If many Americans have been surprised at the manner in which Mitt Romney has reversed the trajectory of the election campaign in the past few weeks, Britons taking a passing interest in the contest are thoroughly bemused. For the past few months, since the British media began paying close attention, the narrative has been a slightly more exaggerated and simplistic version of the one that — until the first presidential debate — held sway in the U.S.: Barack Obama, still personally popular despite the struggling economy, was almost certain to defeat the gaffe-prone, out-of-touch-rich-guy Romney.
While U.S. conservatives are used to having their news distorted by the mainstream media, in Britain the news from the U.S. is subject to an additional process of filtering and spin. Due to constraints of airtime and space, the British media tends to take the “consensus” of what’s newsworthy from their U.S. counterparts. Stories that already were chosen to suit the liberal bias of the U.S. media are then edited for UK consumption, which has the effect of stripping away any remaining context, nuance, and balance.
As in the States, our election coverage has been deferential to Obama, while every real or imagined Romney gaffe has been pounced upon. “Controversial” Romney remarks — like his perfectly reasonable response to the attacks on U.S. embassies to the poorly phrased “47 percent” speech — have been widely reported. Yet few in the UK are familiar with “you didn’t build that.”
It doesn’t help that the first many Brits saw of Romney was during his Olympic visit to London, when the UK media attacked him for raising the same security concerns that … the UK media had been reporting for weeks.
You might think Mitt would get a fairer hearing in the UK than he does at home, given that a larger proportion of newspapers lean to the right politically in Britain than in the States, but it’s not as simple as that. For a variety of reasons, Republicans tend to be portrayed less favorably here, both in media coverage and in the popular culture in general, than Democrats. Broadly speaking, the received wisdom in the last three decades has been: Reagan, the Bushes, and now Romney — bad; Clinton and Obama — good.
Perhaps most significantly, the media agenda in Britain is still set to a large degree by the hugely influential and publicly funded BBC, whose liberal-left biases permeate its vast swath of programming, from news and current affairs to comedy and drama. The BBC was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama and has always shilled for the Democrats; along with the Guardian newspaper, it’s also largely responsible for propagating amongst Britons the stereotype of Republicans, and conservatives in general, as red-necked, gun-toting religious fanatics.
A second factor is that the center of political gravity in Britain is a good way further to the left than in the U.S., so even right-leaning British newspapers tend to view elements of U.S. conservatism as extreme — particularly with regard to “social issues” such as abortion, gun control, and gay marriage. The embrace of religion that informs some of those social issue positions is in itself a trait that both amuses and unsettles Britons, and our media and cultural elites in particular. You’ll rarely hear even a Conservative politician invoke God in a speech, and the fact that the leader of the opposition Labour party is openly atheist is not controversial.