Clinton braves the hostility of British press: Americans outraged by 'tabloid sensationalism'

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE distinguished American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr came to London recently to deliver a lecture, among those waiting to greet him was Bruce Gornick, the chairman of Democratic Americans Abroad. Mr Gornick has lived in Britain for more than 30 years. 'I kind of expected him to say, 'Hello, how are you?' ' Mr Gornick said. 'But his first words were: 'The British press are really hard on President Clinton. Why?' '

Bill Clinton may well have asked himself the same question when he arrived in Britain yesterday. He may even be tempted to ask John Major, with whom he is due to have lunch; or the dons he hopes to meet on his nostalgic visit to Oxford University where he had been a Rhodes Scholar in the 1960s. A ready answer may not be forthcoming.

For several weeks, the principal American newspapers have failed to match the zeal with which much of the British press has investigated the President's past extramarital sex life, including Paula Jones's allegations that Mr Clinton sexually harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas.

The Sunday Times criticised Mr Clinton's 'almost psychotic inability to control his zipper'. The Sunday Telegraph's Washington man boasted about his paper 'being pretty tough on Clinton'. Most of the tabloids joined in, though the Mirror investigated Mrs Jones's background and concluded that she had 'graduated in just two subjects from her high school in Arkansas - men and money'.

The American press has been circumspect, almost to the point of silence. One Washington Post reporter became so incensed by his editors' timidity that he caused a scene and was suspended for two weeks.

The contrast has prompted a debate. The Wall Street Journal (which is no admirer of the President) editorialised about the 'respectable' (American) press's lack of appetite. The liberal Washington Post treated its readers to some British headlines: 'I fear for my life, says Clinton blonde', 'Clinton wore my nighty', and 'Bill kissed his girl as Hillary was fondled by lover, says aide'.

The debate already seems to have produced more American steam than Mrs Jones's lawsuit against Mr Clinton for allegedly dropping his trousers and proposing oral sex.

R W Apple, head of the Washington bureau of the New York Times, seethed: 'I resent being lectured at by the more sensational elements of the British press and having our news media polluted by British and Australian journalists and their shabby standards.'

Are Britain's right-wing papers out to 'get' Mr Clinton because he is a Democrat?

At the US Embassy in London, an official would only say: 'I ask myself the same question.' But Mr Gornick believes the answer is yes. Many of the 2,000 members of American Democrats Abroad, especially recent arrivals in Britain, were 'shocked' by the press attacks, he said. Another American, Gary McDowell, who lectures in US studies at the University of London, finds nothing to criticise in the British press, and claims a pro-Clinton bias in influential American newspapers.

Yet there is no denying the animus behind such headlines as 'He looked like a radical who had lied his way into the White House' (Sunday Telegraph), 'Clinton's lover and pounds 40,000 hush money' (News of the World), and 'Is he simply greedy?' (Times).

American press enthusiasm for Mrs Jones may have been dampened by criticisms of their zealous reporting of the Whitewater Affair, the Clinton land deal that took place in Arkansas 15 years ago and surfaced during the Clinton presidential election campaign in 1992. Among these critics is Dr Schlesinger, who last month denounced even the august New York Times for devoting lead editorials to Whitewater 'as if this were the most urgent issue facing the nation'.

Mainstream American newspapers also suspect that the 'feeding frenzy' over the sex allegations has been inspired, if not orchestrated, by ultra right-wing American individuals and organisations. White House staff recently produced a 'media food chain' chart, purporting to show how anti-Clinton delicacies are spooned into the British tabloids and the right-wing American press, both including papers owned by Rupert Murdoch. The chart was published by the Washington Post, an organ famous for its aggressive Watergate reporting.

Leading the British pack is Murdoch's Sunday Times. But the British journalist singled out for American media attention has been Ambrose Evans- Pritchard of the Sunday Telegraph. Last January, Mr Evans- Pritchard disclosed that Sally Perdue, a former 'Miss Arkansas', who claimed to have had an affair with Mr Clinton in 1983, had been threatened with violence for talking about it. The Wall Street Journal and the far-right Washington Times repeated some of the allegations, but the reaction of the mainstream press remained subdued. This caused the Journal to suspect that 'the respectable (US) press is spending too much time adjudicating what the reader has a right to know.'

Interviewed by the Washington Post, Mr Evans-Pritchard described Mr Clinton as 'a phony'. He said: 'We don't worry about the sex stuff and the character stuff; we just go ahead. We consider this all fair game.' But some British journalists in Washington are worried about their newspapers' hounding of Mr Clinton as a result of an ideological agenda set in London. A reporter for one of Mr Murdoch's papers complained to a Washington-based colleague that London editors had rewritten his copy to give it an anti-Clinton twist.

On the other hand, said Brian Winston, professor of Journalism Studies at Cardiff University, who has lived in the US: 'The techniques British journalists used in the Jones affair are an American invention. The Americans lost them through lack of competition.'