All traditions began somewhere in history as innovations. Perhaps that is how the British should view the appalling behaviour of The New York Times towards Britain since the death of the Queen. Within hours of the news breaking, the NYT’s opinion page was running a screed from an academic saying the late monarch had helped to cover up the bloody history of colonialism, and so on.
One of my earliest memories as a journalist is hearing a senior hack in the pub describing the New York Times as the world’s worst newspaper. Young and inexperienced, I found this denunciation shocking. Wasn’t the NYT one of the greatest newspapers in the world? As I discovered when I started to read it, picking up an edition occasionally from an international press stand, my more experienced colleague was correct. There was good writing in it, of course, but the opinion pages too often were overburdened with sanctimonious, hectoring drivel.
But the people who ran the NYT were not idiots. They realised that the birth of the internet presented an opportunity. There was an untapped global market for sanctimonious, hectoring drivel. No longer would potential readers have to seek out a paper copy of the NYT. It was now available at the click of a button and in real time. And, when the payment infrastructure developed sufficiently, for the price of a monthly or annual subscription.
The NYT now has more than 8m paying subscribers, and more than 1m subscriptions sold outside the US. The company is aiming to have 2m subscriptions sold annually outside the US by 2025. By virtue of it being an English language publication, a big target market for the NYT is Britain.
Doesn’t that mean the NYT should strive to be at least moderately respectful to Britain, if it wants subscribers here?
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No, quite the opposite. This is the internet. The niche, paying market the NYT wants in Britain is Britons who can’t stand Britain. There is quite a bit of revenue to be made here. Although the NYT is in competition with The Guardian, which is free to read, The Guardian has deep roots in Manchester and English life and doesn’t hate Britain, I think. The Guardian team just hates much of what goes on in Britain, but wants to change Britain so that it is more like what the Guardian thinks it should be. Incidentally, this is a perennially futile mission doomed to failure, because of Britain’s voters.
To make money here the NYT must appeal to those Britons who think the Guardian is way too soft on Britain.
The NYT approach is ruthless and commercially clever. The publisher’s “dystopian UK is doomed” attack pieces appear to be pushed and marketed to go viral, to attract attention and amuse and impress those bitter souls here who get a thrill from seeing other people in this country on social media express annoyance or bewilderment at the horrible articles. Sometimes the writers the NYT uses to assault Britain are, by necessity, not even household names in their own households. If you want something really outlandish, ahistorical, deranged, even, you might have to get it written by a resting London-based academic with a PhD in applied anti-colonialism who thinks the problem with Stalinism is that the old boy didn’t go far enough in his purges.
This is why the NYT does it. To sell subscriptions. The rudeness and lack of manners is a deliberate marketing ploy.
There is a cost to America in this deliberate fostering of alienation, although the cost might be considered a small one and perhaps hardly anyone there will care. But the NYT’s nastiness is one small element of America’s larger image problem, a growing problem I know worries thoughtful American friends and readers of this newsletter. If those of us who like the US and hold it in such great affection, and want it to lead the West, come to associate it primarily with globalised ghastly internet culture, Donald Trump’s antics, twisted news outlets hating Britain, and lucky celebrities making tell-all emotionally incontinent poor little me in my Californian mansion Netflix documentaries, then the special relationship will be eroded.
In contrast, President Biden’s remarks and his conduct following the death of the Queen have been exemplary, offering considerable grounds for hope. The Queen’s funeral, expected to be held on Monday 19 September, will be an extraordinary international gathering, with the mourning led by her successor.
God save the King!
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