There’s an article on Salon at the moment called No facts please, we’re British, which alleges that while Americans are flocking to the British press for news and information they’re not getting in mainstream US media, much of the reason it’s not reported in the US is that the news presented simply isn’t true. Or at least this is what I believe the article is arguing. It’s very difficult to tell of course, because it’s a Salon Premium article – and I’d have to pay to read past the accusations and into any of the substance of the matter.
There’s something profoundly wrong with this approach – and ironically so under the circumstances. Salon is presenting these ideas of the totally innaccurate British media as if they were fact, and yet you have to actually cough up some dough to see if their substantiation is even vaguely plausible. So what we are left with is a presentation that will be assimilated by large numbers of people as true, when they don’t even have access to even the facts that the site has deemed supportive. We have a double level of filtering here.
Not only are we (as usual) left to believe that the arguments presented by the media are based on actual, rather than made-up, evidence, and that the interpretation they are giving them is plausible – we’re actually presented the interpretation without any evidence. You might argue that one can always pay for the information – but this is missing the point – how many people might simply now accept that the British media lies – people who migt have had a rather different intepretation if they’d been able to read the whole article.
Whatever the article actually says, there are things that an American should be aware of when reading the British media – and this may redress some of the concerns raised in the article (or it may not – remember, I haven’t been able to read it). The English press operates as much more of a spectrum than its US counterparts. There is an almost continuous spectrum between tabloid press that can be no better than The National Enquirer and high quality broadsheet publications (some with a countryside/right bias, some with a metropolitan/left bias). I can’t talk about everyone’s tastes in newspapers – or newspaper sites – but I can clarify who I am most likely to believe. You may – or may not – find this useful…
The Tabloids: Tabloid papers are generally considered to be ‘fun’, ‘low-brow’, ‘populist’ or ‘trash’ depending on who you ask. But there are substantial variations between them. The Sun is traditionally a right-wing paper – keen on Margaret Thatcher, down on immigration and ‘loony-left’ politics. Having said this, it has been supportive of New Labour at various points over the last few years. The news often takes the form of sensationalist headlines and calls to action, and varies between news and entertainment gossip and trivia. The Mirror is a much more left-wing publication and considerably less trashy than the Sun at times -particularly at the moment. But it is still essentially an easy, unthreatening read with a tendency to sensationalise.
The two worst papers in the country, from my perspective, are The Daily Mail and The Express. Unlike the tabloids, these papers have a pretense of seriousness that makes their right-wing tendencies alarming at best. They tend to speak a lot of ‘common sense’ – which in my experience is mostly a euphemism for ‘traditional family values’, itself a euphemism for reactionary politics and right-wing “string-em-up” sensationalism – albeit disguised as news.
The broadsheets tend to have the most faith in their readership of all the press – which is one good reason to read them. Of all their failings, they don’t generally tend to try to make up the minds of their readership immediately or overtly. There is one notable exception here, in my opinion, but I’m not going to dwell on it as it’s the most popular broadsheet in the country. The main papers to look out for here are The Guardian and The Telegraph and The Independent. These can loosely be categorised as: Guardian: metropolian/centre-left, Telegraph: rural/centre-right/right and Independent: centre-politics, cross-metropolitan/rural.
In many ways all three of these can be trusted with information – although for opinion they all have their particular axes to grinds. Most notably, the Telegraph – which is the best-selling broadsheet in the country, has primarily an aging rural readership, which explains why it tends further to the right of all the other quality papers. If this annoys you (and it does me), then either of the other two are trustworthy and reliable sources for information. My personal favourite (mainly because of it’s stunning web presence) is The Guardian – which has the added advantage of being the only paper in the country that has full editorial independence from the people who pay the bills – the paper is financed by a trust rather than by large media giants.
There are other papers that you might consider reading in the country – I can’t cover everything – but in my experience, the most trustworthy news comes from papers that avoid sensationalism whenever they can, and attempt to present the news in a way that allows interpretation from the reader rather than making that interpretation for them. The best way to gauge how well you’re going to get on with a paper is to view the types of headlines it puts on it’s front pages – and to compare them with other headlines from other papers on the same day. If one paper is concentrating on a completely different story to the rest, it may have privileged information – or it may have a particular axe to grind on that issue. The Telegraph is good for this – it often has headlines that bear no relation to the rest of the press on that day, because as a paper that is so-pro “Conservative” politically, it tends to take any opportunity to criticise the government – sometimes disproportionately.
And if none of these take your fancy – you can pretty much always rely on the BBC to present the news as dispassionately and honestly as possible.