British 'teabags' in hot water

New York literati are having an attack of self-righteousness, writes John Carlin, and pointing the finger at cheeky English editors

John Carlin
Saturday 14 September 1996 23:02

The British are crass, tasteless and without shame. Americans are refined, reticent and restrained.

At any rate, that is the view of New York's established intellectual elite as they survey the damage done to American standards, morals and norms by Britain's barbaric transatlantic invaders, whom they have dubbed "teabags".

The Nineties have turned out to be a bitter period for New York's indigenous literati. One by one the citadels of editorial power have been falling to the hordes of Albion and - until very recently - the locals' hapless response has been to look on, bleating, confused, stewing with resentment.

Leading the hooligan host has been Harry Evans, still regarded, in Britain, as setting the standard for quality journalism when he edited the Sunday Times. Rupert Murdoch moved him to the Times, only to sack him in 1982. Through his book, Good Times, Bad Times, he made a name for himself as a scourge of Mr Murdoch and a champion of journalistic principle. Then Mr Evans descended on America, where he is being portrayed by the journalistic establishment these days as a low-grade tabloid Yahoo, and seized for himself that most coveted New York jewel, the Random House publishing empire.

Alongside Mr Evans, at the head of the rampaging British mobs, has been his formidable wife, Tina Brown, who first ransacked Vanity Fair and then, impatient for more booty, stormed the venerable, illustrious New Yorker.

Anna Wintour grabbed Vogue; Liz Tilberis took Harper's Bazaar; and, only last week, Glenda Bailey was spotted carousing in Manhattan nightclubs, celebrating the publication of her first issue at the helm of the American Marie Claire. In the generals' wake have come the unruly British foot- soldiers, imposing their stamp on the literary cocktail circuit and usurping assistant editorships from the tremulous New York natives.

Tremulous and amazed, for what they have discovered is that the British - revealing a keener understanding of American popular culture than themselves, less prissy in their notions of journalistic decorum - are selling more magazines than they used to. But now, at long last, there are murmurings of rebellion in the air, seeds of uprising. A clamour has risen: "Harry and Tina have gone too far!"

What uncorked the years of bottled-up frustration was the news 10 days ago of a deal that Mr Evans had made with Dick Morris, the White House election strategist - President Clinton's Rasputin, the press called him - who resigned in disgrace after a tabloid newspaper reported that he had been consorting with a prostitute. Mr Evans, undeterred by the outrage, promptly signed a $2.5m (pounds 1.6m) book deal with Mr Morris, the news reports said. Then he and Ms Brown invited Mr Morris and his remarkably understanding wife, Eileen McGann, to lunch at their apartment. And then, on Thursday last week, Ms Brown invited Mr Morris to the offices of the New Yorker to address a select group of staff and advertisers on the subjects of politics and ethics.

Maureen Dowd, a celebrated columnist at the New York Times, fired the first volley. "Mr Morris and Ms McGann found a felicitous match in Mr Evans and his wife, Tina Brown," Ms Dowd snarled. "We live in a time when infamy sells... There is no honour, no reticence, no loyalty."

The cry of outraged innocence was picked up by newspapers the length and breadth of America. The Rocky Mountain News, identifying Mr Evans as a "co-conspirator" of the philandering Mr Morris, piously lamented that "once there was a human emotion called shame".

In New York last week a number of interviews behind enemy lines revealed similar depths of vitriol, but also fear. One New Yorker insider, a veteran at the magazine who fondly remembers the high ethics and pastoral placidity that reigned before La Brown burst on the scene, characterised his editor as "a woman of unrestrained crassness", her husband as "a cheap promoter, a hustler". "I don't know anybody in letters or journalism who thinks of either of them as anything other than downmarket and shameless," the New Yorker employee said.

A nationally distinguished political commentator at another New York magazine had words no less harsh, but he asked not to be quoted by name because he said he was hoping a piece of his might run early next year in the New Yorker. "What these Brits bring," he said, "is a world-weary post-modern detachment and a wickedly cynical sense of humour. They are polluting American journalism with their urbane amorality."

Mr Evans, in a cheerfully candid on-the-record interview last week, responded to his detractors in the Morris affair, accusing them first of all of jumping to unseemly conclusions about the timing of his intervention. It turned out that he had clinched the book deal long before the story about the call-girl came out or, as he put it, "I signed this contract before a toe had been sucked."

But what about the reports of his lunch with the fallen Morris? Were they true? "Yes. And he brought his wife and I asked mine to come along. How amazingly intolerant people are!" he said, warming to his theme when asked to comment on the charge that he and his fellow intruders from Britain were polluting the landscape of American letters.

"What you find in America is a very restrictive range of opinion. And you find a self-righteous morality, exemplified historically by the Salem witch-burnings and McCarthyism. They want to control other people's lives. For example, Maureen Dowd telling Eileen McGann she should have left her husband. She knows nothing but she interferes, from an implied position of superior morality.

"One encounters in America this self-righteousness, this sanctimoniousness - sanctimoniousness is the best word to describe it. England and France are much freer in this regard."

While some Americans in the New York literary set might be persuaded grudgingly to agree with Mr Evans's analysis, even his admirers are unable quite to shake off the idea that he is a purveyor of low-brow merchandise. "We feel flummoxed and outflanked," said Michael Hirschorn, editor of New York magazine. "The British editors have been faster than the Americans to understand the basic crassness of American taste. This Morris business: it took a Brit to understand how to exploit it."

David Hirschey, deputy editor of Esquire, owned to viewing Mr Evans and Ms Brown with a certain awe, mixed with a degree of amused horror. "We feel obliged to bestow substance, meaning, a higher truth on our stories. They are happy just to be clever, to be cheeky - a word most American editors don't know the meaning of. Harry Evans has proven that you can't underestimate the taste of the American public, and he's done it with wit and charm and lots of breakfasts at the Royalton."

The restaurant at the Royalton, a self-consciously camp, immensely pretentious hotel in mid-town Manhattan, is the temple of the British editorial classes. Here last Wednesday Tina Brown, in collaboration with the US branch of the British Labour Party, hosted a breakfast for John Prescott. Mr Evans played the role of unofficial press secretary, introducing the deputy Labour leader as "the Ernest Bevin of the modern movement". Mr Prescott bluffly admitted during question time that Mr Evans had warned him before the breakfast that reporters would be present and he should not "venture any criticism" of Tony Blair.

All of which, added to the fawning Mr Evans and wife lavished on Mr Blair during a trip he made to America earlier this year, has fuelled (possibly wishful) rumours in New York that Mr Evans might be planning a return to Britain, possibly to become chairman of the Arts Council under a future Labour government.

Was there any truth to the rumour? "Oh, I've heard that one too," Mr Evans said. "My answer is that I would be flattered, but I consider it unlikely."

Droll and comfortable with himself as Mr Evans appears in public, some of his friends say he has been shaken by the wave of indignation unleashed by news reports of his relations with Dick Morris. They say that were he to receive a flattering offer back in Britain, he might be tempted to return. After all, back home he is regarded by his peers as a rock of journalistic integrity. In America, whose culture he has manifestly understood but cannot wholeheartedly embrace, he has come to be regarded as an unprincipled opportunist - in much the same way, in other words, that he regards his nemesis, Rupert Murdoch.

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