British Newspapers


On my second night in Cambridge I attended an Association of Marshall Scholars dinner reception following a conference on climate change. The centerpiece of the event was a speech about US and UK media given by James Naughtie of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. One of Mr. Naughtie’s claims was that the US has excellent print media and less-so television/radio, while the UK has excellent television/radio and less-so print media. Despite this, I’ve been very intrigued by British newspapers and have found them a delightful distraction in Trinity’s BA room.

In one Cambridge student publication published earlier this month (apologies, I have no references), a (presumably) Briton described NPR as America’s poorly-funded alternative voice that is a haven for educated (and controversial) dialogue. I have had less contact with the BBC, unfortunately, given the general lack of directly accessible television facilities. I admit that when I do go upstairs to the BA television room I am quickly distracted by Sky (UK satellite TV) and the oodles of American shows that have been the ambassador of American culture back to the UK. When I tune my web browser to BBC Radio, I usually find myself automatically clicking on channel 7 (“Comedy, kids, & drama”). For what it’s worth, I often find myself audibly laughing alone in my room shortly afterwards.

But television and radio aside, I’ve grown to appreciate the British newspapers that are generously provided in most common rooms. I’ve yet to discover the difference between ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ papers other than their distribution time, but have been greatly intrigued by the range of stories and opinions presented.

Sure, there’s the usual ‘big event’ coverage: North Korea and nuclear weapons, Jack Straw’s comments on Muslim veils, and anything regarding Tony Blair stepping down. You’ll find these stories in the New York Times with slightly different spelling (‘center’ for ‘centre’ for example). However, one also finds local (and by local I often mean England … the UK is not exactly a huge country, mind you) coverage: football upsets, crime, and government reports. And here one realizes how similar certain things really are. England’s football team might as well be the New York Yankees or the L.A. Lakers. (Though some of the sports headlines are a little difficult if one isn’t already a football fan: ‘Toothless England held,’ for example. What did they hold without their teeth?) Terrible crimes happen here as well as in the US, though with less guns. I was deeply disturbed to read about a school boy who was tortured by teenagers in what Americans would call a hate crime. At the same time girls were being killed in schools at the US in echoes of the Columbine High School tragedy. Whatever terrible, insane, neurotic plague causes these things to happen is not localized to the United States (though it may manifest itself differently depending on location) … and it is a cultural/societal problem that appears, unfortunately, to be universal.

But aside from these analogous stories, an American peruser of British press will be surprised by some of the choices of what is deemed news/editorial-worthy. The Los Angeles Times, for example, would be very unlikely to include a half-page story on a 16-year old chef’s new “quick meals” cookbook. In another paper, the front page story was on new census data about ethnic and religous diversity. In yet another paper a color graphic comparing the cost of living space across the UK had made it to the front page.

In today’s The Times I was impressed to see the headline ‘Science elite rejects new GCSE as ‘fit for the pub.’‘ The article discusses a new a GCSE (very roughly like an SAT II exam) exam that was developed to encourage public science literacy and increase the number of students going into science. Many academics have rejected the new exam as being sub-par, and an editorial (yes, a second bit in the paper about this) made the point that ‘science literacy is not the same as science.’ As a scientist I was very impressed by the conscientious effort to support science, and as an American who lived in the US through the middle of 2006 I recognized this effort as being unfortunately foreign.

Another particularly excellent article from today’s The Times was titled ‘When the world doesn’t care what the US president says, we’re in a mess.’ Before discussing the editorial, I must note that it’s absolutely fascinating to see how the UK views the US. While the US news will spend lots of time talking about international events and how they relate to its citizens, the UK will also allocate some time to how the US responds to international news. The editorial, whether you agree with it or not, is an excellent read and I suggest it for anyone interested in this perspective. A few quotes (with limited context… it’s a short article, you can read it yourself):

I hate what the US has done to itself and, were I American, I would hate it even more. I hate the fact that we now look to China for international leadership. (Regarding the US squandering it’s international ‘street cred’ to take a lead role in world affairs.)

And for some of the positives:

I’m afraid I am both for and against the US, although overwhelmingly a fan. I love the United States. I love its wide streets, its doughnuts, its hugeness, its multiculturalism. I love its food, its service, its value for money. I love its conspicuous consumption. I love its steaming manholes. I love it that my grandfather is buried in California. I love American tourists. I love how much they love Britain. I love New York. I love Disneyworld. I love square dancing in Texas.

Anyway, there’s far too much fascinating news in the press for me to share them all in a single post. Fortunately many of these articles are online and can easily be viewed regardless of where you are… I’m just trying to figure out how to configure my Google Newsreader to pick up on more of The Times and The Guardian instead of just the usual Reuters stories.

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