The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Fleet Street to Be Neutered?

Posted on | December 1, 2012 | 10 Comments

As a journalist, I’ve long admired and envied the aggressiveness and flair of the British press. During the 1990s — when for the first time the Internet allowed Americans to see foreign newspaper coverage in “real time” — Fleet Street’s coverage of the Clinton scandals was often as important as anything published in U.S. papers. This attracted notice at the White House, where the role of the British press, specifically the Telegraph‘s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, was mentioned in the infamous 1995 “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce” report.

What I love about the Fleet Street boys is that they understand their jobs in a very simple way: Get the scoop on the big story that sells papers.

This pragmatic attitude leaves little room for partisan bias, and still less for the obnoxious “make a difference” idealism that infuses so much American media with political correctness. It doesn’t matter on Fleet Street whether the corrupt or philandering politician is Tory or Labour, so long as the scandal is juicy, because the newspaper reader loves scandal stories, the editors all know it, and no reporter can afford to let himself be scooped on a big story like that.

Alas, the ruthlessness of the competition was such that Fleet Street reporters resorted to hacking cell phones and bribing police, and now the British government is considering regulations on the press. Alex Massie of the New Republic laments:

But the culture of British journalism is itself something worthy of protection. Fleet Street has long prided itself on its ability to live on its wits. Its practitioners are members of a grubby trade; unlike their American cousins they do not consider themselves members of a profession. Despite lacking the protection of anything as grand as the First Amendment the British press have largely managed to thrive until now in its own scrappy way, living on its wits while serving the public.

That’s exactly it: In recent decades, American journalism has gotten away from the “grubby trade” mentality, as the profession has attracted more missionary idealists whose progressive political commitments take precedence over the crude readership-value calculations of newsworthiness that inspire the Fleet Street headline-chasers.

As much as civilized tastes might recoil at a cynical commercial mentality in the media — “If it bleeds, it leads,” as local TV news programmers are wont to say — there is a danger also in the alternative, of editors and producers anointing themselves Platonic archons with the authority to impose idealistic myths on the public through coverage that is selectively presented to favor an allegedly superior sensibility.

UPDATE: At an event this past week in Washington, I met Jon Swaine, a young British reporter who was recently promoted to the Telegraph’s D.C. bureau. He published an article Tuesday with this intriguing headline:

FBI most wanted ‘hiding with Mormons’

It’s odd that I hadn’t seen that story in the U.S. press, and yet typical that a British reporter would find it newsworthy. Nothing like a good crime story to sell newspapers, and the unusual angle — a murderer who may be hiding within a religious community — makes it interesting.

UPDATE II: Welcome, Instapundit readers!



  • Evi L. Bloggerlady

    Sweeny Todd had his shop on Fleet Street. Coincidence?

  • scarymatt

    It always bugs me when J-School types get confused and think that when the 1st Amendment uses the word “press” it was talking about them.

  • Edward Callahan

    The US has an equivalent…they’re called supermarket tabloids..and are rightly ignored. Once in a blue moon they hit on something solid but not often enough merit attention.

  • Steevo

    I’ve been the only American regular for over 6 years at possibly the most influential Brit conservative web site, Conservativehome by Tim Montgomerie. I’m well aware of Brit journalism and have to say there’s not much difference than American when it comes to political reporting. They may be more willing than our MSM (Fox the exception) writing about corruption on high but that’s largely because so much of their reporting is negative concerning America. It keeps readers and draws on Brit need for a superior comparison and self-identity. When it concerns their own politics they are just as deceitful and manipulative. The BBC, Guardian, Independent etc. can be every bit as left-wing agenda-driven as the NY Times and MSNBC. Their Telegraph is more conservative and so like Fox will actually do some reporting.

  • Ron

    I think what real point is that the American press should realize that their field is partly in the entertainment business. Unlike movies and novels, however, their entertainment should be non fiction.

    The American press had two great columnists, H.L. Menken and Mike Royko. Neither of them obtained a college degree, let alone a journalism degree. Yet their writing is way more interesting than 99 percent of what journalists since them have published.

    On a brighter note, interesting news and opinion is on talk radio, and on the internet.

    There has been Deep Pondering about the decline of newspapers. Some of the reasons given are loss of ad revenue to the internet and mismanagement. These reasons are true to a certain extent, and probably irreversible. But the situation for newspapers would probably be somewhat better if they were more entertaining.

  • andycanuck

    I remember from many years ago that the Brit press, left and right, were happy to go after Farrakhan as the numerologist nut that he is when he travelled to Britain. I recall Mark Steyn writing something commenting about it too.

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  • Hugh Vaughan-Williams

    As a one-time Fleet Street tabloid journalist I completely agree with Ron and Stacy.

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