985 battle with the print unions over moving his print empire to Wapping. Then the unions saw Murdoch as a foreign global buccaneer intent on destroying their culture and "way of life" so he could build a global media empire. Of course 500 Man U fans demonstrating outside Old Trafford are a lot less of an obstacle to global corporate capitalism than the Fleet Street print unions were. And all Glazer has to do is to get that 75%, and that will probably be that (where would the next round of resistance come from?). But there is a sense of another - quieter - sea change going on here - this time in the realm of sports rather than media. The English football league system is, in spite of the millions spent on it, still something of a local-national cottage industry compared to Major League American sports. Glazer may well see a UK, European, and global football future with single-owner superclubs and super-league cartels - "socialism for billionaires," if you like. Of course there are many, many people who would like to stop him. But you could have said the same about Murdoch.

Yes, there's lots of differences between Wapping in 1985 and Old Trafford in 2005. But if you think about this in terms of die-hard tradition and organic local culture pitched against buccaneering globalizing capitalism run amok, I think you can see some clear parallels. Sport - and especially football/soccer - is one of the few redoubts of world and national culture that has resisted the worst excesses of late modern, U.S.-inspired global capitalism. The walls of this redoubt have been crumbling for a long time - due in part to the greed of soccer's own ancien regime; they may be about to finally collapse. Just don't be surprised if, ten or twenty years from now, an English Premier League club - sorry, "franchise" - can be moved to another city - or even another country - as easily as an NFL franchise can today be moved across the U.S. at the whim of the owner.

Addendum (5.16.05, 12:15 p.m.): The BBC reports that Glazer has succeeded in securing 75% of the club, and will take it private (i.e., delist it from the stock exchange). Now we'll see if (or rather when) he tries to set Man. U on a new course - first by trying to re-negotiate Man U's Premier League television collective bargaining arrangement. We'll see what sort of resistance the other clubs put up.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Napsterizing news part 2

More on the BBC and innovative uses of technology. Cyberjournalist announced yesterday that the BBC has started what he calls a "cool new project."

It's in beta right now but BBC reports that Backstage News will allow visitors to "Build what you want" "Alternatively, share your ideas on new ways to use BBC content. This is your BBC. We want to help you play."

Napsterizing the news

Who will rule the future online global news world? Not likely to be Associated Press which recently announced it will charge for its web content. This comes as Editor & Publisher notes that although print news readership is down, online news readership is up.

In a move in a different direction, the BBC this morning announced they would ease the rules on news feeds via RSS. BBC quotes one of its own managers: "We want to share as much of our information as we can and reduce the restrictions we put on sites that can access them. We are making it much clearer and more simple for people to understand how they do this."

Rumblings have been heard recently that US media outlets want to start charging for online content even more than they do already (i.e., archives are not usually free and providing registration info is a form of payment, it seems to me.) Yet it's been shown over and over that the Napster path toward charging for content doesn't work. If the British public service ethos is able to guide their news policies toward ever greater openness -- and it looks like this could be the case -- then I think we can guess what sort of organizations are going to come out on top: established entities that readily make information available and new outfits like OneWorld mentioned below that see news as a public good and not a product.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

So much for the special relationship, part 2

Following on from John Simpson's critique of the "special relationship," post-Iraq invasion, Salon's Sidney Blumenthal also gets stuck in to the issue. Echoing Simpson, Blumenthal adds his conclusion about the result of last week's UK election:
    The underlying events that produced this election result provide a harsh, cautionary and unsettling lesson not only for Blair. British prime ministers to come will take the story of Blair's embrace of a powerful ally's mendacity and Blair's subsequent loss of his country's trust as a warning. Future U.S. presidents will be regarded with underlying suspicion far into the future. By chastening Blair, British voters have applied the only brake they have on Bush's foreign policy. But the damage done to the U.S.-U.K. relationship may have incalculable long-term negative consequences for the world.

Blumenthal also has a few choice words for Gordon Brown. Newsweek might indeed portray Brown as a fan of America, but Blumenthal suggests Bush wouldn't be a fan of the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. Brown and Bush, he suggests, "are a car crash waiting to happen. Bush has an instinctive revulsion against serious intellectuals with little capacity for the locker-room-like banter that is his mode of condescension."

