The famously teeth-grinding boast in the corner of the front page of the New York Times is “All the news that’s fit to print”. In truth it should be “All the views we think fit to hold”, since for some time — most of our adult lives you might say — the paper’s decline from newspaper to viewspaper has been proceeding apace.
For most of us the realisation started to dawn whenever there was a story we knew something about. One read the NYT version and just thought “But that isn’t quite right”. In time this happened with story after story until you realised that if you didn’t trust them on the things you knew about, how could you trust them on the things you didn’t?
In no area in recent years has the NYT made itself more ridiculous than on the subject of the United Kingdom. Since those of us who live in the UK might be regarded as, if not experts, then at least well-informed observers, the paper’s coverage has stood out as being especially ridiculous or defamatory, depending on your mood that morning.
Take a few examples from recent years.
In May 2018 someone called Peter S Goodman wrote a NYT piece titled, “In Britain, austerity is changing everything”, the author basing his story on an apparently brief trip to Prescot in Lancashire. In some ways this is a good idea. Profiles from a capital city can — as UnHerd readers know — give a warped idea of the true state of a nation. But if the NYT expected illumination to come from Prescot they had overestimated the competence of their contributor.
Intent on portraying the entire United Kingdom as an austerity-ridden wasteland, Mr Goodman claimed in his piece that the Prescot library had closed when it was actually open. He claimed that the local fire station had been shut, despite a new one just having just been unveiled. He claimed the local museum had “receded into history” when the Prescot Museum was very much alive and well.
In short Mr Goodman claimed that everything in Prescot was shut down, and after the online, unpaid sleuths of the internet did the job any paid fact checkers at the NYT had failed to do there was nothing left of Goodman’s strange Prescot-based piece. So mercilessly were the flaws in his article shown up that on social media Goodman was soon reduced to retreating to that favoured defensive position of the fabulist: claiming that although the actual facts may not be true, nevertheless, the “perception” was correct.
In August 2018 the paper was back at it, in this case trying to attack Britain through the old staple of its food. In a culinary review written by one Robert Draper, readers of the NYT could learn that residents of the UK had been subsisting on boiled mutton and oatmeal until very recently. Indeed in his piece Mr Draper claimed that this was as recently as the time of his last trip to the country a decade earlier. That is, in 2008.
Elsewhere Mr Draper seemed to believe that the heart of London included a place called “Mayfield”, by which he presumably meant Mayfair. Though it is possible that he misheard the name as it was perhaps spoken to him by a shoeless street-urchin busily trying to extract a piece of stray mutton from his toothless mouth.
Month by month the story has continued. As though to prove some ill-intent, by December 2018 America’s paper of record was advertising on its social media accounts, asking people to submit stories to the paper if they had “experienced a petty crime in London”.
In March 2019 an all-but-unknown novelist called Sam Byers was drafted in to write a piece titled “Britain is Drowning itself in Nostalgia”. In the article the author claimed that “With nothing meaningful to say about our future, we’ve retreated into falsehoods of the past, painting over the absence of certainty at our core with a whitewash of poisonous nostalgia”. He described the UK as “poisoned” with “colonial arrogance” and suffused with “dreamy jingoism”. On and on this fiction writer went.
In May the paper was back at it, plucking another person from obscurity to do the necessary drive-by on England. This time it was an unknown academic called Maya Goodfellow, who was drafted in to write a piece headlined “A new face won’t cover the British government’s racist heart”.
This headline came about because Ms Goodfellow’s piece claimed that although Sajid Javid had just been appointed to the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and although he was undeniably of ethnic minority background, this was in fact just the sort of ruse that any racist country would come up with to try to cover its tracks. Ms Goodfellow had no evidence for this, but the NYT’s trawl of obscure figures to make specific slanders against the UK continued.
In June 2019 Times readers learned that “extremists” had taken over the UK and “A fanatical sect has hijacked British politics”. What was this fanatical sect? ISIS? Extinction Rebellion? Followers of Krusty the Clown? No, the paper disappointingly revealed that the people in question were Brexit supporters and the evidence that they had “hijacked” British politics was that they had persuaded the UK Government to exit the European Union.
Once again the author was a wholly obscure figure: someone called William Davies whose byline qualification for writing this piece was given as the fact that he “writes about politics” — a claim that would not normally be needed in a byline on a political piece.
Then this past week the Gray Lady surpassed herself. The news that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had announced that they were leaving their royal duties and hoping to spend more time living abroad was manna for the NYT’s UK-bashers, and on this occasion the paper drafted in Afua Hirsch to do the necessary hit-job.
Afua is very slightly interesting to me, as someone who had made a career by working out which direction mobility is going: she is a weather-vane of a kind. A mutual acquaintance once laughingly told me that when she had first known Afua, she was an “It-girl” — for in the 1990s and early 2000s upward mobility was the way to go.
At this moment of time downward aspirationalism is all the rage, and so Afua now hawks herself around the op-ed pages of the West opining about her upbringing in the wilds of Wimbledon and the infamous lack of opportunity for people of colour that led her to have to attend Oxford University. But perhaps the NYT does not know the hilarity with which most of Hirsch’s views are greeted at home, and for their purposes they had found the necessary person.
And so Afua wrote a piece headlined “Black Britons know why Meghan Markle wants out”. The incredibly interesting, original, and vindictively untrue claim that Afua Hirsch gave — for surely the first time in her journalistic career — was that Britain is racist and that is why Meghan and Harry are leaving.
Why is the NYT doing this?
The truth is sadly simple. At some point in 2016 the Times decided that the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump were both of a piece. After the President turned into their number one critic it became important not only to attack him at every given opportunity but to damn everything else they saw as part of the same trend. It may be one reason why the Prime Minister of Hungary appears to be on the front page of the NYT almost as often as the starving residents of the UK.
But whatever the reason the paper now has it in for Britain. It presents Boris Johnson as the precise same character as the US President. After all – goes the NYT analysis – they have similar hair, and archive footage is forever being dug out of Donald Trump, like Boris Johnson, reciting the opening of The Iliad in the original Greek. Peas in a pod, those two.
It is sad in a way. Not sad for Britain, which needs to take as much notice of the NYT as the American public need to take of our Daily Sport, but because it is so misinforming for its often intelligent readership. I am friends with many Americans and in the last few years I have often been struck by how off-piste some of their views are when it comes to the UK and the motivations of its citizens.
These people don’t want to spend too much time thinking about Britain, but they would like to know and understand roughly what is happening. The New York Times is not helping them in this respect, waging a culture war vendetta against the country, but in doing so it is waging a campaign of misinformation against its own readers.