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:
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!