Debunking the myth of UK and US media's 'neutral gaze'
US-and-UK-based publications dominate international news, casting themselves as neutral observers. Given the state of these two countries, it's time for Europeans to challenge this.
In feminist theory, the concept of the “male gaze” has been coined to describe how media and literature portray life through the eyes of men as the neutral point of view, while the perspective of women is othered. For years women have consumed media that always puts the male perspective first, for instance by sexualizing women but not men. In that way they internalize the narrative that the male viewpoint is standard, and any other is niche. Some have extended the concept to a “white male gaze”, encompassing the racial element of what is considered a neutral view.
As an American journalist based in Europe for the past 17 years, I’ve often thought we could speak of an “Anglo-Saxon gaze” when it comes to international news coverage (Anglo-Saxon is the term used in continental Europe, mostly in France, for the English and Americans). The powerful media consumed across borders and setting the narrative, particularly here in Europe, are all based in the US and UK. These media present themselves as neutral observers on world affairs - the ‘default’ point of view. Media from other countries are considered to be representing the “French view”, the “German view” or the “Indian view”. But there is a raft of media such as The Economist, the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the BBC that cannot conceive of themselves as British or American outlets, and rather insist that they are “international” with a neutral point of view. And for years, many here in continental Europe have internalized that narrative.
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I was reminded of this last week when I saw a particularly irritating Economist front page once again calling Germany the “sick man of Europe” because it has just slipped into negative growth. It follows a rash of overblown coverage of Germany’s recent economic slowdown by right-wing British papers eager to distract from the economic turmoil caused by Brexit. I put out a short tweet asking, “Can anyone really take this seriously coming from a 🇬🇧 publication?” I knew exactly what I was doing when I inserted a union jack as a descriptor for a publication that passionately denies it is in any way British. And sure enough, on came the furious reactions as if I had just burned an Atlanticist bible. The gist of it was: ‘The Economist is an international publication. How dare you say they can’t write about Germany’s economic problems simply because they are based in a country that’s also having economic problems?’
The arrogance of unacknowledged bias
The reply guys sure were able to pack a whole lot of perceived intent into my 10 words. Apparently I was denying that Germany has any economic problems at the moment, and I hate Britain so intensely that I can’t acknowledge any other country could also be in bad shape. But my point was about the context and tone of this front page. The article itself (by an Economist author who is German) makes some good points about the flaws in the German economy. But it is not at all convincing that the German economy is about to crumble and bring the rest of the continent with it. That was hyperbole by the Economist editors sitting in London, and they have a habit of doing this. In 2012, it was France that was “the timebomb at the heart of Europe”. Spoiler alert: no French baguette bomb ever went off (or even existed). And the French were pretty pissed off by that cover.
And this is where the lack of self-awareness comes in. The Economist can, and should, do an analysis of Germany’s current economic problems. But to do so with a absurdly hyperbolic cover page, in the context of months of gleefully hyperbolic coverage of Germany’s economic wobbles by British papers who want to distract from the economic problems in Britain, shows that the Economist editors either don’t understand or don’t care about perceptions in Europe. They’re so convinced that they are an “international” publication and not a British one that they cannot make the connection between what is currently happening in Britain and what might be the best way to present an economic critique of a country in the union their country just left. At the very least, it shows a lack of humility.
‘But The Economist has been very critical of post-Brexit Britain!’ some on Twitter insisted to me. To the degree that they have, they have done so in the most arrogant way possible. Even as the UK seemed to be melting down before our eyes in September 2022, how did the Economist report on it? By saying in a cover that things have gotten so bad that the UK has become, temporarily, just like one of those chaotic and unserious European countries they’re usually making covers about. Italians were not pleased.
Atlantic obsession, European disinterest
I do not consider The Economist to be a pro-European publication. They are a pro-free-market publication, and that is where their interest lies. I know of what I speak. I worked for The Economist Group for four years, writing for their Brussels-based newspaper European Voice. During that time there was absolutely no interest in our boring little paper from the Economist editors in London, despite it being the main newspaper in Brussels covering EU policy. On the rare occasion that we got a visit from those London higher-ups, their ignorance of what the EU is and how it works was astounding in my opinion. They just couldn’t care less, all they were interested in were the economic benefits of a European free market.
At the same time, I had a friend who was working at Roll Call, European Voice’s sister newspaper in Washington covering Congress, also owned by The Economist Group. My friend would tell me about the frequent visits to their Washington office by the Economist editors, who knew every minute detail of American politics. They doted over that paper because America is their obsession. Our European paper was treated as an inconvenient snooze-fest. But it was actually an incredibly valuable asset that they didn’t understand the value of. I’ll let others tell the story of how they so foolishly gave it away.
That is The Economist’s bias. They are an Atlanticist publication chiefly interested in Britain and the United States. Before Brexit, their European coverage was abysmal. By the time they caught on to the fact that the EU might be important, it was too late. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as the saying goes. But The Economist has never apologized for or even acknowledged its own role in perpetuating British disinterest in the EU and allowing lies about it to go unchallenged.