Tabs -- it's not about $$, really

In an earlier post I discussed how the Brits were pioneering the turn to a tabloid format for their quality papers. The New York Times reports this week that the first biggie in the US market to follow will be the Wall Street Journal but only in its European and Asian editions -- for now. The new format will debut abroad in October.

The Times says the paper claimed the switch would appeal to young people. " 'The readers of The Wall Street Journal are smart and savvy and impatient, with less and less time for reading,' said Mario Garcia, a media consultant based in Tampa, Fla." Garcia is also helping The Observer switch, which leaves The Daily Telegraph as one of the few major broadsheets on London's streets.

Yeah right, all in the name of serving the public But let's not forget, the Times reports that the change means the WSJ loses 1/4 of its current print space, saving the paper $17 million. And it won't be the first time penny-pinching ideas are imported from the Brits.

The special relationship – divorce or just a partner-swap?

If the British invasion of American media is indeed linked to the foreign adventures partnership between Blair and Bush, then as HDougie suggests, the question is what will this mean for the media in a post-Blair Britain.

Interestingly, this week’s Newsweek suggests that Blair’s heir apparent, Chancellor Gordon Brown, may follow in the path of the man former Guardian correspondent James Naughtie calls the “Accidential American.”

Brown, they report, is also a “fan of America.”

Their evidence:

He likes to summer in Nantucket

Loves Dupont Circle’s Kramerbooks

Is chums with Bob Shrum, the Democrats' most well used yet incompetent political consultant, and Irwin Stelzer, an economist who advises – guess who! Rupert Murdoch.

A small world indeed.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

New journalism models

There is much more to be said about the right takeover (or will it be a takedown?) of PBS -- a comparison with BBC leaves PBS looking rather wane. Whatever the criticisms in recent months of Auntie Beeb, her American cousin is still the ugly one who can't get a date.

Or can she? The Ford Foundation just gave away $50 million in grants mainly to PBS and other public broadcasting entities, although what will become of this money with the conservative cabal in charge, one has to wonder. I don't see the commercials that now clutter the "non-commercial" alternative going away anytime soon.

I noticed in this announcement another recipient being given $1 million + -- that's the US node of OneWorld.net, an NGO that originated in Britain and focuses on disseminating alternative news about development and social justice issues. OneWorld US is a joint partnership between OneWorld and the Benton Foundation.

Their website notes "OneWorld is deeply appreciative of the wholehearted support it has received from the Ford Foundation. Without this we could not have undertaken the restructuring of OneWorld from a British-based NGO to a global network."

What's interesting is OneWorld represents a new sort of public service media -- one run by non-profits not the government. I suppose it's no surprise that it started in Britain but like some of BBC's new media projects, it suggests another new model for news. The difference between this and so many American ideas is that it is able to find funding without turning to a commercial model (witness PBS). OneWorld also exhibits a global sensititivity one is hard pressed to find in the US.

Slartibartfast's advice

Sometimes I get so perplexed at the rubbish job being done by the mainstream U.S. news media on any number of serious issues that I think about following the advice of Slartibarfast, the Magrathean planetary designer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Perhaps I'm old and tired, but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied."

It's either that or try and find out everything, realize I can't and in any case I can't do a thing about it, and stay depressed all the time - just like Marvin the Paranoid Android. Marvin's favorite quote is "What's the use?"

Oh dear.

Incidentally, the movie version of Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, a US-UK co-production, has been doing rather well in the States - it's currently number 3 at the U.S. box office, having held the number 1 spot in its first week of release. I suppose the Brits can still sell sci-fi and comedy as a package in the U.S.

Hang the sense of it.

Pushing PBS to the right

Eric Boehlert in Salon has an extended piece on an issue that's been gathering steam for some time: the attempt by the CPB and its Republican chair, Ken Tomlinson, to push PBS firmly to the right.

