Does the Tar-Spangled Banner Wave Over a Nation That Hates Britain?

This time last week, all of the United Kingdom seemed to be up in arms because Obama called BP by its former name, British Petroleum. As ludicrous as it sounds to American ears, droves of British people, from established journalists down to the chap on the next stool at the pub, took this as an anti-British remark—several bloggers going so far as to call it racism—and soon some journalists were reporting an anti-British backlash among Americans generally. Some of my friends and neighbors here in England insist that there’s no other way to interpret the remark: Obama has revealed himself to be anti-British, plain and simple.

I’m a dual national, but I’ve been an American for far longer than I’ve been a Brit, and this reaction baffles me. I’m certain that few Americans outside the oil industry or oil investment circles would have known before this week that BP no longer stands for British Petroleum, but most British people don’t believe me. And while it’s clear that we expect more of Obama, who after all isn’t just any American, he is briefed by ordinary Americans on his staff, and I can’t imagine any staffer would—in a Please Don’t Eat the Daisies sort of way—anticipate any need to warn him that the British would be insulted by use of an outdated household name. I simply don’t believe that’s how most Americans think.

In fact, not all British people are entirely up to speed on this; Tony Blankley, right-wing British-born broadcaster on the American radio network NPR, called the company British Petroleum, even in a broadcast during which he spoke of Britain’s fury. In a different take on the situation, Scottish stand-up comic Susan Calman suggested that Obama was using BP’s “Sunday name”; that’s what they called it at her house when she was in trouble and her father would sing out “Susan Grace Calman, what do you think you’re doing?” She has a point. It may very well be that the message Obama intended was one of distance and formality, signaling that we’re not on nickname terms with BP any more, we’re angry enough to use its full name.

Here’s a test for the British people who are so up in arms: Do you know whether the legal name of the ubiquitous purveyor of chicken-by-the-bucket is Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC? Do you think your Prime Minister knows? If the company is now officially called KFC, and if a British river were to be contaminated by frying-oil runoff, and if the Prime Minister should slip up and use the wrong name, do you think the people of Kentucky would take it as an insult?

Be that as it may, when I ask people who insist Obama made an anti-British slur if they would please consider alternative interpretations, I’m asking them to go against what a goodly portion of the media here is telling them.

When I lived in the USA, people liked to think of the press as unbiased, and even though we knew this to be unattainable perfection, we liked to think it remained the goal, at least. My hometown had a Republican paper and a Democratic paper, owned by the same people and virtually identical in their coverage. Only fairly recently have American media outlets begun to differentiate themselves so strongly by political outlook (when I left the US, Fox wasn’t yet the force for conservatism that it is today, for example).

The UK press is and has always been more overtly political, with each newspaper happily skewing the reporting for its audience. In the US, we associate newspapers with their locations; in the UK, they’re associated with political views and social classes. Everyone knows which newspapers are left, right or centrist, and everyone knows which are read by working class people and which by the middle class (though I don’t hobnob enough with titled toffs to know what members of the aristocracy read).

When I moved to the UK, I started buying the Times, not realizing I was making a political choice, and I’ve kept buying it because I grew used to the columnists (though I skip the most conservative ones). I’ve seen the reporting change in a way that some people have called “dumbing down”; the Sunday Times didn’t always feature colored page-one banners, such as the one that took up half the real estate above the fold last Sunday (June 13), carrying the vital information that a certain singer-actress is “a fatalist about love”.

Down at the bottom, though, I found the smallest headline and the smallest item on the page, the only headline not in bold, and it read “Obama: I’m not anti-British”.

Having minimized coverage of what Obama actually said, the Sunday Times didn’t understate its accusations about what Obama meant. The article continued inside, where garish graphics covering almost half of a two-page spread showed a stern-faced Obama pointing directly at the reader, next to one of the largest headlines I’ve ever seen: “You Brits Are Gonna Pay”. The six-inch letters of “Pay” dissolved into a pool of oil that dripped a further six inches down to break up columns of text below.

The message was clear: Obama has said “You Brits are gonna pay”, pointing directly, menacingly, into the camera. But he did and said no such things. They’ve put words in his mouth, and indicated the tone of those words with a photo that’s well over a year old and taken entirely out of context. Obama did not threaten “you Brits” in any way, but the article—written by Jonathan Oliver with further reporting by Danny Fortson if you are reading the newspaper itself, but credited to Tony Allen-Mills if you read the same article at the Times web site—does nothing to counter the message of the headline and graphics.

The author—I’ll assume it to be Jonathan Oliver for simplicity’s sake—began by describing anti-BP reaction from Americans, which is fair enough. Some self-described grannies, it seems, have recorded an anti-BP song for YouTube; fine. But he goes on to say the “formerly special relationship between Washington and London was one of several potential casualties of America’s search for culprits”. And that’s not reporting; that’s opinion.

