Current affairs in the media: US versus UK

Over at The Sharpener there’s a discussion of why blogs allegedly have more political influence in the United States than our home-grown blogs have here in Britain.  One reason advanced is the supposed superiority and variety of the British mainstream media compared with their American counterparts when it comes to a range of well informed political views across a wide political spectrum (I paraphrase, I hope not unfairly).

I wonder how far this comparison can be made to stand up?  The Times is a shadow of its former thundering self; the Independent too often deserves its Private Eye nickname; the Financial Times is excellent but specialised; the Guardian and the Telegraph are fine papers in their different ways but both have irritating foibles derived from their respective ideological positions, the former often descending into PC puerilities, the latter into offensive if generally comic reaction.  By comparison, the New York Times and the Washington Post are outstanding (notwithstanding recent turmoil and troubles at the Times), the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal have their enthusiasts, most other major cities besides New York and Washington have their serious and perfectly respectable print organs, and the FT is very widely available throughout the US.  It’s true, as one commentator at the Sharpener has pointed out, that outside the big US cities you’re lucky to find a New York Times or a Washington Post, whereas even the newsagents in tiny villages just about everywhere in Britain generally stock a few copies of most of the UK’s ‘serious’ papers;  but that has little relevance to the question of political influence vis-à-vis blogs.  For generally balanced and well informed comments on current issues, comprehensiveness of news coverage, and the essential separation of news from comment, I would argue that the New York Times and the Washington Post are superior to any British newspaper with the partial exception of the Financial Times, which is anyway these days almost as much an American as a British paper, and which doesn’t lay claim to the status of a journal of record.     

Perhaps the more interesting (and more complex) comparison is between British and American current affairs programmes on television.  Watching a couple of the most prominent American current affairs program[me]s yesterday (Sunday), I was struck, as I always am, by how good they are, and how much better than anything on British television, with the possible exception of some of our television news channels.  An outstanding example is MSNBC’s Meet the Press.  The transcript of yesterday’s programme provides a fair idea of the quality of the discussion, but it’s even better as transmitted, with the introductory remarks by the excellent presenter, Tim Russert, superbly illustrated by selected clips and texts.  The combination of round table discussion between outstanding print journalists and pundits (David Broder, David Brooks, Judy Woodruff and William Safire), with questioning of experienced political practitioners (Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff; Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and historian Michael Beschloss), makes for stimulating and informative television.  And the striking feature of this and a number of other similar American television programmes, on MSNBC, CNN, CBS and other channels, is that each panel member or interviewee is allowed to say his or her piece at reasonable length, often thoughtfully and deliberately, sometimes hesitating in search of the right word without being interrupted every time there’s the smallest pause for breath or reflection.   Wolf BlitzerRussert and other presenters and interviewers, such as CNN’s ubiquitous and admirable Wolf Blitzer,  manage to be civil and patient with the contributors, while pressing them on the more neuralgic issues and challenging attempts at evasion.  There are virtually no signs of aggressive scepticism or insulting accusation.  Enough time is allotted to each segment, even allowing for the tiresome commercial breaks, for reasonably thorough discussion and analysis. Anchors and interviewers exude authority without arrogance, and treat the programmes’ guests with refreshing respect.  The programmes are pacy but unhurried.

< Wolf Blitzer 

Sadly, almost all British current affairs programmes on both radio and television lack all these qualities.  Perhaps it’s partly that our presenters and interviewers are mostly so much younger than their American counterparts, and lack the Americans’ gravitas.  Some of the most ferocious young women (especially; some of the young men, too) interviewing on television and radio channels other than the BBC look and sound as if they are barely out of their teens.  Always rushed for time, interviewees (especially politicians, but also many other experts and pundits with a controversial point of view) are subjected to serial interruptions the moment they pause to draw breath;  interviewers treat them as adversaries, aggressively challenging and contradicting at every turn; some (such as, notoriously, Jim Naughtie) expand their long and rambling questions so self-indulgently that there’s often nothing left for the interviewee to say at the end of them but ‘Yes’.  The technique of the open question that draws out an interesting and revealing response is all but unknown to most of our electronic media interviewers.  Many seem more concerned with making their names as tough and aggressive inquisitors, and in demonstrating their own expertise and their clever scepticism, than in allowing their victims scope for expressing themselves fully, accurately and informatively.  It’s sad to have to acknowledge that these strictures apply, more often than not, to the Today Programme and Newsnight, BBC flagship news programmes both, as well as (to a lesser extent) to The World at One and PM.  Panel discussions such as Any Questions and Question Time are constantly distorted by the adversarial choice of participants:  the party politicians, selected on the Mendelian principle of one Labour, one Tory and one LibDem, laboriously reproduce the yah-boo inanities of prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, scoring elaborate points off one another at the expense of any attempt at serious discussion of the topic.  Much the same applied to last night’s Panorama programme, which discussed a key question of the moment: should we remove our troops from Iraq immediately (i.e. within the next few weeks), or should we leave them there until "the job is done"?  Instead of a format like that of the American ‘Late Edition‘ or ‘Meet the Press’ that might have allowed reasonably full contributions from people with experience and knowledge of the issues, Panorama opted for a deliberately adversarial framework with advocates of the opposing views ‘cross-examining’ each other’s ‘witnesses’, each allowed a maximum of around two minutes, followed by even briefer and necessarily even more superficial comments from the many Iraq pundits in the audience.  Very frustrating.