The thing is, everyone who's not an extreme right-winger knows that PBS does not display a systematic liberal bias (and polls show this is the case with the general public too). If anything, I think, many liberals see PBS's flagship "News Hour with Jim Lehrer" as leaning to the right. If PBS does become just another quiet and uncritical tool of those in power, then it will be one more place in the American media spectrum that is effectively off-limits to serious discussion of news and public affairs. As more and more Americans despair of receiving full, fair, accurate and critical news - of their own country as well as other countries - from U.S. media, so they will desperately look abroad for the news they need. The likely beneficiaries from this development will be overseas media - and especially those in Britain.

Where's the outrage? again . . .

I'm still trying to get my head around the fact that the U.S. mainstream media just will not tackle in a serious way the potentially damning "smoking gun" memo that implicates both the British and the U.S. governments in duplicity over their reaons for going to war in Iraq. Doctor Media drew my attention to a new Media Advisory from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) that gives us some sense of the scale of the U.S. media's sin of omission on this issue. Just to remind us what it's all about:
    A leaked document that appeared in a British newspaper offered clear new evidence that U.S. intelligence was shaped to support the drive for war. Though the information rocked British Prime Minister Tony Blair's re-election campaign when it was revealed, it has received little attention in the U.S. press.

    The document, first revealed by the London Times (5/1/05), was the minutes of a July 23, 2002 meeting in Blair's office with the prime minister's close advisors. The meeting was held to discuss Bush administration policy on Iraq, and the likelihood that Britain would support a U.S. invasion of Iraq. "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided," the minutes state.

    The minutes also recount a visit to Washington by Richard Dearlove, the head of the British intelligence service MI6: "There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

The Advisory goes on to map out the miniscule level of attention given to the story in the States.

While writing my previous postings on this subject last week (see Juan Cole on "smoking guns", Where's the outrage?, and in mediaville, Blair, Juan Cole, and UK-US duplicity) I hoped that this story would receive significant attention in the media. I also thought that the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq would give the story even greater currency. I'm coming to the conclusion that this is just not going to happen.

The FAIR advisory quotes Salon's Joe Conason, whose words I will repeat here:
    Are Americans so jaded about the deceptions perpetrated by our own government to lead us into war in Iraq that we are no longer interested in fresh and damning evidence of those lies? Or are the editors and producers who oversee the American news industry simply too timid to report that proof on the evening broadcasts and front pages?

And FAIR's response?
    As far as the media are concerned, the answer to Conason's second question would seem to be yes. A May 8 New York Times news article asserted that "critics who accused the Bush administration of improperly using political influence to shape intelligence assessments have, for the most part, failed to make the charge stick." It's hard for charges to stick when major media are determined to ignore the evidence behind them.

I can find no explanation for the agenda-setting media's attitude on this story, unless I conclude that they have, finally, all been beaten into submission by the Bush administration. Any objective determination of the story's news value should make it a page one, above the fold/top story issue, with staying power for multiple news cycles. And yet, and yet . . . Of course no-one in the Democratic Party seems to have picked up on it, and that would leave the media pushing a story on their own, without any institutional support. So they ignore it, hope it'll go away. And it probably will now.

Blair survived this story in Britain and Labour got re-elected (well, actually a narrow plurality voted for their own constituency Labour MPs, often held their noses while doing so, and tried their best to ignore the party's discredited leader). But at least there was a national debate. At least everyone now knows what Blair did, what he's like, and how much they can trust him (or not!). We cannot say that about President Bush in America.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tina, recovering from depravity, speaks

Magazine maven Tina Brown, who as noted in an earlier post, confided to reporters that she had become so influenced by US media culture she could no longer could muster enough brain cells to sit through a broadcast of BBC, appears to now be in remission. Her cure seems to have been multiple trips to London.

She told Media Village that she has now realized that the creative energy has left the building as far as NYC is concerned. Commercial interests have overtaken any semblance of concern for quality, public service or other Old Europe values. She is quoted as saying, "London feels more creative today than New York."

The former editor of the UK Tatler, then Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and finally, Talk had more to say:
In the US, "you have no place to write if you're a good writer and want to write long form narrative. There's no such thing as prestige success in America; just commercial success. There's plenty of photo work if you're a celebrity photographer, but few outlets for serious photo journalism. In television, it's a shame there isn't something like the BBC here. PBS is too timid and has had a loss of creative freedom. "

Maybe she should have thought about that when she was a pioneer in dumbing down US magazine culture, in transferring the idiotic British royalty obsession to American movie stars. But let's not talk ill of those with attention deficit disorders.

