How British media bring UK general election news across the pond

Photo: Foreign Commonwealth

Two men face off to decide the future of the their country. One, shrouded in red, bears the focused gaze of an upstart seeking to topple the status quo. The other, cloaked in blue, smirks as if he knows something his opponent doesn’t.

The storylines leading up to today’s general election in the United Kingdom have by no means been as cinematically dramatic as The Economist’s May 2 cover would suggest. But the magazine’s bold visual statement certainly helps convey what’s at stake. Britain’s choice between a likely coalition government led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (in blue) or Labour Party premier Ed Miliband (in red) is a huge one, and not just for UK voters. The outcome holds the potential to shift the balance of power in Westminster, embolden Scottish secessionists, and redefine Britain’s relationship with Europe—changes that could ripple through international markets and shed new light on how identity politics play in Western democracies.

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Fortunately for non-Brits, UK-based media has a long international reach. The Financial Times, The Guardian, and the BBC, among others, have been serving up election news around the globe. And they’ve paid special attention to US audiences, given the size of the media market. Covering the vote has been an opportunity to gain new readers, in this sense, since American media parachuting into the fray often lack institutional knowledge of the British system and its major players.

The UK is a close political ally, as well as a cultural link to Europe, making US-tailored election coverage by British-based news organizations even more useful. But there are obvious difficulties in catering to Americans, just 15 percent of whom could correctly name the British prime minister in 2010, according to a Pew survey. Though many of these UK-based media trend toward sophisticated readers, they still face a balancing act: How do they provide nuanced coverage of their home country’s elections without alienating or boring audiences? The task requires constantly placing UK political news into international context and giving civics lessons sans condescension.

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The Economist, for example, has a long history of publishing for a global audience. And roughly half of its 1.55 million subscribers live in the US, according to the Alliance for Audited Media–that’s more than the likes of The Atlantic or Esquire. As the starting pistol has already fired in the marathon 2016 presidential campaign, it’s no small wonder the magazine prefaced the meat of its election endorsement with a paragraph explaining why readers should turn their attention toward Britain.

“Britain is a mid-sized island with outsized influence,” the endorsement begins. “Its parliamentary tradition, the City’s global role, the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, membership of the European Union and a history of leading revolutions in economic policy mean that British elections matter beyond Britain’s shores. But few have mattered more than the one on May 7th, when all these things are at stake.”

The British press likewise boasts outsized influence, particularly in the US. The Guardian touted 27 million unique American visitors in September. BBC World News is available in more than 40 million US households, and BBC.com attracted 38 million US visitors in January. For the Financial Times, which boasts 744,000 global print and digital subscribers, the states comprise both the fastest growing and largest non-European market.

FT has an inherent advantage in covering the election not only because it has been printed around the world for decades, but also because of its topical focus on international markets. “We like to think we’re cross-border, cross-beat, and cross-boundary,” said Gillian Tett, the newspaper’s US managing editor. Analyzing how politics affect the global economy makes up the through-line in much of this coverage. And that’s all the more useful given the election’s possible outcomes. The secessionist Scottish National Party could be the key to a Labour-led coalition government, though its political success threatens the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Cameron’s Conservatives, meanwhile, have promised to reevaluate Britain’s ties with the European Union.

“The UK is not only grappling with the complexity of a changing relationship with Europe, but also with moving from essentially a two-party system to a multi-party system,” Tett said. “If you look at the world before 2008, there was a lot of assumption that economics was all about numbers. Now we’re looking at social cohesion, trust, political accountability. And it’s incredibly critical to take that comprehensive view.”

The newspaper tailors its website and regional print editions to reflect its diverse audiences. So while the UK homepage of FT.com may display an array of granular campaign stories, its US counterpart would only show the most important. What’s more, the paper’s interactives team narrows the data sets used in charts and infographics.

“We’re not just dumping out the data for all 650 [parliamentary] seats, we’re looking at the small subset of parliamentary seats that you should care about,” said Martin Stabe, head of FT’s interactive news team. “And that helps non-UK readers.”

Of course, the newspaper’s journalism is not as accessible as that of other UK outlets covering the election for Americans. FT.com’s paywall kicks in after three articles a month, and, despite its many strengths, its focus on finance can be a turnoff for the average reader. The same goes for The Economist, which has densely packed pages that are often as dry as they are informative.

It’s important to note that both publications, for all their respect and attention among US readers, differ greatly from much of the mainstream British press. “The Economist and the FT have always seen themselves as global papers—what you read on the airplane as you’re flying to Davos,” said Charlie Beckett, a London School of Economics professor and former journalist. “They have a style that’s more objective, reliable, and analytical because they’re writing for businesspeople who don’t want to be bullshitted.”

Not that any reader wants that. But the straightforward style contrasts starkly with that of Britain’s tabloid press. These newspapers indeed produce good work, Beckett said, but they’ve responded to waning political influence by taking increasingly strong partisan stances likely to disorient American readers. More importantly, they don’t have a foothold in the US media market.

The venerable Guardian, meanwhile, launched Guardian US in 2011. But it doesn’t appear to be tailoring much of its content for an American audience unfamiliar with what “MP” stands for (member of parliament), let alone the political dynamics that gave rise to the SNP (Scottish National Party). That’s not to say its election coverage hasn’t been strong, but rather that it’s less likely to attract casual American observers.

To the Guardian US’ credit, it has published summaries of the major parties’ platforms, and an explainer video sat high on its homepage Thursday morning, in addition to other efforts. But news of the UK general election, the first since the Guardian US launched, hasn’t been featured particularly prominently on its site over the past week. Perhaps that’s part of the Guardian US’ strategy—and it could very well be a smart strategy, depending on the outlet’s stateside goals—but the organization did not respond to a request for comment.

The BBC’s American-focused operation, on the other hand, is more entrenched. Britain’s flagship broadcaster likewise publishes its UK-tailored content on its globally focused programs and sites. “It would be crazy not to,” said Richard Porter, editorial and digital director of BBC World News. But bridging the gap in background knowledge is an essential primer.

“For an American audience, before you can get them to consume a piece of content produced with a UK audience in mind, you have to get the US audience to understand a basic level of information,” Porter said. Speaking about the Scottish National Party, whose popularity is a byproduct of Scotland’s failed vote for independence last year, he added that American audiences have to know “who these people are, what they’re doing, and why that matters.”

The BBC has taken a more proactive approach at providing such context this election cycle. A documentary series has brought viewers inside Westminster. TV hosts have led Twitter chats on the UK political process, while reporters have filed explainers on the topics online. BBC North America reporter Anthony Zurcher traveled to the UK to report on the election for his audience on this side of the pond. Radio programs have introduced listeners to party politics and described what might happen if no party wins a clear majority. One digital video features an animated, bowler hat-wearing Corgi briefing non-Brits on the definition of a hung parliament.

“The reality is,” Porter said, “on our home territory people have high expectations of what we do.”

No matter whether the way they do it is serious or silly. With news on such unfamiliar topics—as with life—having a Corgi by your side is better than the alternative.

Correction: The original version of this article called the Scottish National Party a byproduct of Scotland’s failed vote for independence last year. The SNP was founded in 1934. Its growing political clout is a byproduct of the failed referendum.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.