British Journalism’s Jugular Warfare

“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Wham! Bam! Politician slams journalist to the ground.

Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in Montana’s special House of Representatives election, allegedly slammed British reporter Ben Jacobs to the floor.

The May 24 incident occurred hours before the polls opened. Jacobs, who writes for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, was not badly hurt. Neither was Gianforte. He was elected.

Jacobs’ provocation? He asked a question that Gianforte did not like about Republican efforts to pummel Obamacare – and then repeated it. Straws and camels.

Although the journalist took the knock, it was Gianforte who did not know what hit him, culturally at least.

For British journalists, going for the jugular is normal, even required. Yes, the British are still remarkably polite, genteel, and gentle – except in journalism.

President Trump got a whiff of this sharp British practice one week into his presidency when he held a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May. One journalist cited the new president’s “alarming beliefs” and managed in a single question to refer to torture, Russia, the Muslim ban and abortion.

The question stunned Trump and raised hackles with many Americans, who complained on social media about the rude journalist who was giving her country a bad name.

Hacks raising hackles

The journalist was Laura Kuennsberg, the BBC’s political editor. And she does that sort of thing back home all the time.

If British journalists in general are attack dogs, leader of the pack is the recently retired Jeremy Paxman, who memorably sunk his teeth into then Home Office head Michael Howard during a televised interview. Had Mr Howard, Paxman wondered, overruled an official in his own department?

Howard answered neither yea nor nay. He evaded. Paxman asked again. Howard evaded again. So Paxman asked again, and Howard evaded again. This exchange went on for 12 rounds, with the same result. British journalists are pit bulls. So are the politicians.

British prime ministers hold the highest ministerial office but are also ordinary Members of Parliament – and journalists treat them as such. Prime ministers are regularly interviewed on radio and TV, they are not held in any particular awe, and they are grilled as mercilessly as anyone else. This evenhandedness keeps everyone on their toes.

President Clinton was fortunate to be interviewed by one of his countrymen when he claimed that “there is not a sexual relationship with that woman.”

The unchivalric “that woman” stuck in the craw, but the seemingly innocent “is” was the elephant in that sentence.

Slick Willie had been speaking honestly but slickly: Of course he had no relationship with Monica Lewinsky around the time of that interview with veteran news broadcaster Jim Lehrer.

But “was” there a relationship? In other words, Mr. President, had there been a relationship?

The question was begging to be asked, and a British journalist – jarred by that suspicious use of the present tense when a past incident was being discussed – almost certainly would have asked it – again and, if necessary, again. And again.


About the Author
Robert Liebman is an American-born London-based freelance journalist who has written for most British national newspapers, and many magazines. As a graduate student he specialized in Jewish-American literature and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Norman Mailer. As a journalist in Britain, Robert's primary topic was real estate, while his main interests currently are Israel and the Second World War.