Another day, another instalment in the New York Times’s weird anti-British vendetta. A guest essay describes Liz Truss, with characteristic NYTian hyperbole, as being “in thrall to Empire”. Pussy-bow blouses aside, writes academic Kojo Koram, Truss is the spiritual heir not to Margaret Thatcher, but to that other famous libertarian, Enoch Powell.
Another NYT fixture is Jonathan Pie, the satirical UK newsreader played by comedian Tom Walker. Pie, who once appeared on Russia Today, is best known for his viral missives slagging off Brexit, Boris, the Tories etc – and his sophisticated social media output. “Your new Prime Minister, ladies and gentleman… is a c— of the higher order”, tweeted this little charmer the other day. His latest NYT video makes various unhinged claims about the state of Britain. “You can’t get in or out of the country because of airline staff shortages and queues at border control,” he froths. Actually, you can.
I’ve never understood the appeal of Pie – a dismally unfunny, Sainsbury’s Basics Charlie Brooker – but then again, the attractions of James O’Brien’s expletive-ridden tantrums have also eluded me. Perhaps the NYT, like LBC, is trying to attract the commerce of well-heeled #FBPE types. Or maybe they have simply decided that Brexit and Trump are one and the same and now perceive everything through that lens, despite evidence to the contrary.
A few years ago, the NYT ran a front page feature on the Merseyside town of Prescot, claiming that the community had become a “casualty of austerity” and reeling off a list of public services supposedly axed as a result, including the library and fire station. Residents decried the piece as “fake news”, and fact-checkers debunked many of the claims. The local library, it turned out, was open after all, while a new fire station had been recently unveiled.
But perhaps the crowning glory of this genre was a 2018 article about British cuisine. Even in the 21st century, argued travel writer Robert Draper, it was difficult to find a restaurant menu in London that diverged from our staple diet of “porridge and boiled mutton”. Mutton-gate also contained arguably the greatest newspaper correction of all time: “An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a London neighbourhood. It is Mayfair, not Mayfield.” He did, however, concede that Britain was starting to recover from its noughties jellied eel days, so that’s something I guess.
The NYT’s UK coverage has moved beyond parody, as if it can only view Britain through a fairground mirror – emphasising all her ugliest aspects and distorting them beyond recognition. Everything, however mundane, is a symbol of national decline. Everyone is nostalgic for the empire, or racist. We are in the realm of Hollywood-level comedy Anglophobia here, as if they’d recruited the screenwriter for The Patriot or Braveheart and put him in charge of commissioning.
Brits may laugh at the caricature – in fact it’s impossible not to. But travelling abroad, the NYT is ubiquitous, and trusted. And it is far from the only offender; this attitude has seeped into politics and other parts of the media.
Yesterday, CNN claimed that Truss was defined by her hardline anti-immigration stance. Democrats often wear anti-British sentiment on their sleeve. Joe Biden’s rambling Irish-American schtick frequently veers into unhelpful hyperbole; as when he compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with Britain’s treatment of Irish Catholics on a recent trip to Jerusalem, or fobbed off a British reporter, saying: “BBC? I’m Irish!” Nancy Pelosi and others frequently share “fake news” with an anti-Unionist bent – misrepresenting basic aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, or falsely claiming the US is a “guarantor” of it.
Perhaps such calculations are opportunistic rather than ignorant: American Democrats may have more to gain from pandering to Irish-American voters than maintaining good relations with Britain, just as the NYT’s slanted coverage doubtless has its reasons.
But it comes at a price. Speaking to American friends and acquaintances, I am often struck by how far off the mark their views on Britain are. One, a historian no less, suggested that British troops in Northern Ireland during the Troubles were an “occupying force”. Another, a well-known TV anchor, declared Britain to be institutionally racist, far more than America. Never mind that the new Cabinet will not contain a single white man in a great office of state. As Britain appoints its third female PM – with minimal fanfare about her gender – it’s worth reminding ourselves that America’s last female head of state was Queen Anne.
The tragedy is that the US has much to teach us. Britain has become a place where Nimbyism reigns supreme, where building homes and infrastructure is a Herculean, even Sisyphean, task. I wish we shared America’s can-do attitude and positivity; when you do well in the US, people are genuinely pleased for you and want to know the secret of your success. But America’s Left-wing elites are developing a problem with Britain, just as the British Left had a problem with America in the years after 9/11, when practically every comedy panel included some variant on a theme of “dumb Americans, hur hur”.
It’s a trend that threatens to make us not, as in Bernard Shaw’s aphorism, “two countries separated by a common language” but two nations divided by a carefully-cultivated falsehood.