America voted Bush back in, and we have no right to complain

Britain's media fell into despair at the US election result and lost sight of democracy in the gloom

It was not a coup that brought George Bush victory. It was not fear, or intimidation, or the militia at the polling stations that caused 59 million Americans to vote the president a second term. It was ordinary voters, making up their minds and casting their votes. Democracy's like that.

Back in the "old country", the media coverage was revealing and at times cause for concern. It is one thing to argue for a different result. It is quite another to let the disappointment turn that into lofty condemnation of those who dared to disagree. The so-called liberal establishment, or chattering classes, are pretty good at claiming the virtues of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and a fundamental belief in democracy. But when the latter produces a result we do not like the tolerance sometimes goes out of the window, and turns into contempt for those who "got it wrong".

The Times's leader suggested on Friday that the "manner of Mr Bush's victory should oblige those who have condescendingly dismissed this president as a political aberration to reconsider their position". It went on to say: "There is a danger though that they will instead decide to dismiss the American people as an aberration." The Daily Mirror did more than that. "How can 59,017,382 people be so DUMB?" inquired its front page headline on Thursday, going on to refer to the US election as a "disaster".

This is the approach that says, "People who disagree with me must be stupid", which smacks of arrogance and intolerance. The Mirror was so sure of itself that it spoke of a "bruising election that left America divided and millions worldwide fearful".

But was it bruising and ultimately divisive? When the concession came the candidates were gracious to each other. "Nobody could be found to declare the election stolen. It was fair and, given the sheer vastness of registering 120 million votes, undeniably impressive," said Simon Jenkins in The Times.

Those newspapers that wanted Bush to lose seemed unable to report the fact that he hadn't without going apocalyptic. The Guardian painted its second section cover black and placed just two words in the middle: "Oh, God". The feature inside was billed: "How George Bush's victory catapulted liberal Britain into collective depression". The piece gave little indication that liberal Britain felt very liberal about the right of 60 per cent of Americans to vote for their preferred candidate.

The Independent, too, made no secret of its disappointment in the result, using one of it characteristic poster front pages to show anti-Bush images beside the "Four more years" headline. The leader admitted that the result was "not to our liking" but said it had to be lived with. The most consistently anti-war paper said it contemplated the second Bush term with considerable trepidation.

The Daily Mail was not gung-ho about the Bush victory. It attributed it to the "march of the moral majority" - a theme flogged by their columnist Melanie Phillips the next day. But the Mail leader counselled caution in dealing with rogue states and sought second-term conciliation. The paper also ran a long anti-Bush piece by Max Hastings: "Why I fear he'll now invade Iran."

Was it the wishful thinking of liberal Britain that caused them such gloom? Certainly a mood was created that change was on the cards. The BBC had 188 staff in the US - David Dimbleby and Huw Edwards among them. Those of us who took a sleep-break on Tuesday night, after hearing correspondents saying that John Kerry was on his way to the White House, reconnected on Wednesday morning to hear gloomy discussion of whether and when Kerry was going to concede.

By then the gloom was palpable. Jon Snow, the broadcaster licensed to have attitude; Jim Naughtie, so well connected among East Coast chatterers; and the correspondents around the country - understandably weary after the long haul - found it hard to disguise their feelings. The Today programme, Breakfast on 5, and much of the TV coverage had a downbeat tone.

They had told us that we might, and then probably would, get a change of president. They raised our hopes. We didn't get that change. But calling half the American electorate dumb neither explains the result nor reflects well on the liberality of the depressed.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

Comments