Hail, Tony Blair! British Blisterers Saved Democracy

In sandals and open shirts, with earrings, poor posture, black jeans and mumbling plummy accents, a bunch of English journalists shuffled into the New School University on July 24 to remind their coalition partners what it is to be a journalist.

The last British invasion of American journalism, over a decade ago, schooled us in celebrity, toadying, aristocracy and Diana’s bling-bling. This one is about something else entirely: the role of an independent press in an imperial society.

The conference at the New School, titled “The Media at War,” was hosted by The Guardian newspaper and New York magazine. The Guardian has lately established a beachhead in America because readers here (two million a month, it says) have sought out the war coverage on its superb Web site. Those readers are getting a strong alternative voice that is not available in our own mainstream media.

“When the President comes into the room, American journalists stand erect with their backs rigid, British journalists stay slouched in their chairs,” John Kampfner, a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation, said at the conference. “American journalists regard the people in authority as good men who should have the benefit of the doubt. In Britain, we work on the assumption that they need to prove to us that we should believe them.”

Just consider the British response to the tribunals the American government has planned for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Almost across the board, British publications have expressed revulsion at these plans as civil-and human-rights violations. Even The Economist, a conservative publication, has called the process “un-American.” Then compare that response to the chary comments in American publications. If you read the Washington Post editorials on the matter, you will have no idea what the paper thinks. The British (and Australian) influence on the process has been limited, but it may keep the Americans from imposing the death penalty.

However spineless or greasy he has seemed to be, this is Tony Blair’s gift to America: The English have provided us with a left wing, a conscience wing that must be taken into account. This conscience wing is now leading the United States on the Middle East peace plans, and leading the American press in the furore- soon to become a furor, one hopes-over the manipulation of intelligence preceding the war.

At the same time, the war has made the American press docile and flaccid. Imagine that Bill Hemmer, the anchor of a leading network, CNN, could go before the New School audience and defend the network’s policy of vetting its armchair generals through the Pentagon by saying that the network was only trying to check out their “credentials”: “We were trying to make sure they were worth their weight,” he said.

And he’s proud of that.

“Americans are demanding truly international foreign reporting,” said Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. Then he noted, “Last week we published the first photograph of a dead American. The imbalance between dead coalition forces and dead Iraqis became an embarrassment to the way we had covered the war.”

Photographers had told him that their inability to photograph American casualties was due to “the active intervention of the minders.”

The Guardian co-organized the conference in part because it is thinking of starting a liberal magazine here. “We have begun to investigate what that would look like,” Mr. Rusbridger said. Funded by a trust that guarantees its independence, The Guardian has demonstrated spine since Suez. While it would reveal itself as a greenhorn stateside if (as rumors suggest) it were to hire Sidney Blumenthal as editor (Mr. Blumenthal is paranoid, partisan, and predictable), any English influence is to be desired right now.

Michael Elliott of Time magazine tried to put a damper on the Anglophilia at the conference. The British attitude that “you are a lying bastard” is “really, really dangerous,” he said.

And then, like a eunuch at the harem door, he cried, “No one elected us! No one elected us!”

Harper’s publisher John (Rick) MacArthur, who was seated beside him, pointed out that the First Amendment to the Constitution grants powers to American journalists-powers, Mr. MacArthur said, that had been abdicated most piteously by “the liberal media, the highbrow media.”

David Bennahum, a magazine journalist, rose from the audience to say that a writer friend at a major American newsweekly had lately told him that if he had actually expressed his true opinion of Condoleezza Rice in a profile the magazine had published, he would have endangered the weekly’s access to all administration officials, a breach the publication could not afford. I would also cite The New Yorker , which in a generation past was a strong voice against the Vietnam War among the privileged, but during the recent conflict has been equivocal (and necessarily so, given its position in the Condé Nast empire, as embowered in an advertisement for Nasdaq).

Compare these American profiles in accommodation to the leading news organization in Britain, the BBC, whose independence has alienated government sources and resulted in its reporters being barred from Ariel Sharon’s press meetings.

We do not practice “passive journalism,” Adrian Van Klaveren, the head of news-gathering for the BBC, explained at the New School. “It’s about trying to get at information other people don’t want us to know.”

The BBC has now gotten into very hot water because of this policy, and there are many reasons that Americans cannot take such risks. For one thing, British readers are far more open than Americans to skepticism about the war. Mr. Rusbridger compared the English press’ role in America today to the American press’ role in England during the troubles in Northern Ireland: England required a detached and “enlightened” outside presence to explain to the English, who after all were under attack, the moral inequities of the situation. Now we are a superpower that was viciously attacked. It is to be expected that our press has become more conservative and respectful.

Then there is a vocational issue. English journalists seem happy being ink-stained wretches-alienated, underpaid, free to speak their minds. On this score, American journalists have been somewhat corrupted. Many of them are now top-tier socially and rich, to boot. A freelancer can dream of being a celebrity, of becoming famous and making money on TV. Respect and sycophancy ease the way; asking impertinent questions does not.

Of course, the last time that anti-authoritarian values were regnant in American journalism, in the 1970’s, reporters brought down a government. The same thing may be about to happen to Tony Blair.

In beginning his keynote speech at the Guardian – New York magazine conference, Mr. Rusbridger said cattily that if a Brit gives a “really run-of-the-mill speech” in the States, he could expect 17 standing ovations. This was a foolish statement in an otherwise fine speech. Tony Blair’s speech to Congress on July 17 was exceptional. He has put the Palestinian issue on the American agenda in a way that no American has ever been able to, explaining that justice in the Middle East is essential if we wish to end terrorism.

Mr. Blair has given the English a vote in our security council; he has instilled in America more worldly and sophisticated values. His downfall could be costly to the American left.

“People accuse Blair of not having a sense of history,” says the British writer Gregory Lomas, who is based in Seattle. “He may not be a reader of history, but I think he does have a sense of history, for he understands the dynamics of what’s evolved in the world in the last couple of years and knows that he might be a key player within that, and a moderating influence, and that it’s a very complex and dangerous game.

“Bush was going to war anyway. The fear that drove Blair into the war was that he felt there was no influence from Europe on the United States. That Bush had withdrawn from the global-warming agreement and biological-warfare inspections, and that Sept. 11 might have triggered a terrible bloodletting unless Europe exercised influence. It’s a chess game on a very big scale, but if I’m right, Blair has shown great statesmanship.”

The English left now despises Mr. Blair; they want to put the poodle down. The American left might be more respectful. He has finally given us some company.