Alex Massie

Obama to World: Drop Dead!

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The White House could easily have granted the press conference Gordon Brown so clearly craved. Though there was something a little craven, a touch humiliating about much of the build-up to this week's Prime Ministerial visit to Washington, it's reasonable to suppose that, in this instance at least, Brown may have been treated a little shabbily. The kindest way to view this is that the White House is so focused on economic fire-fighting that it has little time for diplomatic niceties; alternatively it sends a tough reminder as to who wears the trousers in this


partnership. There'll be none of this Athens to Rome nonsense, Mister Brown. (Was it just a coincidence that the BBC went big on Macmillan visiting JFK in their footage last night?)

There is a third possibility, of course. Obama has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them. This would not be wholly unsurprising: Fleet Street's finest are viewed as scatalogically-obsessed, bottle-throwing, teenage yobs far too fond of relieving themselves behind the bushes in the Rose Garden, or worse, in the East Room's pot plants.

Anyway, as you might expect, the British press corps is not happy with being ignored and sidelined today. Instead of half an hour in which to ask


penetrating questions, they will have to watch and fume as the wire services ask a couple of softball questions while Brown and Obama pose for pictures. Most unhappy of all are the DC-based correspondents who have been denied access to even the "pool spray" press mini-event there will be. This means the colourful reconstructions of the "summit" in the Sunday papers this weekend may have to be (even) more artful than usual.

Then again, no-one in their right mind would want to invite any detailed questioning of financial policy right now, would they? And no-one has ever accused the President of not having a keen, even ruthless, sense of self-preservation and a cool awareness of his own interests. After all, he didn't give the Japanese a presser either.

But those interests change. Foreign correspondents in Washington know there's little they can hope to get from a candidate running for the Presidency. At best they'll be tolerated, at worst abused and patronised. Obama is not on the campaign trail any longer but his press strategy does not seem to have switched to governing mode yet.

Indeed, for a President who wants to "renew" America's relationship with the rest of the world, Obama is strikingly reluctant to actually, you know, speak to the rest of the world. When he embarked on his tour of europe last summer he failed to take a single foreign journalist with him; nor did he grant any interviews while he was in Britain, not even to the BBC. That pattern has largely continued now thta he's in office.

In one sense, of course, this matters less than it used to: after all everyone can see and read his speeches online these days. But there's still a sense that, apart from his interview with Al-Arabiya and a CBC interview, Obama doesn't quite appreciate that there are times when his international audience might have questions of its own that are unlikely to be asked if the only people doing the questioning are the American members of the White House press corps.

This is hardly a hanging offence, and it may even be too much media special-pleading, but despite all the demands on the President's time it would not do him any harm to spend a little of it engaging with the rest of the world's media. After all, if he wants to lead the world  - and to call on the rest of the world to do more itself - then he might deign to talk to it first.

UPDATE: As Ben Brogan relays, the whole thing has been "a shambles". No wonder everyone is so happy. As I said this morning, there's nothing Fleet Street likes more than a good old-fashioned series of cock-ups producing a complete shambles. No other country's press would, I think, enjoy this sort of thing so much but there you have it: the British pressman, marvellous and monstrous.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.