Personally, unlike many others, I largely accept the argument of our star interrogators, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, that since parliament has virtually given up any attempt to fulfill its task of holding the government to account, the executive having by various means gained complete control over the house of commons while resisting all efforts to democratise the second chamber, the media are the last remaining institution in the realm that can put pressure on evasive and secretive ministers to reveal what they are up to and why they are up to it.  Investigative journalism and probing interviews, even sometimes aggressive examination in front of microphone and camera, often have their place, and we would be an even more ineffectual democracy without them.  But we could learn a thing or two from the Americans about serious analysis and discussion of serious issues by people who know what they are talking and writing about, in print, and on television and radio.


4 Responses

  1. matt says:

    Whole hearted agreement on US print media. An outstanding US current affairs radio program is “To The Point” the discursive approach of the show leads to a full exploration of the subject at hand and contrasts with the overly aggressive polemical approach epitomised by the Today program. The show’s presenter Warren Olney is, for me, by far the best radio current affairs presenter I have come across and should be drafted in to replace John Humphreys ASAP:-)

  2. Carl Lundquist says:

    Your point on the Washington Post and the NY Times is well taken but you do overlook the regional papers like those that serve the Middle West and Far West, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. These compete in a sense across a continent with the former two. The Atlanta Constitution does its bit in the Southeast. American regional newspapers have a long history owing to the sheer size of our country and the importance of state affairs in American political and cultural life. The Founders blessed us by separating our financial capital from our political capital, and setting the latter in a bog next to a minor river. We have no London to suck the rest of the country dry.

    In the area of weekly news magazines, I fear that Time has sunk to insignificance compared to The Economist, but then the Economist US subscription base is huge — to the point that the Economist essentially publishes, in the US, an American news magazine with some British leanings. Sort of like once upon a time, the Volkswagen was an American car built in Germany.

    Monthly news and opinion magazines cover a wide range: Atlantic, Harpers, National Review, The Nation, Foreign Affairs, Governing, and others reflecting most every political shade and interest.

    You do overlook National Public Radio’s two excellent 90 minute morning and evening radio programs. Via the network of college and community radio stations they are quite widely heard in US cities at least. One of the satllite also carries the feed. Our network of college and community radio and TV stations is a great asset.

    Brian writes: Thanks for these informative comments, Carl. I didn’t attempt a comparison of the two countries’ best current affairs programmes on radio, nor of the weekly and monthly magazines, because of my limited or non-existent knowledge of these on the US side: it’s four decades since I lived in the US, and one doesn’t get an adequate impression of radio or weeklies and monthlies from short visits, however frequent (at least I don’t!). I did mention, in my original post, that “most other major cities besides New York and Washington have their serious and perfectly respectable print organs” but without citing specific examples. For a somewhat different slant on radio and television, you might like to have a look at, including the comments on it.

  3. Adrian Hill says:

    Dear Brian,

    Just read your blog in Password. I peruse my rivals’ websites daily but from now on I shall check blogs as well!

    You’re absolutely right about the quality of the North American media compared with the poor state of ours. Canadian tv and radio are probably better presented than their counterparts in the USA which is why so many Canadians anchor US news shows.

    I write as somebody who spent many years dealing with theirs and ours as a diplomat, a CBI Council member, an author and running a business. In the latter roles I am frequently in touch with the media in the USA and Canada, our main markets for both holidays and books.

    I also help with a small publisher – – and I can tell you that North American writing is vastly superior to the offerings from this country. One reflection of the quality gap is that the UK publishing industry will not let the Americans into the Booker Prize contest. They’ve seen how many times the prize has gone to a writer from the Commonwealth.

    I shall browse the blogs carefully in future.

    Best Regards


  1. 1 November, 2005

    The UK and US media

    I agree that the US print media is at least as good as the UK newspapers. But I disagree with the suggestion from Brian Barder (my Dad) that the broadcast media coverage of TV and news is as good in the US. …

    Brian replies: Please see my response in my comment on Owen’s post at