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21 June 2024

The Washington Post drama reveals the myth of Americanisation

Britain’s distinct journalistic style is proof of its cultural independence.

By Finn McRedmond

The American newsroom is beset by anxious handwringing: slowly it seems the Brits are coming for every top job. The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Bloomberg News and the Associated Press are all now helmed by redcoats. Plenty of these appointments have been met with internal consternation (American suspicion of the Brits is an under-reported phenomenon), but none as much as the attempted appointment of the Telegraph’s Rob Winnett as editor of the Washington Post. The Post’s British CEO, Will Lewis, was already struggling to court the affection of his newsroom. With his bid to impose Winnett’s Fleet Street sensibilities on the place, he may have jeopardised his entire mission.

Hiring Winnett should have been Lewis’s crossing the Delaware moment: Winnett is lauded for his generation-defining exposé of the parliamentary expenses scandal. But America did not care. And after what appeared – from the outside – to be a newsroom revolt, the Telegraph has announced that Winnett would stay at the title, and is no longer headed to America.  

At an all-hands company meeting organised by Lewis earlier this month (after Winnett’s appointment was announced) one reporter challenged him: “Now we have four white men running three newsrooms.” Another asked whether “any women or people of colour were interviewed and seriously considered for either of these positions” (this allegedly generated a round of applause). Lewis did not mince his words in response: “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it any more.”

All this drama has been savoured for the clash in journalistic styles it seems to represent. But it is not just a neat encapsulation of the attitudinal divergence between the British newspaper and East Coast media (throwing in to sharp relief the centrifugal force of identity politics in the American establishment, and its relative absence from Britain). Instead, it is a reminder: America’s cultural dominance of the rest of the West has been considerably overstated.

In 2022 one anxious UnHerd headline read: “How Britain became an American colony.” A 2017 book fretted about the so-called American conquest of the English language. Just last year, YouGov conducted an international survey: is there too much American influence on national culture? (Yes, broadly, so the respondents worried.) As Britain emerged from the ashes of World War II, divided and weary, America’s sunlit uplands filled the vacuum: its cultural hegemony was secured. 

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Except, this tale of the United Kingdom’s slow and inexorable slide into its position as the 51st state has been wildly overwrought. In fact, all the anxiety about America’s cultural dominion – apparently aided by mass media, the Hollywood-industrial complex, the vast wealth discrepancy between Britain and America, social media – is misplaced. Britain has not been colonised by the United States’ values and sensibilities; nor its sense of humour or language. In fact, the current row brewing over the Fleet Street invasion of the American newsroom is a revelatory microcosm: British culture has stood firm against the transatlantic tidal wave. 

It is rather hard to imagine, for example, a high-profile, ideologically led resignation in the manner of Bari Weiss’s 2020 departure from the New York Times happening this side of the Atlantic. That same year the editorial team published an op-ed from the Republican senator Tom Cotton, suggesting the military should be called in to deal with violent Black Lives Matter protestors. The liberal NYT newsroom revolted and the controversy ran so deep it claimed the job of a senior editor, James Bennet. There are of course squabbles over the content of certain legacy publications here, but nothing on this cosmic scale. Lewis’s sharp and commercially minded rebuff to the identitypolitik of his employees proves just that: the British newsroom does not buckle under the weight of these impossibly pure ideological demands.

That Winnett’s attempted takeover was scuppered speaks to this deep clash of values (further evidence that the two cultures have not merged into an amorphous blob). The spiky attitude required of a British hack is anathema to refined American manners; the lofty principles of the American reporter collide with the gonzo edge of the British red-tops; lackeys of stateside newsrooms stand up to their superiors while the British footmen are entirely obsequious to the whims of the editor. The deepest chasm has emerged over discordant practices: the Post staff were anxious to learn that Winnett paid sources for information. In the eyes of the Yanks, the British press is scurrilous and shallow, its ethical framework in urgent need of a redraft. 

But the very fact that there is such cultural discordance should disabuse the world of any anxiety that England is Americafied. It has never been so. The folly of importing American culture wars – replete with their own conversations on race and identity that do not apply this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Think about what happens when a British sitcom gets remade for American TV: the defanged Inbetweeners and Skins. The American Office – funny though it is – comes with a thread of hope and warmth entirely devoid from its British predecessor. 

“We’ve become so Americanised that we no longer even notice it,” lamented Dominic Sandbrook on UnHerd. I am unconvinced. Far from ceding to the bogeyman of American hegemony, when Brits arrive on US shores they find a very alien culture.

[See also: Fleet Street is colonising the American newsroom]

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