“Blairism” has become one of the reference points in European political
discussion. Consequently, foreign correspondents in London follow Tony Blair’s
policies with deep interest. But what is it like to cover a country like Britain
for a correspondent’s home audience? We asked the Danish correspondent Bente
Bundgaard to tell us. She works for the daily Information, a quality
newspaper renowned for its excellent foreign coverage.
The traditional mainstay of foreign reporting has always been the three C's - Crisis, Catastrophes and Curiosities. Reporting on Great Britain offers ample opportunities for all three.
When I first came to Britain three years ago I looked forward to covering a country - not a bureaucracy as I had been doing in my former posting, Brussels. So far, Britain has lived up to my expectations. There is constant interest abroad in the British way of life, but reporting from here has its difficult aspects.
Foreign correspondents always joke about the three C's. The saying goes that those are pretty much the only things than can attract the attention of notoriously picky foreign editors. So everything you do should fit into one of the three categories – crisis, catastrophes or curiosities. In Britain I find that they often overlap.
That is the case, for instance, with the situation in the Conservative Party. It is clearly in crisis after the defeat to New Labour in 1997, some would say that a number of the persons and policies are pure catastrophies, and the infighting is frankly quite curious at times.
To a foreign correspondent, William Hague's travails offer endless fascination and inspiration. Not only his – albeit follicly challenged – youth, his broad Yorkshire accent, his seemingly unending struggles to keep his party happy, let alone united, but even his policies have made him a recurrent figure in British political stories aimed at a foreign audience.
And if William Hague is not enough, there is always Margaret Thatcher. From the Internet auction of one of her sleek, black handbags over her very public support for the Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet to her increasingly vociferous anti-EU pronunciations she truly is a great source of stories. It is as if the world cannot really get enough of Maggie. She was around for so long, and she epitomised Britain to such an extent, that she and the country became almost synonymous. And it seems that she still speaks for large sections of the British population.
But there are other examples of crisis in Britain that retain foreign interest. For example the state of the transport system. From railways that either run late or not at all to an impossibly overcrowded London Tube, British transport these days is almost a byword for crisis. Or should that be catastrophe? Hatfield and Paddington were true disasters and brought home to the world that Britain has serious problems, probably due to underfunding over a long stretch of time.
Britain seems to have a culture of "don't fix it till it's broke" which on the one hand contributes to keeping public expenditure and thus taxes low, but on the other hand mean that when things finally do break, the disruption becomes much more severe than it has to be.
Problems also mar the British health service. According to MORI, the state of the NHS and the country's hospitals is the one issue that most Britons think of when they are asked about the most important problem facing Britain right now.
Mind you, it is not as if everybody else is doing better at keeping their populations fit and healthy. The WHO's league table of health services places Britain at number 18 - ahead of, among many others, my own country, Denmark, and Sweden.
To a certain degree the problems that face tax-funded health systems in different countries are similar, and the way in which New Labour has tried to cope with the NHS offers advice and inspiration for others. At times also lessons in how not to do things.
The same goes for the British education system. The conflicts over teacher pay, the national curriculum, the three R’s and sink schools have attracted a lot of interest abroad.
As to the issues which mainly fall in the "curiosities" category there is certainly no dearth of ideas. Let me just mention the Royal Family. For an audience like my own which has its own Royals, the lifestyle and dare I say excesses of the British Queen and her family are quite simply astounding.
Generally, the celebrity culture in Britain is a source of huge interest abroad – society figures such as Posh Spice and David Beckham are known all over the world, and not just for Posh's singing prowess and Beckham's way with footballs. The celebrity culture seems to have set itself in perpetual motion with story upon story about this or that well-known person. It does not matter what they do – as long as they do something. Curious, indeed.
The best example, however, of the coming together of the three C's in Britain is, I think, the relationship with the European Union.
It is forever fraught, it seems. At least if one believes the British press, there is always some continental rascal or other who is out to get Britain. So the rhetoric is always combative. Either Britain "wins" or it "loses" in a zero-sum game.
The vilest comments seem to be reserved for those EU initiatives that will give Britons more rights. Workers’ consultation rights, better provision for maternity leave, more equality in the workplace – all are presented as invidious onslaughts on the sacred British way of life.
The latest debate about a kind of European bill of rights is anathema to many Britons. What do those Europeans think they are doing coming here and improving our citizens's rights? How dare they!
EU legislation gets mixed receptions in other countries, too. The Danes, for instance, don't much like EU labour market legislation either. But that is because the Danes have a tradition of negotiated solutions to labour market issues – not legislation – that is dear to them. In Britain it is different. It seems that Britons just don't like improvements to their daily lives if they come from across the English Channel.
The same kind of attitude surrounded the incorporation into British law of the European Human Rights Convention – which is not an EU matter. Nevertheless, it came from "the continent" as the rest of Europe is called here, and got the expected treatment. There was no end to the horrors that would befall Britain if these alien, European ideas were adopted.
The country sometimes gives me the impression of being dragged kicking and screaming further into modernity. The labour market has to stay as it was, riven by an unsurmountable divide between bosses and workers. The notion of cooperation is almost an insult. Citizen's rights have to stay as ill defined as they were at the time of King John and the Magna Carta. Railways have to stay positively Victorian. Hospitals likewise. And the class system – don’t touch it, it's ours!
Britain, on the other hand, has no problem in adopting ideas and policies from the other direction. Numerous US initiatives have been incorporated into Britain over the years – the working families' tax credit is just one example that New Labour has brought in.
These initiatives don't seem to invite the same kind of questioning over the British way of life that European ones do. I guess this is an example of the "special relationship" Britain feels with the US. That is one of the very biggest issues facing the country in the coming years – can Britain continue this relationship or will it eventually have to realign itself and get closer to "the continent"?
This will be one of the issues that foreign correspondents here will be following closely, I'm sure.
So it is not particularly difficult for a foreign correspondent here to get ideas and find things to write about. The problem is rather getting the stories researched.
Foreign media has very little access here. As a public information officer once told a television colleague of mine, we are "no vote media" and therefore completely uninteresting seen from the administration's point of view.
Why bother showing a German, Dutch or Danish colleague around or helping out with information when what counts is really the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Guardian?
I'm exaggerating – helpful people do exist here – but not many.
Once in a while foreign correspondents are invited to join a briefing in a damp dungeon in Downing Street, where an information officer will explain Britain's position on this, that or the other. Sometimes we even get to be sneered at by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's spokesman. But British colleagues tell me that he also sneers at them, so no discrimination there, then.
We face the same problems as do British journalists with spin. To entangle the government's pronouncements – especially when they involve money – can be quite a task. Media here has divulged how New Labour – and their conservative predecessors, too, I'm sure – massages the message. The same money is presented several times as if the sums were new – new accounting practices are adopted to make the sums appear bigger – less positive stories are hidden in the small print and drowned in attention-hogging PR-stunts.
I don't want to engage in Schadenfreude, but it is actually quite nice to see that the spin and control-freakery seem to have backfired. People are fed up with it. But perhaps the damage has been done. There seems to be a real risk that people here have become so cynical about politics that a kind of resigned apathy is setting in.
The test will come at the next election – presumably in May next year. Then we will see how the British really rate New Labour and all its works.
My colleagues in the foreign press and I will be watching closely.
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