EU and US print press: A ‘radical’ difference

24 Jan

Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, accused the BBC of “perverting political discourse” during the prestigious Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication, according to the BBC. He further “accused the BBC of stifling debate and being against the conservative values held by millions of Britons.”

Of course, the comment would have been less ironical had Daily Mail not itself been a bastion of unadulterated right wing propaganda. The fact is that majority of bestselling newspapers in UK and France tends to be more radical, more assertively right wing or left wing, than US print press.

Take for example Le Figaro (or The Barber), a newspaper with a universally acknowledged partisan right wing stance and a circulation of near 350,000 or Le Monde, with a noted left wing stance and a circulation that’s close to 370,000. The right wing newspaper, The Telegraph in UK sells over 900,000 (and the right leaning The Sun boasts of a circulation of well over while The Guardian, the prima donna of left wing, sells close to 300,000. Compare these with mainstream US newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today or even the Wall Street Journal, and one finds that the US print media tends to much more centrist.

So what causes these differences? There are two quick caveats before we proceed – newspapers are much more widely read in UK and France than in US, and the US “center” is decidedly right of the European “center”. One may trace the differences between the print press in Europe and US to a variety of causes including differences in political institutional structure, media ownership, origin of newspapers, newspaper readership, or combination of one or more of the above.

One likely cause for these differences can be the difference between the political structures of US and Europe, generally. For example, UK has a robust multi-party parliamentary system as a compared to an effectively bi-party presidential system. In US the two primary parties are always trying to appeal to the center, though what constitutes the center keeps shifting with time, while in UK a lot of parties, for example the Liberal Democrats, survive primarily through appeals to the ‘fringe’. This sort of a competitive multi-party parliamentary system may create a more radical press that espouses beliefs of each of the parties.

It is possible that the radicalization of the press is both ‘mediated’ (statistical term for cause) and ‘moderated’ (affects the size of the effect) by media structure and ownership. In particular, one may argue that the presence of large state player in the broadcast sector (BBC) pushed all the discontent and radical sentiment down to the printed press. It is also likely that ownership of newspapers have a distinct impact on their editorial policy. For example, Serge Dassault of Dassault Aviation owns the controlling stake in Le Figaro. Serge Dassault and his son both are also politically active in the conservative party UMP. Serge Dassault in an interview remarked “newspapers must promulgate healthy ideas”, and that “left-wing ideas are not healthy ideas.” (Wikipedia, quoting Le Figaro of December 14th, 2004)

Lastly one may also study newspapers editorial policy as a vestige from the relative national origins of press. In US, the press developed after the ethos of progressivism, and its roots lie in populist anti-intellectual stories while press in most of Europe lies rooted in strong macho reformist intellectualism. It would of course be naïve to imagine that origins of individual newspapers or broadcast environments explain the differences today. It would be interesting to explore how norms survive (and are lost) in an organization, especially an organization like press which is obsessed with normative issues with focus on institutional memory and agnotology.