It does not help matters for a journalist when the spokesman you are dealing with calls you a liar. Still worse if he believes your country’s press is congenitally incapable of telling the truth.
“Let’s just say if I wanted to look up, if I wanted to read a write-up of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League Cup, I might open up a British newspaper,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary last week. “If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I’m not entirely sure it’d be the first pack of clips I’d pick up.”
What accounts for this xenophobic outburst? The Daily Telegraph reported that photographs of alleged prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison, include images of apparent rape and sexual abuse by Americans. President Obama has refused to release these pictures. The Telegraph quotes Major General Antonio Taguba, the former army officer who conducted an inquiry into the jail: “These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.”
Mr Gibbs doesn’t deny this; he just attacks the nationality of the media in question.
Now let’s now get too sanctimonious. The British press has its moments of truth and decency and courage, and its less valiant times. Some of it is made up and untrue. It has different news values to the US media (which assumes its own are universal), and different economics (which helps to explain the former).
This odd episode underlines that the British press in Washington has a curious status, somewhere in between a remote provincial nuisance and a star on the central stage. The British hack in Washington is, these days, accorded little or no access by the US government. The White House press office will not return calls, or if it does, too late to be of any use. Even if the US is dealing with a British issue, its government will frequently not bother to speak with the British press. The Brits come below any level of local US media. The UK embassy is terrified of upsetting its hosts and doesn’t much help.
There was a time when it was different – when UK correspondents could expect to be on first name terms with many of the US political elite, at home in their summer places and on their tennis courts, but that was thirty years ago.
Yet the British press matters in Washington in a way that other foreign media doesn’t. It is partly the language: Americans read the British media online. And many like it, since it is often more outspoken, critical, argumentative (and usually better written). This is partly a question of taste, partly of politics. The Telegraph has an American readership because it is conservative, for example, just as the Guardian has staked a claim to be the global medium for the liberal-left. A good US scoop by a British journalist will be round the world by the time the hack is out of bed the next day, including in the US.
So why does Gibbs get cross? Because it hurts. He knows that the Telegraph has a good story, and that he can’t deny the central point: what the guy says. And he knows it is a detailed report with telling identifiers that mean it can’t easily be knocked down. And he knows it is half way around the world and the damage is done. He will be under pressure to deal with a difficult irritant, and he can’t deny the story, which would be the only thing that matters. So what does he do? He plays the man, not the ball – attacks the journalists. And to make it all the worse, he has a go at the nation, not just the journalist or the paper. British journalists are liars.
In another country, the British embassy would stand up for itself and criticise a government that was seeking to muzzle criticism and attacking journalist for telling the truth. Not here. Xenophobia is permitted at the expense of the British.
Who wins in this nasty dispute? The Telegraph. Here is a comment by the paper’s Washington correspondent, Toby Harnden. Gibbs should apologise; he won’t, because the White House doesn’t.