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.
Into this mix you can add the streak of what we might call “establishment anti-Americanism” that transcends the political divide in Britain, and which has its roots in America’s displacement of Britain as a global power in the years following the Second World War. This typically manifests itself in a perceived crudeness and irresponsibility on the part of Americans in their attitude to the rest of the world and the foreign policies of their leaders in particular. Just recently, I watched a pundit on a BBC panel show call Romney a “cowboy,” to general approval, in the context of a discussion about foreign policy; the same term was routinely used to mock George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan before him.
And this kind of snobbery isn’t confined to the BBC and the Guardian; it’s regularly on show in the ostensibly conservative Telegraph and Mail newspapers, notwithstanding the columnists mentioned below. I suspect that this is because some British conservative commentators are keen to win the approval of the left-leaning cultural mainstream (and to secure coveted invitations to appear on those BBC panel shows). Left-wing pundits need to make no such accommodation.
While this anti-Americanism is evident on both the right and left, it’s directed disproportionately towards Republicans and conservatives for the simple reason that they’re comfortable talking about American exceptionalism, refuse to apologize for their country, and loudly extol its virtues of freedom and self-reliance. Democrats and liberals, on the other hand — as exemplified by President Obama — are rather more reticent about standing up for America, and tend to defer to other countries and international bodies such as the United Nations. In the eyes of the British and other foreign media, therefore, they “know their place”.
Unique to this election cycle, there’s also the “Obama effect.” In Britain, as elsewhere around the globe, the symbolism of the election of America’s first black president made an impression, and few in the media can bring themselves to acknowledge that he’s failed. Meanwhile, the tabloid newspapers in particular are too busy swooning over his latest appearance with champagne-guzzling rappers or Hollywood stars to pay much attention to unemployment numbers or the national debt. Even the more serious “broadsheet” newspapers still go weak at their collective knees when the president turns on the “cool.”
All that said: there are several reporters and columnists in Britain’s right-of-center press whose coverage of the election campaign has been broadly supportive of Republicans and occasionally verges on out-and-out cheerleading for Romney, and who have no qualms about tearing into Obama. Some of the most incisive election coverage has come from Toby Harnden, the Mail’s U.S. editor, and from the Telegraph’s Timothy Stanley. Also worth reading at the Telegraph are the American-born Janet Daley, Nile Gardiner, and Daniel Hannan, the Conservative Euro MP who’s something of a hero with American conservatives for his attacks on Obamacare. Among new media, The Commentator is unrivaled in its coverage of U.S. politics and conservative issues in general.
But does the British media’s take on the election campaign and on U.S. politics in Britain really matter? After all, American conservatives don’t need to look to Britain or anyone else for validation of their beliefs. And back in 2004, the Guardian tried to influence the election by orchestrating a letter-writing campaign to persuade voters in Clark County, Ohio, to vote for John Kerry, and the effort backfired; Clark was the only county in the state to turn from blue in 2000 to red that year.
However, it’s easier than ever for opinions and ideas to cross national boundaries. And while conservatives may be as immune to the bias of the foreign media as they are to that of their own, less ideological voters are more susceptible, particularly if they’re being told — as was the refrain during the Bush years — that their country’s standing in the world would be improved were they only to put a Democrat in the White House.
So U.S. conservatives should be wary of the British media’s influence, and be prepared to counter inaccurate and distorted attacks. But they should also know that there are plenty of Britons who love America, respect the religious beliefs of its people, and aren’t embarrassed to call ourselves conservative. We’re rooting for our allies across the pond, and for Mitt Romney.