Cool Britannia

January 20, 2002

by John K. Bates

Sometimes, during what are called “slow news periods,” newspapers and magazines struggle to fill pages. In America at least, they solve this problem several ways: by printing what are generously called “puff pieces” (those heart-tugging stories of some woman, for example, who had a tearful reunion with saw her long-lost daughter after seeing her on Oprah), by covering tabloid trash stories (O.J., Gary Condit), or by recycling old items to try to get more mileage out of them (in Denver this would be Columbine, which the media cannot resist trotting out what has been the headline story once again for the past two weeks). We seem to be in one of those times nationally, even with the so-called “war on terrorism.” When George W. Bush choking on a pretzel is the big story of the week, you know it is a slow news time.

And in America, this is a painful time indeed to read the news. But thank goodness, this is America in 2002 and we have choices. The Internet is obviously one choice. But better is the satellite and remote printing capacity that allows us to sample some of the best publications from the nation and the world in “real time,” with more or less the same edition that runs locally. USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times are all examples of this type of publication.

And we have the Brits, something for which this week your humble columnist is more grateful. Two items - one exceptionally silly and one brilliantly done - pointed this out as they crossed my desk this week. Both came from Britain, and both showed that the best journalism practiced in the world today is not in America, but in London. “Cool Britannia,” the term coined by Prime Minister Tony Blair, may or may not exist in the streets of London, but it certainly exists indeed in the British press.

The first, of course, is the rather humorous spectacle of Prince “Harry Pothead,” as the tabloid press on Fleet Street has taken to calling the second oldest son of Prince Charles. It would seem young Master Pothead was caught and has admitted doing his best Bill Clinton “experimentation” impersonation, with the scandal more due to his age (16 at the time) than his scientific curiosity. Opinion is mixed: after all, if Mr. Blair can admit to puffing on the weed, surely Prince Harry can give it a go. But more than opinion as to whether the puffing Prince was wrong, many Brits must thoroughly enjoy the ongoing farce that the royal family has become. If anything, perhaps young Prince Harry might cultivate the image by buying a motorcycle, growing his hair out a bit, and seeking to get into much deeper trouble. It worked for Lady Diana, who seemed to get more popular the more boorish she became. There is no telling just how much fun the tabloids in London could have with a Prince right out of Easy Rider.

This brings up a point, and in a way explains why the British press is superior to ours. Note the type of publication that is all over the “Harry Pothead” story: it is the dreaded tabloids, which have never met a monarchy scandal they didn’t love. While we in America may look at the tabloids as silly and trashy, they serve a tremendous purpose in Britain by giving trashy news a place to exist and be profitable. This leaves the more serious news to the, well, more serious publications. Contrast this to America, where so-called “serious” news publications often lead with puff pieces, sports stories, and assorted tabloid nonsense. Just how many times was O.J. Simpson, for example, on the front cover of the Los Angeles Times during his trial? How many softhearted “human issue” stories do people mistake as “news” because they are on the front pages of, well, the “newspapers?” How many in America are conditioned to think - because again it is on the cover of the “news” - that sports is indeed the most important thing facing America today? Truly much of what passes as mainstream news in America would be properly relegated to the tabloids in Britain. And this is good: those who care about Prince Pothead and Gary Condit and Andrea Yates can read entire news publications full of such stories. This will leave the rest of the news to the better publications and the periodicals that are well worth the money spent on them.

Which leads to the second article, which ran in one of the aforementioned “serious” English publications. The January 5, 2002, issue of The Economist showed why this space has long considered that venerable publication to be the world’s best periodical. What makes the difference - and what sets it apart from so much fluff that runs here in the States - is what they do with a slow news week. Yes, the magazine had the usual assortment of excellent American and world news. But since it was a bit of a slow time, the January 5 issue also contained what has to be one of the more enjoyable and concise scientific exposes’ this writer has come across in years. The series - eight separate stories concerning newly emergent theories on how the universe was created - was a 12-page bonanza of interesting scientific exploration. It also - in contrast to articles this writer has seen in Time and U.S. News and World Report - did not seek to use science as some sort of bludgeon to “disprove” the existence of God. It instead did what a good news article should always do: presented a complex story in terms that were neither too simply nor too dry, while saving judgment and commentary for another place or publication. Extremely technical theories with which this author is only vaguely familiar were presented in a manner that was easy to read and breathtakingly informative. All in all, this one issue of The Economist trumps the annual collective output of the major American media for informative and entertaining serious news. And like the tabloids lancing of “Harry Pothead,” the expose’ on the universe’s beginnings is, in a word, fun; the type of writing and journalism that leaves the reader waiting for the next issue.

It is truly a shame the American press does not understand that it should not and cannot possibly be all things to all people. For this is the true problem of American press; it is also the reason why both the serious and tabloid papers in Britain are far better than any American counterpart. The Brits focus on one type of story and do it well. American journalists are too busy trying to decide if they want to be serious, silly, outrageous, like Oprah, or a combination of all these things. Like the jack-of-all-trades, they end up master of none. Bravo to the British tabloids and especially to The Economist for showing how it should be done.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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