Why Is British Media Up in Arms About the 'New York Times'?

According to some commentators, the left-wing U.S. rag will not stop until the monarchy is abolished.

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 06:  Re-enactors hold a regimental flag made of silk given to them by Queeen El...
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James Greig
Wots All This

Consumed with grief over the Queen’s death, British journalists have thrown a collective tantrum about the New York Times. The Gray Lady stands accused of “cruelly mocking the death of our beloved Queen,” pursuing a twisted “vendetta” against Britain, and spitting in the face of our shared history.

Three articles in particular are responsible for all this commotion. The latest, published two days ago, was a report into the expense of the Queen’s funeral: “The hefty price tag for Queen Elizabeth II comes as consumer prices in Britain are rising at their fastest pace in four decades, with inflation at nearly 10 percent, driven by soaring energy prices,” wrote Jenny Gross, sending British blue-ticks into a spasm of outrage. Even if you don’t think the Queen deserves a pauper’s grave, it shouldn’t be beyond the pale to comment on the state expenditure at the same time that we’re entering into a recession. The Times drew similar fire when it reported that Charles had “turned his royal estate into a billion-dollar portfolio” and will be exempt from paying inheritance tax on the Queen’s $700 million personal fortune.

Few people, as far as I could see, disputed the accuracy of these claims: the issue was largely that the timing was uncouth. The previous week, the Times came under attack for publishing an op-ed by Harvard history professor Maya Jasanoff that argued that we should mourn the Queen, but not the British empire. Denounced by some as an embittered attack, Jasanoff’s piece was in quite measured and respectful in its discussion of the Queen herself, praising her “profound, sincere commitment to her duties.”

Despite this smattering of critical pieces, there’s little merit to the idea that the Times is waging an all-out war against Britain. Its coverage of the Royals this week has been balanced: it published a sympathetic story about Princess Anne; the personal reflections of a horse trainer who enjoyed a friendship with the Queen, and a neutral-to-positive article about her popularity in the U.S. Bret Stephens defended the legacy of the British Empire as “not an entirely bad thing for the world”; an essay by Sarah Lyall began “She did not complain. She did not call in sick. She did not descend into self-pity.” Serge Schmemann praised the Queen for her “demeanor, propriety, steadfastness and unwavering service.”

The Times can hardly be accused of one-sided republican rabble-rousing. And yet, judging by the British media’s reaction, you’d think it had been gleefully spitting on Her Majesty’s grave. Following the article about the funeral costs, in particular, the denunciations came thick and fast.

The Times had made itself a “global embarrassment, ”according to one right-wing blogger. One baroness demanded to know “who are you exactly?’, while journalist Joe Armitage fumed, ‘’queen’ as a capital Q. If you’re going to use our language at least have the decency not to butcher it.” A presenter on our not-particularly succession version of Fox News declared that “even when the toilet tissue runs out” the Times has little or no purpose. Journalist Rupert Myers, adopted a more beseeching tone: “Dear America, We’ve stood with you through thick & thin, through the last century’s darkest hours, through your own times of national pain & acute embarrassment. We have a saying you might consider: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The British media, of course, would never stoop so low as to say anything unkind.

Left-leaning Americans are unlikely to recognize the way that the Times is being discussed as the mouthpiece of a revolutionary vanguard, which appeals to “America’s hate-filled woke Left” and a small number of “elite Socialists.” But while the Times has mostly angered the right, plenty of liberal centrists have been getting in on the game — publicly canceling their subscriptions or complaining about “the promotion of sectarian nonentities.” The most common parallel running through all of this is the idea that the Times, for reasons unknown, has a specific vendetta against Britain (“Did something dark happen to the editor in London or something?” mused radio presenter Iain Dale.) The Times being mean about Britain can only be a trauma response.

The Times wasn’t the only U.S. outlet to get it in the neck: the Daily Mail also sharpened its knives for The Cut at New York magazine: “Meghan Markle's favourite left-wing U.S. magazine published an extraordinary assault on King Charles III,” proclaimed a headline on Sept. 14. Having recently granted The Cut an interview, Meghan has been deemed personally culpable for every editorial decision it subsequently makes. “The offensive article in the liberal New York magazine is likely to upset the Royal Family as it grieves the loss of Britain's longest-reigning monarch,” suggested the Mail. (Maybe, although it seems unlikely they’ll ever read it: I have it on good authority that Charles is more of a Refinery 29 girlie.)

