The American political system has – for Brits, anyway – an irresistibly theatrical quality that intoxicates British broadcasters into sloppy and biased coverage of US elections.
We love the American system, but our love for it depends upon it remaining particularly foreign, which is why Brits report on US elections in the style of pith-helmeted explorers from the 1950s, staring in wonder at their inexplicable surroundings.
Like well-meaning people enunciating their words unnecessarily carefully for someone with a hearing impairment who lip-reads, we sound more British when we speak to Americans, and our assumption is that Americans expect us not only to be British, but to be a little more British than we really are. This should not influence our coverage of US politics, but it does.
It is why a BBC reporter sounds almost sarcastic when mentioning that the President is ‘shooting some hoops’ … he has to at least try to give the impression that he has never heard of basketball.
The willingness of Brits, when reporting on the US, to abandon their usual stern-faced composure and reveal their political sympathies is not the result of arrogance. It is because they think they’re watching a Western. They assume that everyone sides with Obama rather than the Republican gunmen arriving on the noon train to shoot him, and it’s not really possible to remain impartial in such a situation.
It was unsettling to hear Channel 4’s Jon Snow exclaim ‘the nightmare is over!’ at the close of the Bush Presidency, or for Bill Turnbull, when reporting on an embattled Obama’s chances of survival during the troubled Obamacare rollout, to ask, touchingly, of the person sitting next to him on the BBC sofa, ‘he’ll be alright, won’t he?’
Others were less restrained. One exchange on the night of the 2008 Presidential Election culminated in former UN ambassador John Bolton – hardly a voice of moderation – calling for a BBC reporter to be fired for his persistent provocation of a Colorado Republican following Obama’s victory in that state.
Perhaps the hysteria over the election of the first African American President was also to blame for British journalists drifting off into shockingly amateurish coverage of US politics.
In all the excitement, reporters forgot the difference between the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, or referred – as The Guardian once did – to South Carolina’s Senator Graham Lindsey (rather than Senator Lindsey Graham, as he prefers to be known). The well-respected former BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston recalled the government shutdown of 1986, when he was presumably referring to the one from 1996.
As a British enthusiast of the US, I wondered what Brits with less enthusiasm for our American cousins’ curious electoral system might have made of a recent ITN report of a ‘key victory’ for Hillary Clinton. What’s a ‘key victory’? What did she achieve, where did it happen, and when and why? A brief mention of the state of South Carolina might at least have highlighted the significance of race and region in US elections, and also explained all those people Clinton was smiling at and waving to in the clip.
We like to believe that the US system is entirely foreign from our own, yet, paradoxically, this helps us to delude ourselves about how similar the two systems are. It is partly why we now have a Supreme Court, and why there have been proposals for an elected ‘Senate’ to replace the House of Lords.
It is why we introduced leadership debates in our general elections, despite the fact that only the leaders’ constituents can vote for them directly. It is why our TV coverage of US presidential elections never runs as smoothly as our UK general election coverage, because the counting takes much longer, and the BBC does not want to suggest that Mitt Romney is on track to win by a landslide in California, when it will be clear in a few hours’ time that, as predicted, he never had a chance of winning that state.
Alas, Channel 4’s recent reference to Donald Trump’s victory in the ‘Indiarna’ primary offers a gloomy indication of what we can expect from UK coverage of the 2016 Presidential Election.
It will be a night of interminable eyebrow-raising talk of states that are ‘too close to call’ (with nobody too certain as to why), spectacular BBC graphics to explain an electoral system that few Brits care to understand, and, presumably, some jolly encouraging words for any actor playing the part of Not Donald Trump.
Thanks for your time. Wasn't so bad, was it? I will share any further rejected items in due course.