Brits (online) rule

Years ago, one of the first mainstream news websites I started visiting regularly was The Guardian, and it wasn’t just for the content. The site was easy to navigate and contained a certain sassy web quality that other newspapers still haven’t managed to bring to their online versions.

So it is absolutely no surprise that the Brits landed top prizes last week in the Webby Awards, given out by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, which is made up of web and other creative experts. The Webbys have both the experts’ choice and the people’s choice, and sometimes the experts and the people agree.

The Guardian scored the Webby for best Newspaper site (NYT won People’s Voice – go figure, no wonder we have a cowboy president)
For general News, BBC won both the Webby and the People’ Voice.
Also, UK Vogue got a People’s Voice award for Fashion – probably for its design more than anything – a topic that might be further explored when Doctor Media’s day job eases up. BBC One Music won both Webby and People’s Voice. Virgin Radio won both Webby and the People’s Voice in the Radio category.

Unfortunately, under the government category London Calling’s favorite made it to the finals but did not win an award: Scottish Parliament.

From the looks of it, the US sites scored well for such important categories such as restaurants and real estate.

Monday, May 09, 2005

So much for the special relationship

The BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson, makes this telling statement about post-election Britain: "Tony Blair's Pyrrhic election victory may well have changed the fundamental principle of British foreign policy for more than 60 years. For the first time since 1941, it may no longer be the automatic choice to stick close to Washington."

Simpson doesn't actually bring up the term "special relationship" - but that's what he's talking about: the heretofore-cherished British notion that, from WWII on, the UK had a unique bond of trust and amity with the United States - a bond that was closer than with any two other nation-states. It goes all the way back to Churchill and Roosevelt, and has been renewed over the years by MacMillian and Kennedy, Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Clinton, Blair and Bush . . . and now, thanks to Iraq, it could be coming to an end.

The "special relationship" was always far more important to Britain than to America. It was what supposedly gave Britain special prominence in Washington - and allowed that little island to "punch above its weight" in world affairs. The U.S. graciously gave lip service to the notion - but as Britain's post-imperial decline became utterly clear, the Washington elites gave less serious attention to it. Anyway, Blair's squalid election has served as an object lesson in what can happen when a British PM supports the U.S. in the teeth of domestic opposition. And as Simpson notes: "The relationship with Washington will still be of huge importance; but if it comes to a decision whether to side with the United States or with the majority inside the European Union, as it did in 2003, Europe rather than America may well be the default option."

Someone in today's Financial Times (can't remember who, and can't track it down right now) made the telling point that the term "special relationship" was barely used in the British election campaign - either by Blair or the naturally pro-U.S. Tories. Strange, that. Think about how often Thatcher, Major and Blair have trumpeted it in the past. This time, just as many in the Labour Party wanted to keep Tony Blair as far away from the public spotlight as possible, so nobody wanted to bring up the UK's seemingly obsequious relationship with the U.S. and the "Toxic Texan." Michael Howard was also quite happy to mainitain a discreet distance from Bush.

Another thought: A Tom Friedman column in the run-up to the invasion made the point that, as opposition to the war mounted across Europe, including the UK, the British "were becoming more French," i.e., they were starting to take on, in American eyes, the spineless, dubious and duplicitous character of those perfidious Gauls. This is not a widespread opinion in America at the moment, but if UK foreign policy does diverge significantly from that of the U.S. in the future - if it becomes more "European" - that's likely to change. And if that does become the case, what's that likely to do to the one place where, pace Jeremy Tunstall and David Machin, the special relationship has flowered: the Anglo-American global media connection?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Framing the Iraq War

