The BBC's America bias

Justin Webb can't bear to be back in dear ol' Blighty

I have only just now spotted this stomach-churning farewell blog post from the BBC's outgoing North America editor, Justin Webb, who has returned to the UK to become a regular presenter on Radio 4's Today programme:

Sorry again for not being more attentive. With great sadness -- really huge sadness, as the time we spent in America will I think be the highlight of our family life -- it is time to say goodbye.

We have arrived back in the UK to begin the rest of our lives. Memo to other Brits who might think of coming home from the US: spend your final US holiday in (fill in the name of your least favourite US place) -- don't do what we do and fly home from northern California. Granted, I was unimpressed with San Francisco, but for climate and lifestyle and gorgeous scenery there is nowhere better than the rest of the state. But you already know this.

What I would like to do is thank people who have contributed to the blog -- including those who find my views frustratingly jejune -- and ask you to forgive my failure to reply to many, many fascinating insights including (rather shamefully) several I nicked for my book.

Now back in the UK I find myself utterly at sea -- I say hello to people I pass in the street. They lunge on, muttering insults. We'll get used to it. But we will never forget the kindness of America. In Swindon buying a car the other day (yes, life has changed) the conversation turned to a familiar theme but one that endlessly fascinates me -- the relative peaceableness of the American life, guns and all. Too many Brits seriously think that America is violent. It isn't. Most Americans' lives are free of violence and the threat of it in a way no life in Swindon can be. Why that's true is a subject all of its own (religion, gun ownership, moral fibre, space, social cohesiveness?) and one worthy of a future study.

By the way, we bought a large second-hand American car and we will pay the extra costs with pride . . . Have a nice day!

Webb, like his predecessors Matt Frei and Gavin Esler, has long been an ardent Americanophile, writing and presenting a BBC radio series in which he excoriated anti-Americanism, and authoring a book-length encomium to the United States entitled Have a Nice Day -- Behind the Clichés: Giving America Another Chance. His dewy-eyed Atlanticism is nothing new; as the Guardian pointed out in an interview with him last year:

He arrived in Washington as radio correspondent in 2002 and has an eyebrow-raising ardour for America, rarely found at the BBC. 'There is nowhere in the world I'd rather be than Washington DC,' he wrote in his introductory post on his blog. 'Sexier cities do exist, of course, and less socially divided places as well, but nowhere is as powerful, as full of news and as vitally important to the lives and futures of us all. I've been here six years and intend to stay for 600. My youngest child is American and my older ones sound American. And that's fine by me.'

While many Britons shudder at American displays of national pride and the fact that the Stars and Stripes hangs in every municipal building and on millions of porches too, Webb is entirely at ease with the notion. 'I go out on a limb here,' he says. 'I'm a real admirer of American patriotism. It occasionally plainly leads them down terrible dark alleys and sometimes leads us to laugh at them, but I love the way their patriotism genuinely binds together small communities into the wider nation.'

Here is Webb, however, in his farewell post from Brussels, where he was the BBC correspondent until seven years ago:

I opened the door of our townhouse the other day to find a dog defecating on the step. The dog was unfazed by my sudden appearance -- that, I suppose, was to be expected -- but it was the reaction of the owner that I found fascinating.

A respectable-looking chap wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, he merely moved the creature slightly to one side to let me pass, and then just carried on with his cigarette, waiting for the dog to finish and amble off.

Nothing untoward had happened -- a dirty city had become slightly dirtier, but few would notice or care.

Brussels is the filthiest, most dilapidated capital city in the European Union -- yes, even including Athens.

The grime here seems to have infected the soul of the place. Its people have a defeated air.

My wife says everyone here looks tired. As the parents of two-year-old twins, we know that look, but we do have the odd good night -- the Belgians seem tired all the time. And everything is too much trouble.

Notice the difference in tone and content? So much for the BBC's instinctive Europhilia and "institutionalised" anti-Americanism.

Webb, of course, writes from the perspective of a welcomed, moneyed outsider. Living and working in America is a deeply seductive proposition if the lifestyle and the work involves rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful, cut off from the obstacles and challenges faced by ordinary working Americans. Two comments on Webb's farewell post from Washington, therefore, stood out to me:

I am glad to read Justin Webb's favourable comments about his time in the US. After his vitriolic comments upon leaving his post in Brussels and thoroughly maligning this lovely little country, some of his readers might have been waiting with bated breath to see what gems came forth from this posting. Of course . . . it is easy to have favourable views if you live in Georgetown in a nice house, frequent the upper echelons of society and don't really have to bother with the lower, poorer and homeless, who are infinitely less appealing.

. . .

I thought that the BBC's reporters would have been more grown-up than this. Living in the US on the privileges that the BBC has provided for you and your family is not representative of the existence that the average person in the US has. I assume that your health care was covered? I assume that you lived in a gated or well-to-do community? I assume that you didn't live in an area where your neighbours don't talk to you if you do not attend church and black people are afraid to talk to you if you are white? I assume that your workmates didn't go and buy assault rifles when President Obama was elected because they thought he was going to send brainwashing squads to town to take them from them? I do. I am a servant of the government on exchange here in the US. I have served the US in war and am very proud to have done so, but I, unlike you, will go back to Swindon and will buy a Honda that doesn't destroy the environment and I will leave my bubble with a smile on my face, knowing that when my children grow up they will do so with free health care in a modern, moderate, liberal society.

Touché!

(Incidentally, I have a piece on BBC bias in this week's magazine, which is out on Thursday.)

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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