June 25, 2003

It took a British journalist to put the American Defence Secretary on the spot. Why, asks Justin Webb, are the US media so timorous?

an excerpt:

"What surprised people most was the style. Mr Rumsfeld's answers were followed up. His reasoning was tested. He was put on the spot and not allowed to leave it. When Dimbleby asked him why he had repeatedly referred to the "so-called" occupied territories of the West Bank, Mr Rumsfeld said he might have done it once but certainly not repeatedly.

"Dimbleby had the dates and occasions in front of him. The Defence Secretary was forced to concede the point.

"What a far cry it was from the Donald Rumsfeld Americans know and love. Strutting his stuff on the Pentagon podium, Mr Rumsfeld is lord and master of all he surveys. The Defence hacks titter nervously at each other and hope to get off with as light a beating as possible. Difficult questions are avoided; difficult questioners are lampooned. Anyone who persists is taken out and beaten senseless. (I made that up, but the atmosphere is genuinely one of laughing menace; a truly independent spirit would not enjoy being a Pentagon correspondent. The Today programme's Andrew Gilligan would not get through the door.)

"So why the transatlantic journalistic rift? Are American journalists simply spineless? Do they toe the line because they love the President? Or because their employers do?The answer, I think, is more complex. Americans in all walks of life have a respect for authority that the cynical Brits jettisoned somewhere around the time of Profumo and Christine Keeler. Americans, remember, still go to church. For all their rhetoric of freedom, there is nevertheless an acceptance of a higher power here in the United States. And an acceptance, too, of unimpeachable motives. President Bush, you may remember, declared the Iraq war won while on board a US aircraft carrier out in the Pacific Ocean. He flew to it on a navy jet, emerging with his flight suit on, looking for all the world like the Top Gun that he never was. I watched the performance live on US television and marvelled at the difference in coverage that there would have been on a British TV channel for a British prime minister attempting the same stunt.

"Only once did the anchor people remark to each other - in the most delicate fashion - that the pictures would likely be used by the Bush team during next year's election.

"Likely be used! The whole thing was set up for political use - it had no other purpose. The President could have stepped on board the carrier on shore; but it had been slowed down to make sure that it was still at sea. Incidentally, some questions were asked after the event about whether the White House had overstepped the mark with the carrier landing, but they were asked in a tone of hurt surprise, a tone that said: 'We trusted you and you let us down.' The British media would surely have sunk the whole enterprise."

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