Something the UK media seems to forget...
Recent days have given a foretaste of what is to come between now and the first week of November: the all-consuming British media obsession with US politics. Yes, the United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world. Yes, it matters — of course it does — who is, or becomes, the US President. And, yes, the United States is an important ally — probably, post-Brexit, the most important ally — of the UK.
But their election is not our election. Their news is not our news. Their domestic social problems are not ours — and they should not be reported as if they were. Yet coverage of the ‘virtual’ party conventions, the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the Martin Luther King memorial march in Washington together occupied the top half, sometimes more, of news programmes on the BBC and other mainstream UK media last week, with some of the reports sounding almost like part of the internal US debate.
With nine weeks to go until the main event, US politics is already smothering a host of foreign news stories closer to home, which are picked up and summarily dropped. Nor is it just the volume or prominence of the reporting. It is the way in which US politics is treated as though it is familiar territory.
For the next two months, UK viewers and listeners will have to get used all over again to the US terminology bandied about, without explanation or context, by legions of permanent and special correspondents fanning out all over the great US of A. They will ride this or that special plane or battlebus, they will report breathlessly on this or that rally; the TV debates; the latest polls. They will reel off the names of “swing” states as though they were marginal constituencies in England’s north-west.
It remains to be seen how far the campaign or the UK’s media coverage will be constrained by the pandemic; how much will be virtual and how much real. But if the hours devoted by the UK media to US politics in recent weeks are an indicator, the answer — in terms of coverage — is: not much.
Don’t get me wrong. I love US politics as much as anyone. I spent five years reporting from Washington DC, which included one of the most absorbing election aftermaths in any democracy ever: the tied election of 2000 that was eventually decided by the Supreme Court. Still, it seems to me that, especially since satellite TV has enabled real-time reporting, the UK media has been seduced into a style and volume of US election coverage that is way out of proportion to the task in hand and borderline incomprehensible to all but the most wonkish of wonks.
How has this happened? Partly, I submit, because the status and fun of a US election so far outweigh the graft and the exhaustion — for a UK reporter. You get to travel all over, the figures come pre-digested by media-friendly pollsters, and your average American is a dream for a quote-hungry reporter. You don’t have to speak another language — well, you do, but few recognise that. Which is where, perhaps, change might begin. Even for a UK audience, a US presidential election needs translation; and the coverage needs an awareness, at very least, that the United States is “abroad”.