In Britain, where political apathy is as ubiquitous as Earl Grey, the media are awash in American politics. Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley says that despite the “supercilious skepticism of the BBC to genuine popular democracy,” Britons are transfixed.
We all know that the race for president rules the news, but listen to the numbers. Election night ratings for CNN reportedly have almost doubled from the 2004 election cycle, and Fox’s are up 60 percent. But U.S. election fever is not limited to the U.S.
The Christian Science Monitor reported recently that people everywhere, from Japan to Kenya to the Gaza Strip, are captivated by images of a woman and a black man running for President of the United States. Even in Britain, where political apathy is as ubiquitous as Earl Grey, the media are awash in American politics.
Janet Daley, a columnist for the conservative British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, is following the race from London. She joins us now. Janet, welcome to the show.
JANET DALEY: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So can we start with the BBC? You wrote that commentators there are trying to, quote, “decide whether American politics is quaintly naive or stirringly robust.” JANET DALEY: Well, you have to understand that BBC commentary, particularly about politics, is characterized by a laconic cynicism which would be quite shocking, I think, to most Americans. This is relatively new in Britain, this kind of extraordinary disrespect for the whole democratic apparatus [BROOKE LAUGHS] and everybody involved in it.
But the roots are really in a kind of aristocratic disdain for democratic politics. It goes back to a kind of paternalistic attitude which holds the public opinion generally in very low esteem. So it isn't entirely new, but over the last 20 years it has become very marked. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if politicking in England prompts from the BBC cynicism and irony, you noted that when it comes to American politics, it became downright condescending and supercilious. JANET DALEY: Oh, yeah. There was a curious ambivalence. On the one hand, the correspondents who were sent out there kind of got into it. It was almost impossible to avoid the infectious enthusiasm. And then you could almost hear them catching themselves and saying, no, no, it can't possibly be as exciting as this.
There’s no reason to get juvenile about this [BROOKE LAUGHS] especially when they were relating to the British audience, you know, doing a two-way, for example, with a British news presenter. I think they felt a bit embarrassed, you know, about having gone so gung-ho.
And so you'd get this attempt to present it all as a rather parochial, ingenuous, naive, rather quaint process - entertaining, mind you. But they elected Hillary Clinton to the presidency about six months ago and so they were completely floored [LAUGHS] by the result in Iowa and had to readjust their expectations. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This makes them no different from the American media. JANET DALEY: No, no, I realize that. [LAUGHTER] Yes, except that Mike Huckabee, BBC couldn't cope with him at all. I mean, they're perfectly accustomed to the idea of the Christian evangelical influence on American politics, but the idea that the guy could be witty and funny and engaging, you could sort of hear the gears grinding. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You told us that every major outlet, print and broadcast, had a correspondent or two or three there following the candidates from state to state and that ratings in Britain for this stuff is really good. So why do they care so much more this time? JANET DALEY: There is a serious crisis of political confidence in Britain. Voter apathy is now epidemic. We used to have very high turnouts for elections here and we don't any longer.
And I think that one of the reasons that the British media is becoming so fascinated, almost hypnotically fascinated by the American democratic experience, is that it does seem to be much, much more lively and engaging, particularly to the young. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did the tone of the coverage change in the British media after the upsets in Iowa followed by what happened in New Hampshire? JANET DALEY: It was just as embarrassing for the British commentariat as it was for the American commentariat. And the broadcast media generally was sort of all over the place after that – and after Michigan, as well.
I mean, to give you another example of the desire to play down the obvious excitement and optimism of this presidential campaign, when Romney won in Michigan, I heard a television commentator say – not from the BBC, I must say – say, this is a real problem for the Republicans. They've had a different winner in every primary.
So the question that people must be asking is, are the voters spoiled for choice or are they just not very impressed by anybody?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, Janet, I take your point, and yet that sort of analysis doesn't strike me as entirely foreign from the American variety. Have you been watching it from both sides of the pond? JANET DALEY: Absolutely. I mean, it’s certainly true all of this stuff gets said on the American media, but it’s not exclusively what’s being said. I mean, the interesting thing is, because I'm kind of switching back and forth, through the miracle of digital media, between American coverage and British coverage, when I switch back to the British coverage it’s like a cloud has passed in front of the sun - [LAUGHTER] - all of it tinged, I must say, with a hint of envy. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's get to that issue, which you raised so tantalizingly in your column. You've suggested that the coverage of the primary is leading some in the British media to ask, why can't we have this? Given all the condescension, given - [LAUGHTER] - all the apathy, given the structure of British politics, can you have it? Would you even want to? JANET DALEY: A lot of people would want to. A lot of people would want almost anything that would reinvigorate the interest and feeling that politics was actually about the interests of ordinary people.
I think it would be very difficult to overcome the cynicism and the alienation now. The idea that people were opening their own living rooms, their own homes, to discussions with their neighbors about who should be supported in the primary was truly astonishing [BROOKE LAUGHS] in a British context.
On the one hand, it was wonderful, and on the other hand, it was bizarre. I think there is a real ambivalence about this on the part of the British media. How seriously should we take this model without making ourselves look ridiculous in terms of British attitudes toward political life? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Janet, thank you so much. JANET DALEY: Quite all right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Janet Daley is a columnist for The Daily Telegraph.
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