I wondered what you Brits have to say about your media's coverage of His Highness?
The British press's Obama complex
Kenneth P. Vogel â Sat Sep 26, 7:43 pm ET
After the latest weekâs worth of British press reports that thereâs no love lost in the White House for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, even his one-on-one meeting Friday with President Obama only provided the papers across the pond with a reason for another round of stories.
Since Obama burst onto the international scene last year, newspapers in the United Kingdom have spilled gallons of ink on his perceived slights of British leaders, and especially Brown.
To be sure, the âSpecial Relationshipâ between the U.S. and the U.K. has long been a favorite topic for the notoriously sensational British papers, but interest seems to have spiked since Obamaâs 2008 campaign world tour swung through London for visits with top British leaders.
The local press claimed that Obama confided in aides that while he found former Prime Minister Tony Blair impressive, he thought Brown was boring, and dismissed Tory leader David Cameron as âa lightweight.â
While Obamaâs predecessor George W. Bush went to great lengths to highlight his affection for Blair â earning the president generally favorable treatment, while the prime minister was frequently caricatured as the Americanâs poodle â the British press breathlessly reported on an array of alleged slights of Brown during Obamaâs first 100 days as president.
Though the does-Obama-like-us-or-not storyline adds little to the public debate, expect to see more of it in British media for at least until the elections there in May, said Scott Lucas, a former American journalist who moved to the U.K. in 1984 and is a professor at the University of Birmingham specializing in U.S. and British foreign policy.
Lucas, who maintains a blog about U.S. foreign policy, conceded that stories about Obamaâs feelings towards British leaders are hot since Obama is immensely popular in Western Europe, while Brown, a favorite punching bag for the British press, is lagging in U.K. polls and is expected to be trounced by Cameronâs Tory Party in next Mayâs election.
After Obama took office, the papers pounced in February when Obama returned to the British government a bust of legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which Bush had displayed in the Oval Office. The Telegraph reported that âBarack Obama has sent Sir Winston Churchill packing and pulse rates soaring among anxious British diplomats.â
When Brown visited in March, he gave Obama a pen holder carved from the wood of the 19th century British warship HMS President and a first-edition of Sir Martin Gilbertâs seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Obama reciprocated with 25 DVDs of American movie classics â âa gift about as exciting as a pair of socks,â whined a Daily Mail columnist.
Thatâs to say nothing of the offense taken by the perceived inequity between the Obamasâ and Brownsâ gifts to each othersâ kids.
Brown's wife Sarah gave Obamaâs daughters Sasha and Malia dresses and matching necklaces from a trendy U.K. store and a selection of books by British authors, while First Lady Michelle Obama responded with toy models of Marine One for the Brownâs two little boys âWhile Sarah Brown had spent time choosing gifts for the Obama girls, Michelle had clearly sent an aide to the White House gift shop at the last moment,â asserted a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, who declared the Obamaâs reception of the Browns âappallingâ and ârudeness personifiedâ and concluded âAll in all, (Obama) doesnât think much of us.â
Though White House aides brushed off the British analyses as ridiculous, they did release an unusually-detailed readout of Obamaâs post-visittelephone call to Brown, in which the President again expressed gratitude for the gifts and said he put the pen holder on his Oval Office desk and had put the Churchill biography in his private study.
âIt is really lazy journalism,â Lucas said, because it misses real tensions between the two nations, including divergent strategies on stabilizing Afghanistan and the diminishing importance of bilateral relationships.
But with Brown and Obama both spending this week with other international leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, the British press has a perfect backdrop for a new round of stories on the Obama-Brown relationshipâand they did not disappoint.
With the two leaders in New York earlier in the week juggling private meetings and public remarks on major issues from climate change to Middle East peace, British papers reported Wednesday that the White House had "snubbed" Brown by refusing five separate requests over the course of five days for one-on-one talks, even as Obama held bilateral meetings in New York with Chinese president Hu Jintao, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, and Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama.
The British press traveling with Brown reportedly dubbed the story âSnubgate,â and some reports attributed Obamaâs purported displeasure to the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison. The Daily Telegraph asserted the snubs âappeared to have left âthe special relationshipâ at its lowest ebb for nearly 20 years.â
And it didnât help things when Brownâs press office revealed that the two men got to spend between 10 and 15 minutes together Thursday â as they walked through the kitchens of the United Nationâs headquarters.
The Independentâs headline blared âBrown's attempts to meet star of the show end in the kitchen.â The Daily Mail called it âa bizarre 'kitchen summit',â while The Daily Mirror reported that âthe meeting raised fears the President was trying to downgrade the special relationship with Britain as other world leaders had formal meetings with him.â
The Telegraph questioned the duration of the walk-and-talk, asserting âthe claim raised the question of how the pair managed to spend so long in a room UN staff said was no more than a 50 yards long,â though the story also noted that Obama patted Brown on the back as the two left a meeting of the Security Council together.
Later Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs flatly rejected questions about the alleged snubs and chided the American reporters who asked about their British colleaguesâ reports to âStop reading those London tabloids.â
âThe notion that there remains anything other than a special relationship between the two countries is silly and absurd,â Gibbs said, calling the claims âa media-generated bunch of silliness.â
Stories about the special relationship, though, have been a staple of British media since the Cold War and have shaped the way Brits see the world, said Nicholas Cull, a U.K. native who directs the masters program in public diplomacy at the University of Southern California.
âBritish people come here and theyâre surprised that America has special relationships with a lot of countries,â he said. âItâs rather like finding out that youâre father is a bigamist. I found it to be a very strange experience to find that the story that Iâd heard growing up wasnât necessarily so.â
After the two heads of state finally had their formal bilateral meeting, a 30-minute sit-down in a side room at the G-20 leaders' summit which came after they appeared side-by-side at a press conference condemning recently revealed Iranian uranium enrichment activities, Brown lashed out at the British press, accusing them of an âobsessionâ with the special relationship and urging them to focus on âbig issuesâ and to learn how âdiplomacy really works.â
âI have been meeting the President all week and I am not going to get into this game," he said. âWe have talked about Iran, we have talked about Afghanistan for the third time this week and we have talked about the global economic crisis."
The London Times, in a story headlined âSuccess at last: Brown enjoys private meeting with Obama at G20,â asserted that âthe meeting was arranged after Mr. Brown was humiliated when his unsuccessful attempts to fix a private encounter with the President were exposed.â