Doctor Media's post earlier this week - about recent authors' criticism of UK media performance in reporting fully on the Iraq War - got me thinking about another piece I spotted in The Guardian a while back (actually, it was originally printed in December). It seems that The Guardian itself and even The Independent are also to receive some criticism on this count, if we are to accept the contention of David Edwards and David Cromwell (of UK media watchdog media lens). Their article (reprinted by commondreams.org) deals with the link between journalistic professionalism and an inevitable pro-Government bias (or "framing"). In making their case, they reference well-known critical structuralist scholars such as, in the U.S., Robert McChesney and, in the UK, James Curran and Jean Seaton (authors of the widely read Power Without Responsibility). They focus their attention on the (supposedly more critical) UK papers, including The Guardian and The Independent. And in making their case - "that the media's failure on Iraq was not really a failure at all, but rather a classic product of 'balanced' professional journalism" - the authors also remind us of some very pertinent - and often-forgotten - media history.

    The modern conception of objective reporting is little more than a century old. There was little concern that newspapers were partisan so long as the public was free to choose from a wide range of opinions. Newspapers dependent on advertisers for 75% of their revenues, such as the Guardian and Independent, would have been regarded as independent by few radicals and progressives in, say, the 1940s. Balance was instead provided by a thriving working class-based press. Early last century, however, the industrialisation of the press, and the associated high cost of newspaper production, meant that wealthy private industrialists backed by advertisers achieved dominance in the mass media. Unable to compete on price and outreach, the previously flourishing radical press was brushed to the margins.

And the the kicker: "just as corporations achieved this unprecedented stranglehold, the notion of professional journalism appeared." The historical context is important here. You can argue all you want that professional journalism is good or bad; but you can't argue about how and why it got started. It got started in order to help publishers make more money. Of course there's a lot more to journalism than that. But still, without getting too deeply into it at this point, articles such as these provide a useful corrective to some of the assumptions we might make (e.g., that UK media are somehow intrinsically better than their U.S. counterparts).

Friday, May 06, 2005

Where's the outrage?

Just to continue on my current theme on British "smoking guns," damning secret memos, and why-doesn't-America-care?, here's Salon's Joe Conason on the issue (reprinted in truthout.org - scroll down to the second article):
    Are Americans so jaded about the deceptions perpetrated by our own government to lead us into war in Iraq that we are no longer interested in fresh and damning evidence of those lies? Or are the editors and producers who oversee the American news industry simply too timid to report that proof on the evening broadcasts and front pages? There is a "smoking memo" that confirms the worst assumptions about the Bush administration's Iraq policy, but although that memo generated huge pre-election headlines in Britain, its existence has hardly been mentioned here.

Much as I like Diane Rehm, I think she should reflect on her dismissal of the caller on today's show who brought up essentially the same point.

UK distancing itself from U.S. foreign policy?

Paul Reynolds of the BBC has this to say about potential UK-US relations in a third-term Labour government:
    The clipping of Tony Blair's wings by a British electorate angry over Iraq probably means that the highly activist and interventionist foreign policy which marked his first two terms will be diminished. Mr Blair's alliance with George W Bush could be weakened. . . . The alliance between Mr Blair and US President George W Bush is likely to be weakened. American policy will therefore be framed with the British far less in mind.

    Tony Blair has paid a high price for his support of President Bush and now, without acknowledging past faults, he is likely to channel his energies into more voter-friendly policy areas.

    In the immediate future he will use the current British chairmanship of the G8 group of industrial countries and the presidency of the EU for six months from 1 July to press for action on world poverty and climate change.

Neither of these issues has much appeal for the U.S. administration (or, frankly, for the mainstream U.S. media). What's more, notes Reynolds, as Blair has more or less admitted he will likely "stand down before the next election, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's likely promotion to prime minister would mean further changes and a greater distance from Washington."

Of course Blair isn't about to pull UK troops out of Iraq, at least in the short run. But, looking at the big foreign issues likely to predominate in the next four years - Iran, global poverty, climate change, China, the EU - it seems more likely that the UK will drift away from the U.S. And Blair will be much less visible in Washington, DC than he was in the past 3-4 years. Thus the biggest UK-originated motors driving British news to be consumed in the U.S. will be diminished somewhat. The question is whether, and to what extent, U.S. audiences will still seek out UK media even as the UK itself is less closely associated with U.S. policies.

Coming soon to a newspaper near you

The Independent did it.

So did the Times.

