November 29, 2022 - 9:43am

The New York Times’s coverage of the UK has been bugging British conservatives for some while now. For instance, see this 2020 piece by Douglas Murray for UnHerd. You can find more recent examples in the Spectator and the Telegraph. 

This could be dismissed as exactly what one would expect. What else are Right-wing pundits going to say about an increasingly Left-wing publication? Add in a dash of wounded national pride and the British backlash almost writes itself. 

Except that it’s not just Tories and Brexiteers losing patience with the NYT. For instance, here’s the impeccably liberal Oliver Kamm expressing his frustration in the Times (of London). In particular, he objects to a comparison between Liz Truss and Enoch Powell (which, when one considers their respective attitudes to immigration, bears little scrutiny). 

Over the weekend, there’s been yet another British explosion of outrage — this one in reaction to a New York Times article on the UK’s anti-slavery legislation. It’s an odd piece about the supposed plight of a former ‘county lines’ drug dealer who, in 2019, was among the first people to be convicted under the provisions of the Modern Slavery Act.

His story is meant to illustrate a wider allegation that the Act is resulting in racial inequalities. The substantiation, though, is unconvincing. For instance, the piece states that “experts say that, like other criminal justice tools, the modern slavery law is being wielded disproportionately against Black people.” But who are these “experts”?  What are their sources? It’s all rather unclear. 

Furthermore, instead of focusing on the victims of exploitation — who are, by definition, members of marginalised groups including ethnic minorities — the article places the victimisers front and centre. As a result, the piece loses sight of the fact that the real racism here would be tolerating modern slavery — whatever its form and whoever its perpetrators.  

Again, one has to ask what the Gray Lady is playing at — and this time it’s not just conservatives raising concerns. Chaminda Jayanetti, who writes for the Guardian, Observer and Mirror, is not impressed: “I regret to inform you the New York Times is writing about Britain again”. James Ball, a columnist for the New European, says that the NYT piece “misses the mark because of the well-documented misery and exploitation of County Lines.”

These are not angry Little Englanders. Indeed, Ball is genuinely puzzled as to why the newspaper’s “talented UK team” seems to be getting it so wrong. 

Is it just ignorance? Or Anglophobia? Or are the editors chasing a UK audience by pandering to the peculiar British appetite for self-loathing? I’d suggest a very different possibility — which is far from ‘othering’ us, the American Left views Britain in much the same way as their own country. And thus we find ourselves subject to the same woke analysis. 

For instance, if it is presumed that black people are “disproportionately affected” by the Modern Slavery Act then, in the woke worldview, what other explanation could there be than racism? A more innocent explanation — such as the happenstance of a particular British geography of a particular criminal operation at a particular point in time — doesn’t fit the narrative and thus goes unexamined.

It is not wrong for journalists to seek overarching explanations, but these need to fit the facts, not the other way round. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.