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White House whack at UK media well-timed but sure to be ignored

Posted on 30 May 2009 | 1:05pm

‘Joe Public’ is a mythical figure often used by journalists to indicate what is sometimes termed the ordinary man in the street. But I wonder what ‘Joe Journalist’ might be thinking of the whacking administered to the British press by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

I imagine, especially right now with the UK political class in retreat over the continuing onslaught over MPs’ expenses, that JJ’s little chest will have puffed up a little with pride that they can get under a skin even as perfect as that which coats Barack Obama.

For be in no doubt that Gibbs’s whack will not have been some kind of freelance spasm in response to the Daily Telegraph report that quoted a retired general describing photographs which allegedly showed US soldiers in Iraq raping and sexually abusing prisoners. It will have been a reflection of President Obama’s view, either directly expressed when Gibbs asked him what he should say if asked, or absorbed in meetings where he heard his views being expressed.

JJs on the Telegraph in particular will have felt the attack was further evidence of the roll they’re on, and the mini earthquakes it is causing. So cause for journalistic celebration.

Obama’s spokesman has thus far established a tone, much like his master, that is calm and authoritative, not prone to wild or excessively colourful outbursts. But his response to the Telegraph report was this … ‘If I wanted to read a write-up today of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League Cup (sic) I might open up a British newspaper. If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I’m not sure it would be the first stack of clips I picked up.’

Later he said ‘I think if you do an even moderate Google search, you’re not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other. I hate to lend any more credibility to nonfactual reports.’

Meanwhile over at the Pentagon, a spokesman was saying ‘none of the photos in question depict the images that are described in the article.’

Joe Journalist will have scoffed into his cafe latte this morning, snorted that ‘they would say that wouldn’t they, and hey, we got the expenses story right, so we’ve probably got the abuse story right too. After all, we know there has been abuse before…’

But a little deeper thought might lead to a conclusion that reputationally, the British press is not in the healthy state it imagines itself to be when the spokesman for the most popular politician on earth, and the most powerful, feels able to be so dismissive of our newspapers, broadsheet and tabloid alike.

This is a view that will have formed long before the expenses volcano erupted. I know Obama was genuinely shocked at the way the British press covered Gordon Brown’s visit to the White House, when so much focus was given to the question of whether or not it was a snub that they did not have a bells and whistles joint press conference. And that he was shocked when shown examples of the ultra negativity against GB in our papers, again before expenses.

Nobody can dispute that the expenses situation is a real story, a genuine scoop for the Telegraph, and one with significant and lasting consequences. It was a purchase of information with a large cheque book in dubious circumstances. I’m not saying I would not have done the same when I was a journalist, had I had the chance, but let’s not pretend it was a victory for great investigative journalism.

Far from showing up the best in our media, in a way it has led to more evidence of the worst. Everything covered – broadsheet, tabloid, broadcast alike – at the level of frenzy, with headline point sizes normally reserved for the outbreak of war used to indicate another backbench MP fiddle; with no other political story at all getting a look in on the agenda; with no MPs other than those seen to have made mistakes or committed misdemeanours getting print or air time – unless they will slag off their colleagues, or say their party or their profession is finished.

I pointed out a while back how MPs expenses seemed to have cured swine flu – or at least the frenzy that it unleashed for a while. But now it is the global economic crisis that appears to have vanished too. Only it hasn’t, and if there was but a modicum of debate on it, people might see that decisions taken by UK policy makers were having an effect for the good.

But that doesn’t fit the agenda. The agenda is expenses, bad for Labour, bad for Brown, bad for politics, let’s tear it all up and start again, and let’s pump up only the stories that fit that agenda, right up to the local elections, which will be bad for Labour, bad for Brown, bad for politics, and we can keep on the expenses agenda right through to when all these inquiries are complete and the Commons finally get round to publishing everything. And that should take us nicely through to the conferences and then the pre-campaign for the election and we’ll have MPs bowing out left right and centre and a whole new set of faces to play with, and with luck we may be able to get away without doing anything about serious policy issues at all.

No wonder that Dave, despite all the embarrassment of his wisteria and his MPs, is smiling. He’d rather be on this than on policy.

  • Nick Booth

    The expenses story was a victory for journlaism and investigation, but not for our big institutions of news. The Telegraph didn’t stick its kneck out when the hard work needed doing, they just took a cheque book out when the glory needed getting.

    Credit for the campaigning and the journalism ought to go to Heather Brooke and the people she shared the risk with.

  • Andrew Bell

    This exactly why we need you Alastair, GB’s lot are useless. Come on AC, any chance??

