Britain’s Journalists: As Good As Their Dentists

The Big Book of British Smiles.

Laura Rozen calls attention to a curious aspect about the widely-noticed article about Samantha Power (which led to her resignation as an advisor to Barack Obama) that ran in The Scotsman. The article has this quote:

“She is a monster, too — that is off the record — she is stooping to anything,” Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark.

Laura comments: “How can a journalist quote someone in an off the record comment — and then print that the person said it was off the record? Is this a British press thing?”

The answer is yes, it’s a British press thing. There are a few excellent British publications, preeminently The Guardian. But the vast majority of British papers have a much lower standard of ethics, objectivity, and honesty than their North American counterparts. In Britain, with a handful of exceptions, the gutter press is a redundancy and journalistic ethics an oxymoron.

The best example of this is the Daily Telegraph, which employs Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a reporter who argued that Vince Foster was murdered at the orders of Hillary Clinton and that the Oklahoma City bombing was an FBI sting operation that went awry. (It’s sad to reflect that this sleazy character is the son of a truly great man, the late anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard).

The roots of this lack of honesty and ethics are complicated: partially it has to do with class (in Britain journalists are still slightly declasse and disreputable; in America solidly middle class professionals), partly with canons of objectivity (partisanship is permissible in British papers; in America the ideal of objectivity holds sway, often leading to bloodless prose), partially with the fact that the British market, where all the major papers are national, is much more competitive, leading journalists to become fiercer (and sometimes less honest) in pursuit of scoops.

When they migrate to the new world, British journalists often maintain their ingrained habit of attention-grabbing dissembling: consider the careers of Christopher Hitchens or Andrew Sullivan (especially during his disastrous editorship of the New Republic).

4 thoughts on “Britain’s Journalists: As Good As Their Dentists

  1. “… the vast majority of British papers have a much lower standard of ethics, objectivity, and honesty than their North American counterparts.”

    I didn’t know whether to laugh or throw up when I read that statement.

    I can’t comment on Canadian journalism because I have not been exposed to enough of it to form an opinion one way or the other. But to categorize journalism in the US as having high standards of ethics, objectivity, and honesty – are you serious?

    The primary objective of most US political journalists seems to me to be in maintaining friendly relationships with the subjects of their political journalism, and not doing anything to upset these people and thus lose this direct access.

    As a result, their journalism is obsequious and acquiescent, and they are generally no more than “stenographers to power” – simply regurgitating press releases and statements, and abrogating any responsibility to their readers to dig beneath the PR and spin to find out what is really going on.

    If Samantha Power wanted her comments to be “off the record”, then this should have been agreed with Gerri Peev of the Scotsman before the interview started. Attempting to retract a slip of the tongue after the event by claiming it was off the record just isn’t good enough. She made that public comment and now has to live with the consequences.

    The rest of us have to wear the consequences of things we say out loud to others – slips of the tongue notwithstanding – and I don’t see why Ms Power should be treated any differently. A journalist who did not report this statement would be failing in his or her professional duty, in my opinion.

  2. Dear Peter Marshall,
    You raise a good point: many North American journalists are too interested in access, and are much more comfy with the powers-that-be than their Enlish counterparts.

    Still, that doesn’t mitigate the larger point that the British press is more sensationalistic, more willing to pursue “gotcha” stories, and more willing to print stories that are flat out untrue (see the Daily Telegraph during the Clinton years).

    If Samantha Power had been talking to an American journalist here “monster” comment, clearly labelled off the record in the sentence it was uttered in, would most likely not have been reported.

    And you can be a good journalist and critical of the government while still respecting “off the record” comments. Notice that I started my post with a statement on this by Laura Rozen. Laura’s written many great stories that have challenged government officials but she was taken aback by the publishing of an “off the record” comment.

  3. Excuse me,

    When did I ever write that Hillary Clinton murdered Vincent Foster. I have never written such a thing, and it is not what I think.
    What I alleged is that there was obstruction of justice, and that witnesses were systematically pushed into falsifying their stories.

    I do believe that an ATF informant had penetrated the Oklahoma bombing conspiracy, but the that operation was mishandled. This blunder was then covered up.
    This is not the same as alleging that the bombing was allowed to happen. Nobody in the US government intended it to occur.

    I have not been involved in American affairs for ten years, so this is all ancient history now.

    Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

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