An American journalist called David Carr wrote an amusing piece for the New York Times earlier this week about the latest British invasion. To hear him tell it, we’ve captured the commanding heights of the US media, including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News and, of course, the New York Times itself, which is run by former BBC director-general Mark Thompson. The latest citadel to fall is The Daily Show, with a Brummie comedian having temporarily taken over presenting duties from Jon Stewart.
The article produced mixed feelings in me because I spent the years 1995–2000 trying to ‘take’ Manhattan, all to no avail. For me, America wasn’t the land of opportunity. It was the land of the unreturned phone call. I had the right accent, the right Fleet Street background and the right mentor in the form of Graydon Carter, the editor in chief of Vanity Fair. So where did it all go wrong?
Until now, I’ve always attributed my failure to being too British. In spite of bowing and scraping to the rich and powerful, my basic contempt for those in authority shone through. There was a raspberry-blowing anarchist just beneath the surface and he would always emerge after a couple of drinks and wreak havoc.
To give just one example, I managed to persuade Graydon to let me come to the 1996 Vanity Fair Oscar party on the strict understanding that I wouldn’t bother any of the celebrities. I managed to stick to this rule until I spotted Mel Gibson, by which time I’d had a couple of whiskies. I marched straight up to him and accused him of being an ‘anti-Brit-ite’, a reference to Braveheart, which he’d just won two Oscars for. Graydon had to drag me away before Mel took a swing at me.
But having read David Carr’s piece, I realise I wasn’t British enough. Carr reckons the reason we do so well in the American media is precisely because we’ve so little respect for authority. ‘The one question all young reporters on Fleet Street are taught to keep foremost in their mind when interviewing public figures can be best paraphrased as, “Why is this jerk lying to me?”,’ he writes.
According to Carr, British journalists are tough, bare-knuckle fighters compared with their forelock-tugging American counterparts, and that plays a lot better in the current economic and political climate. The American public don’t want to see Larry King on CNN sucking up to some Hollywood celebrity. They want to see Piers Morgan hauling a politician over the coals, Paxman-style.
‘The British news media market is a brutal and competitive crucible; it breeds frankness, excellence and a fair amount of excess,’ he writes. ‘In that context, American journalism’s historical values of objectivity and fairness seem quaint.’
So there you have it. Instead of trying to act like an American — at least until the third glass of wine — I should have been exaggerating my Britishness. Forget about charm and good manners; being rude and confrontational is the way to win friends and influence people.
This has the ring of truth to it and also explains the success of British judges on American reality shows. The Yanks like nothing more than seeing some apple-cheeked child prodigy being given a punishment beating by Simon Cowell on American Idol, possibly because it reminds them of the days when they were still part of the British Empire. As I’ve written before, it’s easier for Americans to think of their country as a plucky little underdog rather than a First World bully bestriding the world stage. It helps them preserve their sense of moral superiority.
Then again, doing a Simon Cowell didn’t work for me either. In 2008, I got a second chance to make it across the pond when I was recruited to be a judge on an American food reality show called Top Chef. I was unbelievably rude to all and sundry and, for a season, it worked. I was branded the ‘chief reality villain’ by the New York Post. But in the second season my star began to fade and I was eventually replaced by Anthony Bourdain, an American chef of French descent.
I was depressed at the time, but having read Carr’s piece it makes perfect sense. If the key to success in the American media is being quarrelsome and dyspeptic, the Gauls are bound to eclipse the Saxons in due course. I look forward to reading Carr on the French invasion this time next year.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.