Crown jewels: UK newspapers

Aside from a few unworthies, Great Britain's dailies offer some fine reading

by David Kopel

May 10, 2003, Rocky Mountain News

I spent last week in London and Oxford, where I got to see up-close some of the crown jewels of Western civilization: the newspapers of Great Britain, many of which would make an excellent supplement to the newspaper diet of a well-informed Coloradan.

The most obvious difference between the leading British newspapers and their U.S. counterparts is that the major British papers are all national (like The Wall Street Journal or USA Today over here).

The major British papers offer virtually no local news, not even of their home base of London. While the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post both aim for a full spectrum of readers, the British papers are much more segmented along class lines and political lines. Working-class conservatives read one paper, college-educated leftists another.

At the bottom end of the intelligence range is The Sun, a revolting paper famous mainly for putting a topless woman on Page 3 of every issue. The Scottish counterpart is the Daily Record. Neither of these ultra-sleazy papers has any redeeming social value.

Although foreigners often imagine that all British tabloids are of the same loathsome quality as The Sun, the majority of national tabs are actually pretty good. The Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, and the Evening Standard, are feisty papers that do run plenty of crime/sex/celebrity/TV stories, but they also offer plenty of articles on British politics and other hard news. The highlight of the good tabs is their columnists, many of whom get a whole page, containing one long piece, plus several shorter pieces and a photo or two.

The very best of these is Peter Hitchens, who is featured in the Mail on Sunday. His main article last week was a precise, humourous and severe criticism of Tony Blair (who was getting generally laudatory coverage in the rest of the media that week, in honor of his 50th birthday). If Maureen Dowd were actually funny and had a point to make, she would write like Peter Hitchens.

The Evening Standard gives readers something that Denver lost many years ago when the Post became a morning paper: the opportunity to catch up on the day's events with an evening paper.

The "posh" newspapers are all broadsheets. Their tone is more sober than that of the tabs, but British news reporters are far more willing than their American counterparts to put their own overt opinions into a straight news story. If the reporter thinks that something is "farcical," he'll say so. All of the posh papers offer lots of original foreign coverage.

The most left-wing of the broadsheets is The Independent. To many American Web-based readers, it's most famous for a bogus story about a purported massacre in the Jenin refugee camp a while ago. Its lead correspondent, Robert Fisk, is so adamant in his hard-left politics that when he was attacked by a mob in Pakistan in 2001, he wrote a column explaining his sympathy with the mob. That column, in turn, resulted in the addition of the word "fisking" to the vocabulary of weblog readers; "fisking" means a line-by-line deconstruction of an especially illogical article or column. As in, "Matthew Hoy gave Paul Krugman's column a thorough fisking."

The other left-wing paper, The Guardian, is one of the best papers in the world. The layout is the most beautiful of any newspaper I've ever seen, the culture and society coverage is broad and deep, and the writing is erudite.

On the right, the Daily Telegraph is not quite as good as The Guardian, but it is still a great read. Its foreign reporters scored a great coup recently, uncovering secret Iraqi files showing that George Galloway, Parliament's long-time leading defender of Saddam Hussein, was receiving huge bribes from the Saddam regime.

Both The Guardian and Daily Telegraph offer weekly print editions for Americans. The Weekly Telegraph preserves much of the fun and flavor of British journalism, while the weekly Guardian is a dense collection of important articles. Like Le Monde Diplomatique (the oversees weekly edition of selected articles from France's leading leftist newspaper) The Guardian Weekly does not even remotely provide the great experience one gets from reading the in-country daily.

The Times is the other major right-of-center London paper, aiming for a slightly more educated audience than the Daily Telegraph. The recent arrest of a Times reporter for printing a story about a secret conversation between a government official and an IRA leader provided a powerful reminder that the British press is burdened by an Official Secrets Act, for which there is no counterpart in America. British libel laws are also much less protective of free speech than their American counterparts.

The posh papers all offer various e-mail news services, most of them for free. The Guardian's appear to be the best.

The only British paper available for delivery to your doorstep in Colorado is the Financial Times. It's a business paper which has been beefing up coverage of culture and sports. In tone, FT adopts the neutral and balanced American style - not surprising since only 29 percent of FT sales are within the UK.

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