Ditto The Daily Telegraph.

And it may be the future of US newspapers too.

We’re talking about tabloid formats as opposed to broadsheets.

The tabloid form carries a lot of baggage, being traditionally associated with yellow journalism of screaming headlines, cheesecakes photos and the like, but that may be about to change.

Tabloid-sized newspapers may help revive US newspapers's sagging circulation numbers. So claims Mario Garcia writing on the Poynter Institute’s website. Garcia has helped 16 newspapers around the world convert to tabloid format, and he’s a believer.

Even though US journalists see them as the embodiment of sensationalism, readers like the size, he reports. Garcia quotes Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of London's The Independent: "Newspapers are the only product whose size and form are determined by those who produce it, and not by those who consume it."

In testing the tabloid format, British publishers displayed the same paper -- tabloid form and broadshseet -- side by side. The tabloid versions drew 40 percent higher street sales, according to Rick Edmonds, also writing for Poynter.

After making their switches, the Independent’s circulation jumped 15.5 percent, The Times grew by between 4 and 10 percent. And in the flagging US newspaper market those numbers stand out.

The US seems to be a bit of a Brit follower in several ways, as is clear on many of this blog’s posts – but here in terms of newspaper re-design. And once again, while the form has been popular for years in Latin America and elsewhere, it might take the Brits to make the switch seem doable to American editors. The turn to Britain for design inspiration is nothing new. The most visible example being the so-called lad’s magazines. But that’s a different post.

Observations from America

Not too much in the American press about the election - pretty straightforward "Blair won" stories on the front pages of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times (the New York Times didn't even lead with the story, instead pushing North Korea's nukes to prime position). Slate's "In the Papers" section sums up the general tone by calling it a "desultory win by Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor party." Not much on Iraq or impact in the States. I had to look to the British Guardian, whose "American Dispatch" section (written in Washington, DC) included this interesting observation:
    Karl Rove watched the early returns trickle in on a big screen at the British embassy last night, and then when the shape of result began to emerge, he donned a red rosette and walked away.

    It was a suitably ambivalent gesture for George Bush's ever-present political mastermind. In the United States over recent years, the symbolism of the colour red has become the opposite of its meaning everywhere else in the world. It signifies conservative, patriotic, gun-owning, evangelical, Republicanism.

Interestingly, most of the points in this piece concern not Blair, but Michael Howard and Gordon Brown:
    "Real Republicans will be looking at how Michael Howard does," said a conservative justice department official last night. "The White House still hates Howard, for some reason, mostly because of some inappropriate things he said about the war at some inopportune times. So they're happy about Blair but what they're not thinking about is that they'll get Gordon Brown."

    By that same calculation, the Democrats could equally boast it was a good result for them. Their traditional Labour allies had held on to power but with such a reduced majority that Blair, the president's friend, is a lame duck bound to hand over power to Brown, who has remained far closer to the Democrats than the prime minister.

    "For the Democrats, this is a win because it makes Gordon Brown prime minister down the line," said EJ Dionne, a liberal political commentator with the Washington Post.

    Charlie Cook, a leading US political analyst was not so sure it would be seen that way on Capitol Hill. "If you ask most Democrats in Congress who Gordon Brown is, they're not going to know," he said.

    "They're going to have mixed feelings about this, and for the same reason, I really couldn't tell you who the White House is really backing."

I'm note sure what this all means. But it's got nothing to do with Iraq.

Juan Cole on "smoking guns"

Juan Cole, professor of History at the University of Michigan uses the occasion of the British general election (which Blair won, though with a sharply reduced majority) to put together all the pieces of news and intelligence that implicate Blair in lying to the British people over the War in Iraq. He focuses on a secret British memo (which originally appeared in the Times Online site) reflecting a clear consensus not only that Bush tampered with Iraq intelligence, but that Blair was complicit in Bush's scheme. Of course, none of this is new - although the latest memo does seem to be the clearest "smoking gun" for implicating Blair - but Cole's piece does bring Blair's and Bush's duplicity into sharp relief.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Election Day

Two very different perspectives on the British election - both from Brits living in the U.S. - are provided by Simon Schama, writing in The Guardian; and Slate's foreign editor, June Thomas. Make up your own mind about whether the Brits really do it better than the Yanks. I know whom I line up with.