But while The Cut drew a bit of heat, the British media class’s obsession with the Times runs much deeper and has been festering away for some time now. This is partly due to the Times publishing a number of articles by left-wing British writers. I often see the same criticisms that British socialists make about our media — that it serves the status quo, excludes left voices and sets the boundaries of acceptable discourse — leveled against the Times. But this isn't necessarily a contradiction: whatever its domestic politics, the paper doesn’t have a stake in upholding the British establishment, and perhaps this distance allows it to be more even-handed or open to left perspectives from the UK. Either way, it is to be applauded for how successful it has been in winding up the most annoying people in Britain. “Quick, nurse! Those boss-eyed Brit-bashers at the New York Times are at it again” began a recent article in The Spectator, which, while ironic in tone, reveals the petulance and perhaps even the sexual pathologies of the English upper class.

The same magazine has attacked the Times for its reporting on Gaza (too pro-Palestinian), running an advertising campaign which made fun of JK Rowling, and its portrayal of the UK as “plague-riddled, rain-drenched fascist hell-hole on the verge of democratic collapse where the trains don't run on time and swamp-dwelling locals feast on legs of mutton.” Britain’s Times haters are also obsessed with a 2020 article they published suggesting Londoners were “cavorting in swamps” (a kind of geographical mistranslation of “marshes”). But as slanderous claims go, is this really all that offensive? People love Shrek.

A major point of contention when it comes to the Times isn't just what's being written, but who is writing it. As journalist Moya Lothian-McLean (who has herself come under fire for a recent Times byline ) told me, “The likes of Andrew Neil and Iain Martin are annoyed because the NYT — a paper they respect and can’t dismiss as easily as domestic titles like The Guardian — is not reflecting the voices they think worth listening to." While I couldn’t say whether it’s worse than its U.S. equivalent, the British media is profoundly elitist, chummy and claustrophobic. Fifty-one percent of the UK’s top journalists went to private school, and little under half of its columnists went to Oxford or Cambridge. People of color are underrepresented compared to the general workforce, and racism within the industry is rampant.

Whatever the underlying motivation, it’s a bad look that so many white, establishment figures are quick to dismiss writers of color with whom they disagree as irrelevant nobodies. Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader in 2015, left-wing perspectives have been deemed increasingly beyond the pale within mainstream British discourse. Needless to say, no right-winger — regardless of how obscure — would face such hostility if they wrote “Keep Calm and Carrying on Queuing: Why The Line to Visit the Queen’s Coffin Displays Britain at its Plucky Best” or “Letter of Recommendation: The Quiet Dignity of King Charles III.”

It’s become common to suggest that the backlash against the Times derives from its willingness to break “the omerta” which rules the British media, and to say things which are unsayable here. This isn’t entirely true. It would be hyperbolic to claim that there has been a blanket shutdown of any dissenting opinions: both The Guardian and the New Statesman, both centrist publications, have published good pieces from a left-wing, republican perspective. But at the same time, the media have done a good job of enforcing a royalist consensus, even if , for the most part, this has been implicit.

There has been a kind of chilling effect, where people have censored their own opinions for fear of being monstered by the press. Strikes and protests have been canceled, presumably owing in part to the threat of a media backlash. For the most part, even republicans are falling over themselves to praise the monarchy and indulge in the mushiest sentimentality imaginable about our new king. Republicanism is permissible, but only if you refrain from doing anything so uncouth as suggesting that the monarchy should be abolished. The leaders of our two main political parties are competing over who can tug their forelocks the hardest. For the paper of record to puncture this consensus feels impertinent.

The sad thing is that, while these members of the British media might hate the Times, they clearly respect it a great deal. They are concerned about its growing global reach, and what it portends for their own influence. They are aghast at being confronted by an opposing force they can’t bully into submission, even if they’re giving it their best shot.

There is also a sense of betrayal that the American media elite has failed to practice transatlantic solidarity. But for all the bleating about a “special relationship,” between our two countries, just how reciprocal is this? We betrayed it ourselves when we sent James Corden, Piers Morgan and “gender critical feminism” to America. Their media owes us nothing.

James Greig writes about culture and society.