I write from London, where throughout July those of us who deplore Rupert Murdoch’s Death Star empire were able to gorge ourselves on journalistic éclairs nearly every morning. Given the utterly dispiriting political situation in the United States, the hacking scandal has been a source of revengeful delight. News International executives and the top two men at Scotland Yard forced to resign; former editors arrested; the original whistleblower, News of the World show biz reporter Sean Hoare, tragically found dead (with the police insisting the circumstances were not suspicious); Rupert and James Murdoch compelled to testify before Parliament.
And best of all, the comedian “Jonnie Marbles” attacking Murdoch with a pie plate full of shaving cream, and Wendi Deng, Murdoch’s wife, deflecting Marbles with a fierce right smack, prompting pretty much the entire British press to label her a “ninja” the next day. You can’t make this stuff up.
In the wake of all this, much has been made of the reprehensible, morally bankrupt practices employed by Murdoch papers – and they are hardly alone – to get a story and keep it alive. And indeed, any Yank visiting Britain has been appalled to see papers like The Sun, with its daily display of bare-breasted, hugely endowed women, pass themselves off as newspapers.
But what’s so interesting about Britain is its bipolar news culture: It has the very worst and also the very best of what journalism has to offer.
If you are a news junkie, here’s what your day in England could be like. You wake up to The Guardian, whose Nick Davies is a fierce crusader against the corrupt and powerful (he should probably be knighted for his relentless, multi-year, often thankless investigation into the phone-hacking scandal). It is Davies who stuck with the hacking story, often in the face of indifference or hostility, and put all the pieces together for readers so they could understand the much bigger picture about the intertwined corruptions of the tabloid press, the police and politicians. He is accompanied by other intrepid reporters and keenly astute, witty analysts of politics, the economy and culture who happily provide unapologetic, often left-leaning bon bons to go with the éclairs. The Guardian’s website actually prints editorials by, gasp, Amy Goodman!
At 6 p.m., you can watch Al Jazeera in English as part of regular cable service. Its coverage of the world, if at times brief and telegraphic, is astounding in its scope. Of course they focus on the Middle East, showing footage and reporting stories we never see or hear in the United States. But when I saw a story they featured on religious shifts occurring in Bolivia, I realized that I had probably never, ever seen images of or stories about La Paz on any American news program. It’s in our own damn hemisphere, but it might as well be on Jupiter. One night Al Jazeera offered a half-hour analysis of the stand-off on raising the debt ceiling, including the crude political calculations of the Republicans (i.e., seeking to ensure that Obama is a one-term president), which I wish most Americans would see.
At 7 p.m., you can have the pleasure of watching Jon Snow, the anchor of the Channel 4 nightly news, whose elegantly written summaries of the day’s events are matched by his direct, probing interviews with politicians and other newsmakers. No screaming heads yelling at each other or fluff stories about male-pattern baldness and the benefits of walking here: It’s a full show of actual national and international hard news. Snow doesn’t pander or suck up to his interview subjects, nor does he seem afraid to actually ask them tough questions, you know, like journalists are supposed to do. And get this: He won an award for “Best Factual Contribution to Television.” Imagine such an award in the United States!
So while it has been no end of fun to watch Murdoch, his son, certain former employees and his papers get pilloried, over here one is also reminded that having a thriving print and broadcast news culture is not the impossible dream. I don’t mean to suggest that this array of print, cable and broadcast news is perfect. It’s just so, so much better than what we Americans get, and it’s the very, very least we deserve.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.