Monday, May 02, 2005

UK media vs. US: Better yes, but by how much?

As a follow-up to Hdougie’s ponderings on the British media, democracy and the like, a central question is: Did the British media make a difference in that country’s opposition to the Iraqi war? Did it keep their electorate more informed than here?

A number of researchers (see Tumber and Palmer, Media at War; Allen and Zelizer’s new volume, Reporting war: Journalism in Wartime, etc.) don’t see the British media as having served as a particularly critical watchdog in the lead-up to the war. Certainly, the Brits were better than the US media, which is partly why so many Americans have turned to British news outlets, but even last week the BBC was criticized for holding off on running leaked documents about the attorney general’s war advice.

The Guardian reported the BBC was concerned about the document’s “authenticity” and ended up playing catch-up was this an effect the Hutton Report or the US Rathergate memos or simply a pattern of less than biting criticism? Of course, The Guardian and Channel 4 did run them so the information got out, and BBC execs were said to be dismayed at their own lack of spine. Interestingly, The Guardian reports interest in the election in the UK isn’t particularly high and media coverage fairly narrow.

As for Murdoch’s support of Blair, Variety reported that in fact under Blair’s media policies, Murdoch’s properties -- BSkyB, the News of the World, Sunday Times, the Times and the Sun – have flourished as “Blair's relaxation of media ownership rules that allow for the first time U.S. congloms to own a U.K. TV network means, in theory, that Murdoch could buy British commercial web ITV or, more likely, Five

British journalism and the election

I managed to watch an election special of the BBC's Question Time on C-Span last night - the same edition I referred to in Sunday's blog. It was an incredible contrast with the presidential debates in the U.S.

(Also, just as an aside, Sunday was the eighth anniversary of Tony Blair's initial election victory over the Tories. Oh what a day that was. I felt so invigorated as I watched the dawning of a new era in Britain - even from distant Seattle (which is where I was living at the time). So last night, in a vicious bout of nostalgia - and after a glass of wine or three - my partner and I watched an old tape of the May 1, 1997 BBC coverage. I must admit I got a bit misty-eyed there. Oh well. How times change.)

Anyway, last weekend's On the Media (on WNYC/NPR, 4.29.05) included a piece titled Her Majesty's Pugilistic Press (thanks to Doctor Media for bringing it to my attention). Here's the blurb:
    It's election time again – in England. And fresh from watching the political strategy employed during our elections, Tony Blair is facing many of the same criticisms that Bush did. But the similarities stop there. Chief among the differences is that the kind of deference afforded to the president here by the media is notably absent in the U.K. So does a critical national press result in a more informed electorate, a more engaged voter? Bob [Garfield] speaks with Michael Goldfarb, senior reporter in Britain for WBUR.

It was interesting listening to Goldfarb's take on the British election. The lack of deference and the vigorous skepticism displayed by the media make the British system profoundly different from that of America (as we've discussed many times in this blog). Goldfarb notes that "the press has lost any sense of deference." Very true. But does this make the British electoral system better than that of America? The New York Times's Adam Nagourney seems to think so. As he notes in his piece, "Maybe the British Do Democracy Better":
    Unlike the United States, Britain has no tradition of debates. But the ban on regular television advertising forces the candidates to wage a battle for attention in a forum that has become increasingly marginalized in America - the news media. The 11 national newspapers are filled every morning with pages and pages of articles on the campaign.

    Mr. Blair and Mr. Howard seek to fill that space by giving lengthy and rigorous daily news conferences, where they take question after question. Mr. Blair, at a single session the other morning, probably took more questions than either John Kerry or Mr. Bush did at news conferences throughout their entire campaigns.

But it's not as simple as that. Goldfarb notes in his "On the Media " piece that, in spite of the press's best efforts to act as a sort of unofficial opposition to the Blair administration, public apathy and skepticism of the media still seems rampant in the country (turnout at the last election, in 2001, was only 59%, and nobody expects it to be any higher this time around). Goldfarb notes that the electorate has concluded that the press are just as bad as the politicians - that "they all lie."

