Saturday 14 May 2011

Politics on TV: US vs UK

Speaking of the Wedding

A couple of days before the big event, my son and I happened to be in central London, and we made a special detour to Trafalgar Square, to take a peek at the temporary studio set up by the American cable channel MSNBC for their breakfast show ‘Morning Joe’, which was being broadcast from London all week. The photos I took on my iPhone (below) are rather disappointing, but if you squint you can just see the backs of Joe Scarborough’s and Mika Brzezinski's heads, and Willy Geist interviewing someone down in the square:

The actual programmes from London, which we watched in video extracts online, were less than riveting and Joe and Mika’s guests a cut below the quality usually found on their show when it's broadcast from New York or Washington. One exception was the superb Katty Kay of BBC America, who did her best to inject some realism about contemporary Britain into the discussion.

If this all sounds like the height of fandom, then you should understand that, when we visit America, we tend to leave the TV in our hotel room permanently tuned to MSNBC, and we usually wake up to ‘Morning Joe’. This was a love affair, or addiction, sealed during the 2008 presidential election. Watching the show, and others, on our recent visit to Miami, has prompted some reflections on what I would argue is the superiority of political coverage on US television, when compared to what’s served up to us in the UK.

That’s a counter-intuitive reflection of course, and it goes against everything Brits are supposed to 'know' about US television: that it’s ‘dumbed down’, superficial, dominated by airhead presenters and shockjocks. But allow me to make my case.

‘Morning Joe’ may not the best political show on US TV, and there’s a lot about it that can irritate: Joe’s egotism, Mika’s banalities, the preference for centrist commentators who don’t depart from the mainstream. But for visiting British political nerds like us, to have a whole three-hour daily breakfast show entirely devoted to politics is sheer luxury. One time on our recent visit, Carl Bernstein dropped by the studio and joined in an impromptu discussion with former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and Governor Ed Rendell on the roots of the current gridlock in Congress. The talk ranged back and forth from Watergate to Supreme Court confirmations in the '80s, dipping occasionally into the further recesses of US history, with a diversion to debate the relative merits of Jefferson and Adams - and all in a format that was relaxed, unstuffy and popular. And how can you not like a programme that plays Springsteen and the Clash over its Starbucks-sponsored credits?

And that’s just one show on one channel. Tune into MSNBC on any weekday evening, and it's wall-to-wall politics, from the likes of Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, and more recently Cenk Uygur, from my son’s favourite progressive channel, The Young Turks. And I haven't even mentioned the weekly institution that is 'Meet The Press'. Liberal bias? Of course, but if that’s your view, you can always switch over to Fox, where you’ll get uninterrupted commentary from a conservative perspective.

I find this honest partisanship healthier and more dynamic than the spurious ‘balance’ of most British political coverage. For example, on another day during our recent visit, we saw Uygur devote a whole show to arguing that the Republican Party was in the pocket of Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce, while Schultz spent a passionate half-hour standing up for union rights, in the light of recent events in Wisconsin. If they were in Britain, they would have been cut off after five minutes, while an arbitrating presenter sought to bring in a ‘balancing’ view.

Of course, America is a big country, which may account for there being just so much more – and more diverse - political coverage on TV. But I’d maintain that the quality is better too: there’s just no equivalent in Britain to those MSNBC shows where a presenter or politician or activist is allowed to develop an argument, or a debate allowed to go on for more than five minutes at a time.

And I like the refreshing absence in the US, for the most part, of the Paxman approach to political interviews, which assumes that elected representatives are all lying bastards and appears to be aimed at catching out the interviewee. Which is not to say that US interviewers give their guests an easy ride, but they usually assume that you’re likely to get more out of a politician if you actually give them space to talk (or, to look at it another way, allow them enough rope with which to hang themselves). I also like the way US political programmes take written commentary seriously, regularly inviting on historians and biographers, and giving space to discussion of the day’s newspaper op-eds. ‘Morning Joe’ does this every day, comparing so-and-so’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal with what someone else has said in Time magazine. What do we get? A couple of minutes of headlines on the 'Today' programme, and a ten-minute review of the Sundays by viewer-friendly 'celebrities' once a week on 'Marr', supposedly our flagship political programme ('Meet The Press' it is not). Which is not to say that US television coverage is without its faults: it can be terribly parochial, focused on what's going on in Washington, but not overly concerned with the rest of the world, except as it impacts on America (there's been some excellent analysis on MSNBC of the current state of affairs in Pakistan, for example, following that other recent big event).

So what accounts for these differences, apart from the relative sizes of our two countries? Well, as a European social democrat, it goes against the grain to say this, but it may have something to do with the commercial ownership of US television stations. That famous BBC balance derives from the corporation being taxpayer-funded, and having to show that you're giving equal (which often means anodyne) space to each side. Whereas the owners of NBC, Fox, CBS and the rest know there’s a range of liberal, conservative and centrist constituencies out there they can appeal to.

But I think the most important reason – and it balances out what I said in my last post about the value of monarchical symbolism – has a lot to do with the United States being a republic. Perhaps I’m a little bit naïve and starry eyed here, but I get the feeling that in America politics is just taken a whole lot more seriously. When you have government of the people by the people, politics becomes the people's business, it's what we do among ourselves, not something that is done to us (though I admit the current anti-Washington mood stirred up by the Tea Party rather undermines this theory). A lot of what's wrong with political coverage and media debate in Britain - the Paxman sneer, the 'Have I Got New For You' cynicism, the sheer paucity of serious political programming - can be traced back to weaknesses in our political culture: to a pervasive sense that 'that lot' are out to screw us over, that at the end of the day politics is not really 'our' business. All of which, I would argue, is part of the long, weary hangover from monarchy and empire, and the consequence of never having had a proper democratic revolution.

I’ll end with a clip from that 'Morning Joe' discussion I mentioned earlier.  In some ways it's untypical – no black or female guests, unusually. And I admit it's no high-powered academic seminar - but that's part of my point. This is a popular breakfast show, for goodness' sake. When was the last time you heard this kind of serious, informed but relaxed political debate on British television, let alone on something like 'BBC Breakfast'? It gets going a couple of minutes in:

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