The Breakfast Table

Brinkley and Lyall

Since we are both Americans living temporarily in England, I thought I’d begin our conversation by talking about something we both presumably shared on our arrival here–the process of figuring out the British press. One thing that has struck me about the British press in the several months since I moved to Oxford is how relatively provincial it is. That’s a charge leveled against the U.S. press as well, and to a large degree justifiably. But Britain is now part of the E.U. and likely–although not yet certain–to adopt the Euro within the next few years. It is hard, reading the daily papers here, to feel that Britain is part of Europe at all. The “Home News” still dominates, as I suppose it always will. But even the foreign news doesn’t seem much interested in Europe. There’s more about the U.S. in any given day than about any other country but Britain itself. European news gets less attention on any given day than it probably would in any of the top eight or ten newspapers in the US. Even with a pro-Europe government firmly ensconced, you have to wonder how secure are England’s ties to the E.U.

Another striking feature of the British papers, it seems to me, is how much more openly partisan they are than all but a few major American papers. Perhaps that is why no one paper is clearly established as a leader. Everyone I know understands that the Times and the Telegraph are the conservative papers, the Guardian and the Independent the more-or-less liberal ones; and while the people I talk with don’t necessarily choose their papers according to their own politics, they are a lot more likely to do so (and certainly much more able to do so) than most Americans are. The advantage of this, I suppose, is that if you really want to know what’s going on in England (let alone the world) you have to read several papers to find out. You can’t delude yourself, as we New Yorkers do, into thinking that any one paper will tell you everything you need to know. And there is a thread of lively, witty, literate writing running through these papers of a sort relatively rare in the American press.

On the whole, however, it seems to me that (despite the many lamentations in the U.S. about our own press) the British have moved much further down the road than we have toward absorbing the style and content of the tabloids into their mainstream papers. Granted, the tabloids here are much more sensationalized than the non-supermarket American ones (the Post, the DailyNews, etc.), so the gap between the mainstream and the tabloids remains quite large. But this is one area where the British seem to be ahead of the United States in succumbing to the supposedly American syndrome of allowing popular culture to overwhelm even the most serious institutions.

You’ve been here longer than I have, and you have a much greater professional interest in this than I do. So I’d be curious to know if you think my impressions after only a few months match yours at all. And of course I’d be interested in hearing what else you’ve found interesting about living in Britain, and what looks interesting to you about the U.S. when viewed from this distance.