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 beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem