Rob Brown's column

`The mainstream press never wanted to come down hard on Clinton because they saw him as a friend after years of conservatism.'

The producers of America's most scurrilous supermarket tabloids are feeling mighty proud of themselves. They were first to delve into Bill Clinton's sex life, a subject broadsheets such as the New York Times were reticent about exploring until last week, when the story detonated with Watergate-like intensity.

The fall-out was painful for some. An inquest was ordered at Newsweek to find out why the senior editors of this weekly news-magazine sat on the story, which later broke in its sister publication, the Washington Post. One explanation offered by Newsweek staffers was that their bosses were unnerved by the enormity of the charges and the gravity of an obstruction- of-justice investigation involving the President.

Alec Kaczeski, publisher of a US press monitoring magazine, offers this explanation: "The mainstream press never wanted to come down hard on Clinton because they saw him as a friend after years of conservatism. If they had, he might not be here now." He added: "America is different to Britain - there is this intrinsic respect for the office of President that was once accorded to the Royal Family in Britain."

The tabloids on this side of the Atlantic have revelled in shaking the House of Windsor to its foundations over sex scandals, but Britain's broadsheets only waded in when they could portray the breakdown in the relationship between Charles and Diana as a constitutional crisis. Then, with few exceptions, they rejoiced in peddling the same prurient details as their down-market counterparts. On both sides of the Atlantic, it's a tab tab tab tab world!

Jim Hogshire certainly believes so. He has written a book billed as an insider's look at the supermarket tabloids.

Its thesis is slightly more serious than its title - Grossed-Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient! - suggests. Hogshire challenges the smug assumption in some quarters that titles such as The Star, National Enquirer and Weekly World News exert no real influence. Tabloids, he points out, not only break many of the stories that broadsheets belatedly follow up, but "have reshaped the design and content of the so-called respectable media".

This process is so advanced in Britain that the term "broadloid" was coined to describe newspapers still largely printed in broadsheet format which have long been suffused (or, as some would have it, infected) by tabloid values. Whether the rise of the broadloids represents "dumbing down" or the belated democratisation of Britain's class-bound society is a ripe subject for sociologists and researchers in media studies.

What interests me more is Kaczeski's claim that, in their reluctance to cast the first stone at Clinton, the American mainstream press displayed some sort of immaturity. Or, as he puts it: "The (American) newspapers will have to get over that fawning attitude to the leader before they can really claim to have grown up." This is about as profound an observation as that uttered by the infamous Gennifer Flowers last week: "You'd think the boy would learn."

The truth is we shall all grow up, and get on with each other a lot better, when we learn that the key to the conduct and character of most people, whatever their rank in society, lies in their upbringing. Journalists could certainly learn from the Jesuits, who long ago cottoned on to the notion that boyhood experiences can have in moulding every man.

None of us need to dabble far into amateur psychology to realise that Bill Clinton's ambivalent attitude to women, like his inordinate desire for power, both stem largely from what he endured in his Arkansas home at the most influential stage in his life. His stepfather beat up his mother, forcing the young Bill at times to flee in horror from the violence. He ran all the way to the White House to try to erase the feeling of powerlessness he felt then. If, as alleged, he is inclined to drop his trousers and demand sex from, say, a young White House intern, the most powerful man in the Western world is unwittingly identifying with his abusive stepfather.

Yet, when it comes to analysing the behaviour of powerful men (and women), political writers rarely do what decent biographers automatically do: search for clues to their character and conduct in their upbringing. As Paul Routledge reminds us in his explosive biography of Gordon Brown, the burning desire of this brooding Scotsman to make it into Number 10 (rather than just 11) Downing Street can be partly explained by a questionable experiment conducted in some Fife schools in the late Sixties, which resulted in a young son of the manse being pitched into the bohemian atmosphere of Edinburgh University at the tender age of 16.

In an age when political debate on both sides of the Atlantic revolves around personalities rather than policies, the least the media can do is strive to offer a more sophisticated analysis of political personalities.

Personally, I'd rather the media broadened its agenda by examining the exercise of power in every sphere of life. As the American political philosopher Lance de Haven-Smith wrote: "Modern society is a web of power, control, status, domination, deprivation and subjugation ... Each person is at one moment a victim, at another moment a victimizer." That last bit should ring true in the minds of some freshly deposed (and previously fearsome) London newspaper executives this morning.

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