Media: The British empire of editors: Fleet Street's finest have invaded New York. Peter Pringle listens as they put their case

Click to follow
AMERICAN journalists are in a tizzy about the number of British people in senior positions on US magazines, such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, the New Republic and the New Yorker.

They talk disparagingly about 'Fleet Street ethics', which they describe as 'carrying water for friends and taking revenge on enemies'. They whisper about British levels of malice and inaccuracy, which they fear will lower the tone of their own very upright reporting. Some imagine a total takeover of American journalism - a sort of recolonisation.

It all came to a head last week when four expatriate British journalists were invited to defend and explain themselves, under the title 'The British Are Coming', before a room full of critics from the Columbia Journalism Review, the magazine of the school of journalism at Columbia University, New York.

The four were: Harold Evans, who used to edit the Sunday Times, was the first editor of Conde-Nast's Traveler magazine and now heads Random House; Anthea Disney, late of the Daily Mail and now editor of TV Guide; Christopher Hitchens, of Vanity Fair and the Nation; and John O'Sullivan, editor of the conservative National Review.

Absent for a variety of personal reasons, and not because they weren't wanted, were Andrew Sullivan, editor of the New Republic; Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker; and that magazine's 'Talk of the Town' editor, Alexander Chancellor.

The New York Times reported, tongue in cheek, that the panel was 'just about as inspiring a thing a body could ever hope to see . . . with a lot of aplomb and even panache'. But the format was a disaster. The participants were each asked to say a few words about themselves and the differences between British and American journalism, leaving time only for a few questions. There never was a grilling.

The panel repeated over and over that libel laws and the Official Secrets Act restrict the reporting of British journalists, while Americans can always find out much more but do not use their information as skilfully, in either writing or presentation.

Americans are good at systems, said Evans, while the British are good at being eccentric. Americans are better at reporting, admitted Disney. The panel agreed that American journalists take themselves far too seriously and are obsessed with something called 'objectivity'. 'Nothing could be more antithetical to journalism than the non-judgemental ear,' observed Hitchens. In the end, the panel concluded, the American product, while exhaustively reported and endlessly fact-checked, can be - well, frankly, boring.

On the other hand, each member of the panel seemed happy to be in the United States rather than in England. Disney said she liked the place so much that she became a US citizen, which warmed up a few members of the rather frigid audience.

Anyone who inquires into the economic and literary state of British magazines, and the possibility of getting good jobs on them, can see why these people were tempted to join the journalists' brain drain - but none of the fearless inquirers of the CJR explored that simple explanation.

One questioner, a New York Times reporter, tried to get the panel going on the idea that American publishers, seeking to upgrade their demographics, were hiring funnily dressed, articulate, classy British editors and writers. But the panel evidently considered such thoughts were boring, too. They didn't pick up on them.

O'Sullivan suggested that the 'British invasion' was pure coincidence - they had not all arrived at the same time, but over a 15-year period.

American publishers and editors recognise that the best and the brightest from Britain can always add something - just as British doctors, scientists and teachers contribute to American medicine, science and education. It has been going on for years.

In the Seventies, American journalists thought it was wonderful. The country was knee-deep in the military quagmire and national shame of Vietnam, and sharp British writers were able to counsel that a feeling of 'end of empire' was good for the soul. Kicking a government when it was down was what national rehabilitation was all about - I'm thinking of Alexander Cockburn's pithy political essays in the Village Voice, William Shawcross's book Sideshow about Kissinger and Cambodia, Emma Rothschild's critique of the American car industry.

The editors who mattered - Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein at the New York Review of Books, Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, Clay Felker at New York magazine, Victor Navasky at the Nation - particularly praised the investigative journalism of the Sunday Times Insight team under Evans's editorship.

The team also produced 'instant books', the most successful of which was American Melodrama, an account of the 1968 US presidential election. It is still quoted as a great work by Washington's political reporters.

So long as these British journalists kept their place - that is to say, appeared every so often in magazines, wrote book reviews and even books - their eccentricities could be tolerated - even, in the case of Cockburn's socialism, encouraged. They were never considered a threat.

To have Tina Brown rescue Vanity Fair from the brink of extinction and make it a wildly successful product was only to be admired. But to have Tina Brown as editor of the New Yorker - and then to have another British journalist edit the 'Talk of the Town' column - was a frontal assault on a great American literary institution.

This could not be tolerated, at least not by the Columbia Journalism Review. The latest issue has a five-page article conceding that Ms Brown, after six months in the chair, has made the New Yorker the most talked-about magazine in the United States and increased its sales. 'But she has attained these goals at a cost - the loss of the magazine's special role as the torchbearer for a uniquely American (and very unBritish) brand of civility and decency.'

Oh dear, how terribly vulgar of her.