  • morph366

    You say
    But that doesn’t fit the agenda. The agenda is expenses, bad for Labour, bad for Brown, bad for politics, let’s tear it all up and start again, and let’s pump up only the stories that fit that agenda,
    You sound like the Clinton’s whining about the right wing out to get them in the early 90’s. Maybe it’s on the agenda because people have had enough of Brown and Labour.
    Not that I give a hoot about Cameron’s lot either.
    By the way who do you think is going to win Britain’s Got Talent?

  • Jason

    Now you see Alistair I’ve seen the exact opposite to what you’re suggesting. From papers which have slavishly devoted themselves to not questioning ID cards, ignoring police abuses against protest, buying the line about how free trade and high house prices will save us all, we’re now experiencing a realisation that that entire edifice was a fabrication. The last straw was the expenses scandal and it’s now the focus of just how discredited most (clearly not all) of the political class is. Gordo wasn’t responsible for the economic crisis? Yes he was. He wasn’t responsible for the expenses scandal? Yes he was. He hasn’t been responsible for the drive to illiberal politics of control? Yes he has. And his disinterest in fixing these things is underscored by his refusal to sack disreputable cabinet colleagues like Hazel Blears. That is a story which should very much be continued with and pursued to whatever the end point is.

    To keep this in the public’s mind isn’t an irresponsible act by the papers – it’s one of the most responsible about faces they’ve attempted in a decade. Remember they tried to stop us finding out about this mess, so it really is quite moral that they reap the whirlwind now.

  • Des Currie

    My understanding of you is that you regard the average politicians as predominantly honourable people.
    Where to now?
    Des Currie

  • Toby D\’Olier

    I largely agree, its not so much a pro-Dave stance as an anti-policy stance that is hurting both democracy and newspapers alike. The fact the papers cant see this is pathetic really, but i dare say mainstream media is slowly fading away and they are throwing anything they can find at the public to try and stay alive.
    I look forward in the future to explaining to any children I may have, that we used to travel to shops in order buy enormous lumps of paper filled with out of date info that was only occasional correct, they will laugh at me and no doubt tell their mates that their dad is really out-of-touch!

  • Cosimo Fettorini

    I have lived in Italy, Britain and the US. The British press are too trivial and excitable. the American press is dull, wheras in Italy it is a disgrace that the Prime Minister controls so much of the media. Maybe a balance between American serious and British lively would be best

  • K Hide (aka Mr J Public)

    I have long been ashamed of the great British press. Sensationalist rubbish, with the truth overblown and twisted almost beyond recognition, and fear thrust through the heart of the public at every opportunity (swine flu – we’re all going to die, knife crime – if you leave your house you will be stabbed, global warming – we’re all doomed, obesity – we’re all fat and it’s going to kill us… if the diabetes doesn’t get you the cancer will…)
    Our press seem to be nothing more than a pack of professional witch hunters, and sensationalist scaremongers with no sense of moral servitude. And now it seems the rest of the world regards them with the open contempt they deserve. Joe Journalist should be ashamed.

    Mr J Public

  • Brian Moylan

    Their agenda is “Labour are bad for politics.”
    They didn’t like getting wound up for a General Election a few years ago. Dummies spat all over the shop.

  • Zelo Street

    Well, one thing you’ll find less bad about our press is that the Guardian has demonstrated that it is nobody’s house journal (which you could have told Young Dave), and has today rounded on him over his proposed new right of centre grouping in the European Parliament.

    This grouping appears to cover a Polish party whose principals frequent a radio station that allows anti-semitic broadcasts, a Czech party whose head denies climate change, and potentially a Latvian one, some of whose members commemmorate the Waffen SS.

    Mind you, they still have the odd double page spread on Expensegate, too …

  • Em

    If David Simon’s “Generation Kill” is accurate, in 2003, US armed forces officers stationed outside Iraq who were waiting to invade listened to the BBC rather than US command to inform them whether the invasion had started. I wonder whether Gibbs has better things to say about the American press.

    Dave shouldn’t be smiling. It’s parties like the BNP making headway because of MPs expenses.

  • Brian Moylan

    Em: Dave won’t mind fellow right-wingers the BNP appearing in the European Parliament; Dave’s Tories are just a sniff away from joining up with the “Law and Justice Party” of Poland, the Danish People’s Party, and Italy’s Northern League in the European Parliament.
    See for more info, if you hadn’t noticed this “development”.