First, you have to know about this special relationship. The British are big on it; most Americans have never heard of it. Churchill coined the term in 1946 for US-UK cooperation that went beyond that of allies to involve intelligence sharing and economic cooperation.

The morning after Obama was elected, the press here, most notably BBC Radio 4’s Martha Kearny, asked repeatedly whether Obama would maintain the special relationship. But why on earth wouldn’t he? Because, Kearny said, the British colonial powers in Kenya mistreated Obama’s grandfather; surely Obama must hate the British.

Jonathan Oliver’s is not the only article to revive this story in the context of the BP/British Petroleum flap. But Obama barely knew his father and never even met his father’s father. A new president of the United States, taking his place on the world stage during a financial crisis, with the armed forces fighting two wars, dealing with the country’s worst environmental disaster, has more things to think about than what a colonial power did half a century ago to a relative he never knew.

In addition to the Kenyan grandfather, you can tell that Obama doesn’t like the British, we’re told by Oliver and others, because “one of his first acts as president was to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House”. Yes, he did that. Reports at the time said that the UK loaned the bust to George W. Bush, who’d asked to borrow one. Each new president redecorates the Oval Office; Obama decided to display only art commemorating Americans, replacing the bust of Churchill with one of Lincoln. The Churchill bust at last report graced the Washington residence of the British Ambassador. It’s hardly anti-British to return a borrowed statue the previous occupant left behind or to prefer the politics, or even just the face, of Lincoln.

Oliver referred to the “former” special relationship but provides no evidence that the relationship has broken down. He then speculates on the “potential” for the relationship to break down; this sounds threatening, but is not news. And he says Obama is “desperate to placate America’s concerns that BP might run out of money” to pay for clean-up and compensation. How does Oliver know this? When did No-Drama Obama ever appear desperate? This isn’t even speculation; it’s fantasy.

There’s a big sidebar to Oliver’s article (no byline) headed “US silent over a disaster of its own that killed thousands”. Yes, in Bhopal in 1984, during Reagan’s presidency, a Union Carbide cyanide leak killed thousands, and yes, it was a horrendous disaster. No, Americans haven’t been talking about it; it didn’t occur to me to mention it, because it has nothing to do with the current crisis. If the Sunday Times really thinks that now is the time for US breast-beating over disasters perpetrated by American companies, it would at least make more sense for them to suggest the 1976 disaster in which the Torrey Canyon, an American-built tanker owned by a subsidiary of Union Oil of California, perpetrated an Exxon Valdez-type spill off the coast of Cornwall—but perhaps the British press doesn’t mention that one because the Torrey Canyon was at the time chartered by BP and the oil spilled was presumably BP’s (which was at the time called British Petroleum).

The Times also didn’t mention the 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas, or BP’s leaky pipeline in Alaska, or BP’s safety record, including as we now know their 760 recent “egregious, wilful” violations of American safety regulations (versus Sunoco’s 8 and Exxon’s 1). Any of these is more relevant to the current situation; that a US company caused horrific tragedy in Bhopal 25 years ago has no bearing on Americans’ current beef with BP.

And the beef is with BP, not with Britain, no matter what the British press would like us to think. Many, many Britons have broadcast, published, or posted accusations that America holding BP to account is unfair because American firms built and operated the Deepwater Horizon. But surely the US government’s legal relationship is with BP; BP holds the drilling concession. If subcontractors let them down, BP can take legal action against those firms and recoup some of the money it needs to put things right. In any case, Americans simply aren’t angry with BP because of its British roots, but are angry at BP because of the environmental and economic damage; that companies down the food chain happen to be American is as irrelevant as the fact that BP is historically associated with and still headquartered in the UK.

British journalists have no compunction about reaching far back in time for evidence that Americans—not just Obama—are anti-British. Peter Hitchens’s article in the Mail on Sunday under the headline “Special Relationship: America’s still itching to bash us in the snoot” cited ancient history. Many Americans don’t even know the “Star-Spangled Banner” has multiple verses, and few indeed could tell you the lyrics describe the British bombardment of Baltimore in 1812—or that there’s any connection to Britain there at all—yet Hitchens drilled down into the third verse to find a line about war having washed away “foul footsteps’ pollution” left by, presumably, British feet. He offered this as evidence of Americans’ animosity to Britain. (At least he stopped short—as I do not—of punning that if written today it would be the “Tar-Spangled Banner”.)

Americans could remind him that Britain torched the White House in that war, a rather more definitive act than writing a poem about footsteps, but why would they bother? Can he really think many Americans carry a grudge against the UK because of the War of 1812? The evidence Hitchens presents for anti-British sentiment today consists of second-hand reports of Americans calling the British—or perhaps some individual Britons, he isn’t clear—arrogant or snobbish, and that Hollywood uses British actors to play the baddies from Hitler on down.