There is no neutral journalism
I focus on The Economist here because it is the one I personally worked for and about which I had this rather irritating Twitter pile-on last week. But they are far from alone. American outlets like the New York Times are also plagued by this insistance that they do not have an American perspective. For that they have gotten in hot water with French officials in recent years. The BBC steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that they are coming from a British or Atlantic perspective. We saw this play out to an absurd degree in 2021, when these media outlets reported on a ‘Covid vaccine disaster in Europe’ which was in fact not happening, and bizarrely claimed that the EU had a vaccine export ban when it was in fact the United States that had such a a ban (which meant the EU had to supply vaccines to the rest of the world instead).
The ‘EU vaccines disaster’ narrative was entrenched in Britain and America (with CNN even claiming it was “the most serious crisis in the EU’s history”). And even when the truth became clear, there was never any acknowledgement by the UK and US media that they had got it wrong. Nor did they acknowledge America’s Covid vaccine export ban. European officials and politicians have not forgotten what the Anglo-Saxon media did in 2021, culminating in EU Vice President Margaritas Schinas holding up a particularly absurd Economist cover painting an imminent EU collapse in the Commission press room, after it was clear the EU’s vaccination campaign was a success. It was a way to point out that European media, also, had too eagerly swallowed the Anglo-Saxon media narrative. National papers in continental Europe had repeated much of what was being inaccurately reported in the British and American press about the Covid vaccine situation, assuming that if The Economist says it, it must be true and it must be neutral.
Those non-English-language media are described in American and British media as having a ‘foreign’ perspective. They have no problem describing Der Spiegel as a “German magazine” or Le Monde as a “French newspaper”, but they would never dream of attaching such a nationality descriptor to themselves. Perversely, sometimes the “German perspective” they are reporting on has actually been colored by their own Anglo-Saxon media takes - a vicious circle reinforcing the anglosphere’s media narratives in which national EU media become willing pawns.
Just like with the male gaze, the ‘other’ comes to accept the view of what is the default. Because English is the most-spoken language in the world, these US-and-UK-based outlets are the ones that can be read and viewed across borders. And when one of them writes about country X, country X takes it very seriously. I saw many Conservative Germans on Twitter this weekend pointing to the Economist cover and saying ‘see, it really is true, Germany is going to hell in a handbasket.' The Economist says so!’ These anglosphere publications set narratives that are then swallowed and repeated by national media in other languages. Average citizens in continental Europe may not be consuming English-language media, but their politicians and journalists are. They internalise this ‘neutral’ ‘international’ narrative, and they pass that on to their readers and viewers without even realising what they’re doing.
It has been this way for a long time. But let’s take a sober look at this situation. The United States has just experienced a coup attempt and it is a very real possibility that it is careening toward civil war. The United Kingdom has just inflicted on itself an act of extraordinary self-harm, its politics have descended into absurdity and its economy is crumbling. How can these US-and-UK-based media still have the credibility to lecture the rest of the world? Whether they like it or not, these publications are from where they’re from. It shapes their thinking. Even if the reporters writing stores are not themselves American, it is the New-York-and-London-based editors that choose the topics and steer the agenda. There is no such thing as neutral journalism. All reporting is a product of the time and place it is produced.
The problem, of course, is that EU national media will never have the global reach of the anglosphere media as long as they are not reporting in the globe’s common language. That is a reality continental Europeans need to accept. Wolfgang Blau has written about how the EU still leaves it to UK and US media to tell its story globally, which has become particularly awkward now that none of those media are based in the EU. In fact, both of these countries frequently find themselves at odds with the European Union these days. They are competitors, and sometimes even adversaries. And yet the media telling the story of those conflicts to the world are not based in the EU, but based in the country having a conflict with the EU. Now, here someone is going to say, ‘But Politico, which boasts the largest newsroom in Brussels, is now owned by a German media conglomerate!" But come on, that is merely a technicality. Politico is obviously an American publication with the editorial line coming from Washington, where it is headquartered. Axel Springer hasn’t had much editorial involvement from what I hear.
None of this is to say that American and British media shouldn’t cover the EU or that people should ignore their coverage. The problem is that they dominate that coverage, and they set the narrative for how Europe is covered not just globally but also within Europe itself. The answer is for continental Europe’s media heavy-hitters to set up English-language units that can compete with the Economists, Politicos and BBCs. And for the anglosphere media, it would be refreshing if they could show a bit of humility and acknowledgement of their dominant position and national perspective.
The Economist has every right to write an analysis of Germany’s problems. But they should have enough self-awareness and respect for Europeans to know that they have some serious baggage attached to them at the moment. People in the rest of the world, especially here in continental Europe, are getting pretty sick of being lectured to by people in places that are coming apart at the seams. If American and British outlets want to avoid this resentment, they should acknowledge that they have a national perspective and show some sensitivity to that. And if European outlets are sick of having the EU’s story told by media outside the union, then they need to finally invest in real pan-European English-language journalism. Because as things stand, the situation is looking increasingly absurd.
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