  • Rita

    Frankly the state/morals/reputations of our bankers, our politicians and our journalists is dire and deservedly so. There is a symbiotic/parasitic relationship that exists between them that is deeply unhealthy.
    It isn’t helped by 24 hour rolling news which is so tightly focussed on a small number of issues which are dealt with in a very shallow way and regurgitated every 15 mins!It feels like the newspaper equivalent of only reading the biggest headlines. Add to this a world in which , for most people, the appearance is more important than the reality and attention spans which would disgrace a gnat and we have a black hole of ignorance that swallows all rational debate! The constant repetition of the Sky ‘strap’or the Sun headline becomes the ‘truth’ on everyones’lips.
    Deeply depressing! 🙁

  • Rita

    For the better part of GW Bush’s reign at the Whitehouse the only really challenging journalism came from the comedian John Stewart!

  • Stronghold Barricades

    Forgive me, wasn’t it a certain spin doctor who eviscerated the BBC

    Wasn’t it a certain spin doctor who spoon fed lobby journalists stories

    Didn’t a certain spin doctor withdraw lobby privileges from a few journalists because they wouldn’t follow the “story” in the way the spin doctor wanted

    Isn’t it the kind of people like McBride and the whole Labour Party’s expression of poison and patronage that has lead to this situation

    I hope that you can take your turn in basking in the reflection

    I’m sure that you can add an update about how you personally, whilst in a position of influence, increased the truth in the public domain

  • Alina Palimaru

    Alastair, I think yours is the first positive reaction to Robert Gibbs’ comments. The poor man was slashed and trashed all over the blogs. I like his style a lot, he is calm, careful and has a wonderful sense of humour. A bit verbose at times, but I like him a lot.

    I see his point regarding the British press, although the Americans have their own black sheep to worry about too. The US scene appears in a better light due to the international prominence of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and magazines like The New Yorker. But as I said, other journalistic products are frightening.

    I agree with Rita’s comments on Jon Stewart. In fact, at one point during the Bush presidency, the US media were considered so supine that his comedy show was thought of as the only decent source of a balanced view. And this is a fake-news show we’re talking about.

  • Rosie

    I have a polling card for the election of MEPs on Thursday. I listen to Radio 4, watch BBC news and Newsnight, follow various newspapers online and read many opinion pieces. So far I have about five party leaflets which have been posted through the door, have had no candidates or activists of any party on the doorstep, have seen no invitation to local public meetings, have caught a couple of party election broadcasts by parties I had not previously heard of, such as the Jury lot, and “Say no to EU, yes to democracy,” and that’s it! If I didn’t keep as up to date as possible, I would be almost totally ignorant of any party policy regarding Europe, the Lisbon Treaty, party groupings, trade, economic policy etc, etc. How to choose who to vote for?

    Well, there’s always the expenses/allowances scandal to influence me. And whether or not I personally like Gordon Brown. And what the newspapers tell me to do. Or, maybe, I’ll just not bother voting.

    Well, I will, and for my party. On the issues of Europe. But how many will?

  • pregethwr

    I suspect you have, but check exactly what Robert Gibb denied: he denied the context of the quote given to the telegraph, not the quote itself.

    He denied that rape and sexual abuse was depicted in the photos the administration is trying to suppress.

    He did not deny that rape and sexual abuse of prisoners was depicted in photos that the Government has: indeed the General specifically said that he had seen photos of rape of prisoners in US custody.

    He also did not deny that rape and sexual abuse was of prisoners was authorised by previous presidential finding.

    So yes the Telegraph wrongly insinuated that the Obama administration was trying to suppress photos of rape and sexual abuse of prisoners.

    However without the Telegraph’s reporting we would not have learnt that such photos exist and the administration knows they exist.

    The balance of public interest in that reporting is fairly clear to me.

  • Alan Quinn

    Ally, it is bad for us because people expect the tories to claim for cleaning moats and duck houses, they don’t expect our lot to do it.
    It’s good for Dave because on policy he is piss poor but he’s driving the agenda on the expenses scandal whilst GB seems to dither. I don’t want to make you feel guilty but this wouldn’t have happened on your watch.

  • tracey

    Little makes me more ashamed to be British than the collective scrabble by our laughable ‘leaders’ to crawl up the fundament of whoever is currently in power in the US. The press spokesman you so admire also said: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

    A fact I’m sure is appreciated by those soldiers who spilt their guts so Blair could pick up million pound cheques for public speaking in the USA, er sorry I mean save democracy.

  • Thomas Rossetti

    Gibbs’s comment was a monstrously stupid thing to say. Even if the Telegraph’s story wasn’t completely fair or accurate, it is a ridiculous slur to imply, as Gibbs did, that British journalists never tell the truth.

    I agree with Tracey, below. British soldiers have lost their lives fighting America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Gibbs should be more careful about besmirching the entire profession of a key national ally.

    (I have recently written to Robert Gibbs, actually, asking that he apologise. I’ll let you know if he replies.)