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 rage that Donald Trump has harnessed could prove his undoing

The new president's supporters expect the earth from him - and he promised it to them. 

If you were expecting a conciliatory, unifying message from Donald Trump’s inaugural address, delivered Friday afternoon in Washington, DC, then: who are you and where is the rock you have been hiding under?

But despite low expectations - turnout on the Mall for the speech was embarrassingly small compared to that which came for Obama’s first inaugural address in 2009, as this CNN comparison shows - Trump delivered a deeply alarming, divisive speech which set a dark tone for the next four years.

Washington DC had spent the previous few days in a daze. People spoke in hushed tones. The tension in the air could be cut with a butter-knife. For the inauguration, this town is full to bursting with Trump supporters and protesters. Teenagers shouted “fuck Trump” at a group of white college-age students in slogan hats on the metro. People walk with thousand-yard stares; few could believe, on Thursday, that this was really happening.

As rain began to drizzle from a cool grey sky, Trump opened by saying that he was going to take power from the Washington elites and return it to the American people, following up on themes he developed during his rollercoaster campaign.

“For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost ... The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” Trump said.

The difference between the oratory of hope which was the mark of Obama’s speaking style, Trump maintained his strategy of listing threats, engaging in a politics of fear. He talked of crime; of “carnage in the streets”, of gangs.

He lamented the money spent helping defend nations overseas and pledged that “From this moment on, it's going to be America First.” That slogan, which he used during the campaign, has chilling echoes; it was the name and rallying cry of a group of prominent anti-Semites in the US in the 1930s. He promised “a new national pride.” One of his first acts as president was to announce a “national day of patriotism.”

The crowd reflected Trump’s sentiments back at him from the mall. They cheered his slogans; they booed Democratic party figures on the dais, including Hillary Clinton. They chanted “lock her up” every time she appeared on the giant screens which abutted the Capital building. When Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, called for unity, the crowd booed when he said the word “immigrant”.

Afterwards, protests turned violent. Police deployed pepper-spray and concussion grenades on the street outside the Washington Post building. Trump memorabilia was burned.

Meanwhile, the policy fightback has also already begun. The first two new petitions on whitehouse.gov are for the release of Trump’s tax returns, and for his businesses to be put in a blind trust. Congressional Democrats, as well as state representatives from liberal states like California are already planning their fightback. A plane circled New York City towing the message “we outnumber him! resist!”

Obama, too, though gracious during the transition period, has hinted that if Trump rides roughshod over civil liberties he will not stay quiet.

Trump is unlikely to enjoy being president as much as running for president. His supporters expect the earth from him - he promised them it, over and over again. Those in the crowd who chanted “lock her up” at Clinton expect Trump literally to do so. “Drain the swamp” - another campaign slogan favourite  - will ring hollow to his supporters when they watch his billionaire cabinet demolish healthcare and slash funding for federal programs.

In the end when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the true charlatan behind the short-fingered demagogue of Oz, the forces of rage and dissatisfaction he harnessed to drive his campaign which may prove his undoing.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.