If the special relationship has broken down, it would seem to be because journalists stopped giving the USA the benefit of the doubt, and instead scraped the bottom of the history barrel to find evidence of anti-British feeling, presumably because they can’t present more recent evidence. The closest I’ve come to seeing such evidence is the single remark from NY congressman Anthony Weiner to the effect that anyone from BP with a British accent speaking to the press is “not telling the truth”, apparently referring to Tony Hayward, the gaff-prone CEO of BP who’s been withdrawn from the clean-up effort, replaced by a native of Mississippi.

The British government, by the way, has consistently played down the nationalist angle. Foreign Secretary William Haig said he’s seen no anti-Britishism, and Business Secretary Vince Cable wrote in the Mail on Sunday that American anger is justified, that British flag-wavers on this issue should know better, and that if the shoe were on the other foot, there’d be anti-Americanism from the British.

Of course journalists must look for new angles. They can’t keep reporting that oil is still leaking, that fishing boats are still idle, or that wildlife is still dying. Broadcasts would sound like Saturday Night Live’s satirical anchorman reporting “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead”. And it must be said that at least one non-British journalist is pushing the anti-British line. In a clip on YouTube, Canadian-born Mark Phillips, a CBS correspondent based 25 years in London, seemed to put words in the mouth of London Mayor Boris Johnson; after a voice-over by Phillips claiming Johnson views American reaction as “bordering on Brit-bashing”, we see Johnson saying it’s unfair to start “beating up…on a company—” only to have Phillips interrupt him with “a British company”. Johnson parrots the phrase in what seems an obvious attempt to pacify Phillips so that Johnson can finish his sentence.

Throughout the report, Phillips talks about Americans’ anti-British sentiment without producing any evidence of a single American who’s anti-British, much less evidence of the “backlash” claimed. The print accompanying the clip refers to “…anti-British sentiment in the U.S. over British Petroleum’s handling of the oil spill”. So not only does Phillips (or CBS) use the old name for BP—a crime when Obama did it—but their reporter in London feels qualified to brief us on current American opinion.

The bottom line is that some media outlets have encouraged ill-feeling. Even some mainstream journalists report that Americans are turning anti-British when they can show us no evidence, certainly no evidence that this was the case before their reports. While British newspapers filled more and more column-inches with defensive bile, dredging up Bhopal and Churchillian busts, 19th-century battles and 1950s Kenyan uprisings, and accusations of anti-Britishness, more and more Britons complained in pubs and on radio call-ins that Obama definitely was, and most Americans probably were, anti-British. If there is animosity between the British and the Americans over the BP leak, surely the press had a hand in it.

The good news is that the storm of misinformation is already passing, although the Sunday Times of June 20th claimed “Obama harms special relationship”. Their evidence, from a YouGov poll of “nearly 1500 people in Britain” and “almost 600 Americans”, hardly seems to justify the headline. And there’s also an opinion piece—“America’s bogeyman isn’t Britain, it’s Big Oil”—by Dominic Lawson, with a very welcome perspective I hope will act as a corrective to last week’s extravaganza. He, too, finds the stories of America’s Brit-bashing false: “Sections of the media in this country have tried to make this a story about America persecuting BP simply because of its Britishness” which is “a profoundly parochial misrepresentation of events”.

He points to BBC correspondent Mark Mardell’s diary in The Spectator on Wednesday, which is refreshing since Mardell actually visited the Louisiana coast four times to get the story firsthand. Mardell says Americans’ fury is directed at BP, not at Britain, but that “the British media desperately wants to write the ‘anti-Britain’ story”; his attempts to say there is no such story have been futile. He’s heard one American talk about being anti-British on account of something that happened 300 years ago, but unlike Peter Hitchens and his War of 1812 complaints, the American was joking.

The Observer found no need to be inflammatory; one of its headlines last week read “Obama moves to end growing rift with Britain over BP’s part in Gulf oil disaster”. It presented several perspectives including that of Lord Tebbit, who claimed that since the “wealth and technology” of the US couldn’t stop the oil, nothing was “more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political presidential petulance”. While some newspapers called for the UK government to “protect BP” because so many British people have their pensions invested there, The Observer was the only paper I found reporting Greenpeace’s efforts over the past few months to persuade local government bodies to get their pension funds out of BP, calling it “wrong to invest public money in the company because of its involvement in risky projects”.

On the basis of this comparison, I think I might have to switch my allegiance to The Observer. It has been unsettling to see how quickly some press outlets can direct public opinion onto a tangent that seems ludicrous to the point of freakishness to my US-adapted eye, but at least there’s reason to hope that the whole affair is dying down. Until the next time.

And the answer to the KFC quiz? Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC in 1991, and then changed back to Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2006. I’m betting you didn’t know that, and neither does David Cameron or Barack Obama.

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