Well, maybe he's half right. As Kevin Marshnotes in a recent piece in British Journalism Review, there is a growing lack of trust among the British people for their country's journalists. However, the big exception is the BBC, which has retained public confidence and support - even after it was criticized by the Hutton inquiry.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Blair on the defensive: Does anyone in the U.S. care?

The most interesting thing about the current British election campaign - something which seems to be making it a bit more compelling, with only four days to go till polling day – is the reemergence of the Iraq war, and Blair’s role in it, as an issue. The British media are full of stories about the run-up to the war and the questionable (at best) legality of the British government’s decision to take UK forces into battle.

The most serious charge for Blair is that he covered up a report by UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith over his concerns about the legality of invading Iraq without a second UN resolution. Among the more recent developments, as reported in The Guardian:

    Labour confirmed that Mr Blair and his advisers had decided [Friday] to rush out a full version of the attorney general's interim legal advice, given 12 days before the war began, in the hope of proving it was consistent with his final advice that the war was legal.

    Lord Goldsmith's legal opinion reveals the full extent of the attorney's concern about the risk of Britain being hauled before international courts which would even scrutinise allegations of war crimes by British troops.

    It warns that British troops must use no more force than necessary to get Iraq to disarm. The attorney also makes it plain to Mr Blair that, in law, regime change could not be an objective of military action - a problem which did not concern the Bush administration.

    His warnings to Mr Blair were not shown to the cabinet, which saw only Lord Goldsmith's later parliamentary answer, stripped of any of his earlier caveats.

Blair has been getting hammered on this issue for the past week, both by the other major political parties (including even Michael Howard’s Tories), and the mainstream media. He was booed by a TV audience in an extraordinary episode of BBC's Question Time (watch the program on the web from here). To give you a sense of just how isolated Blair is on this issue, check here for a sampling of highly critical editorials published in the past week by papers across the political spectrum, including The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Independent, and The Scotsman.

The latest embarrassment is the admission by Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, former Chief of the Defence Staff, that he did not receive full legal cover from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Britain is bound to by treaty obligation. Admiral Boyce is quoted in The Observer as saying: “If my soldiers went to jail and I did, some other people would go with me.” It’s inconceivable to imagine the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or any senior U.S. officer, currently making such a statement. Of course the U.S. does not recognize the authority of the ICC. Boyce’s statements show the gulf in conceptual thinking between the senior ranks of the UK and U.S. military. The UK apparently has internalized, at the highest military levels, a liberal-functionalist conception of a world where national sovereignty is constrained by global legal authority; the U.S. manifestly has not. It ignores or subverts international law whenever it wants, preferring to pursue a classic realist strategy emphasizing its own supreme sovereignty. (For indications of current and future U.S. views on international law, refer to the statements of Bush nominee for UN ambassador John Bolton.)

In UK-US terms, it's worth pointing out again just how little influence the U.S. media’s predominantly jaundiced, pro-Bush coverage of the whole Iraq war has had on the UK electorate, which remains profoundly more skeptical than its U.S. equivalent. But of course an equally important question for this blog is the extent to which the latest UK coverage of this issue is having any impact in the United States. The answer here, at least to date, is “no, not very much.” Coverage of the UK election has been fairly low-key in the States, and the latest trials and tribulations over Iraq have received fairly perfunctory coverage. And when the U.S. media do cover Blair’s problems, they rarely if ever make clear links to the Bush administration’s own (widely acknowledged) history of evasion and deceit on the issue. I’ll have to investigate this issue more carefully in the days leading up to the UK election itself, but my sense is that to date the U.S. media are carefully ring-fencing the whole war issue and its parallels with and applicability to President Bush’s own Iraq-related policies. By thus cordoning off the issue, any damage done to Blair will be limited to his side of the Atlantic. Even if Blair were to lose the election as a result of his war policy, the damage to Bush would be limited. This compartmentalization of the issue is in itself noteworthy, given Blair’s joined-at-the-hip alliance with Bush over Iraq. In any case Blair is not likely to lose. But his very serious problems have so far received suspiciously little media prominence in the U.S. Let’s see if this changes in the next few days.