The British press's Obama complex

The British press' Obama complex

By Kenneth P. Vogel
|  Saturday, Sep 26, 2009  |  Updated 8:00 PM PDT
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Team Obama

AP

After the latest week’s worth of British press reports that there’s no love lost in the White House for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, even his one-on-one meeting Friday with President Obama only provided the papers across the pond with a reason for another round of stories.

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After the latest week’s worth of British press reports that there’s no love lost in the White House for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, even his one-on-one meeting Friday with President Obama only provided the papers across the pond with a reason for another round of stories. 

Since Obama burst onto the international scene last year, newspapers in the United Kingdom have spilled gallons of ink on his perceived slights of British leaders, and especially Brown. 

To be sure, the “Special Relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. has long been a favorite topic for the notoriously sensational British papers, but interest seems to have spiked since Obama’s 2008 campaign world tour swung through London for visits with top British leaders.

The local press claimed that Obama confided in aides that while he found former Prime Minister Tony Blair impressive, he thought Brown was boring, and dismissed Tory leader David Cameron as “a lightweight.” 

While Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush went to great lengths to highlight his affection for Blair – earning the president generally favorable treatment, while the prime minister was frequently caricatured as the American’s poodle – the British press breathlessly reported on an array of alleged slights of Brown during Obama’s first 100 days as president. 

Though the does-Obama-like-us-or-not storyline adds little to the public debate, expect to see more of it in British media for at least until the elections there in May, said Scott Lucas, a former American journalist who moved to the U.K. in 1984 and is a professor at the University of Birmingham specializing in U.S. and British foreign policy. 

Lucas, who maintains a blog about U.S. foreign policy, conceded that stories about Obama’s feelings towards British leaders are hot since Obama is immensely popular in Western Europe, while Brown, a favorite punching bag for the British press, is lagging in U.K. polls and is expected to be trounced by Cameron’s Tory Party in next May’s election. 

After Obama took office, the papers pounced in February when Obama returned to the British government a bust of legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which Bush had displayed in the Oval Office. The Telegraph reported  that “Barack Obama has sent Sir Winston Churchill packing and pulse rates soaring among anxious British diplomats.” 

When Brown visited in March, he gave Obama a pen holder carved from the wood of the 19th century British warship HMS President and a first-edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Obama reciprocated with 25 DVDs of American movie classics – “a gift about as exciting as a pair of socks,” whined a Daily Mail columnist. 

That’s to say nothing of the offense taken by the perceived inequity between the Obamas’ and Browns’ gifts to each others’ kids. 

Brown's wife Sarah gave Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia dresses and matching necklaces from a trendy U.K. store and a selection of books by British authors, while First Lady Michelle Obama responded with toy models of Marine One for the Brown’s two little boys “While Sarah Brown had spent time choosing gifts for the Obama girls, Michelle had clearly sent an aide to the White House gift shop at the last moment,” asserted a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, who declared the Obama’s reception of the Browns “appalling” and “rudeness personified” and concluded “All in all, (Obama) doesn’t think much of us.” 

Though White House aides brushed off the British analyses as ridiculous, they did release an unusually-detailed readout of Obama’s post-visittelephone call to Brown, in which the President again expressed gratitude for the gifts and said he put the pen holder on his Oval Office desk and had put the Churchill biography in his private study. 

“It is really lazy journalism,” Lucas said, because it misses real tensions between the two nations, including divergent strategies on stabilizing Afghanistan and the diminishing importance of bilateral relationships. 

But with Brown and Obama both spending this week with other international leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, the British press has a perfect backdrop for a new round of stories on the Obama-Brown relationship—and they did not disappoint. 

 

With the two leaders in New York earlier in the week juggling private meetings and public remarks on major issues from climate change to Middle East peace, British papers reported Wednesday that the White House had "snubbed" Brown by refusing five separate requests over the course of five days for one-on-one talks, even as Obama held bilateral meetings in New York with Chinese president Hu Jintao, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, and Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama.

The British press traveling with Brown reportedly dubbed the story “Snubgate,” and some reports attributed Obama’s purported displeasure to the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison. The Daily Telegraph asserted the snubs “appeared to have left ‘the special relationship’ at its lowest ebb for nearly 20 years.”

And it didn’t help things when Brown’s press office revealed that the two men got to spend between 10 and 15 minutes together Thursday – as they walked through the kitchens of the United Nation’s headquarters.

The Independent’s headline blared  “Brown's attempts to meet star of the show end in the kitchen.” The Daily Mail called it “a bizarre 'kitchen summit',” while The Daily Mirror reported that “the meeting raised fears the President was trying to downgrade the special relationship with Britain as other world leaders had formal meetings with him.”

The Telegraph questioned  the duration of the walk-and-talk, asserting “the claim raised the question of how the pair managed to spend so long in a room UN staff said was no more than a 50 yards long,” though the story also noted that Obama patted Brown on the back as the two left a meeting of the Security Council together.

Later Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs flatly rejected questions about the alleged snubs and chided the American reporters who asked about their British colleagues’ reports to “Stop reading those London tabloids.”

“The notion that there remains anything other than a special relationship between the two countries is silly and absurd,” Gibbs said, calling the claims “a media-generated bunch of silliness.”

Stories about the special relationship, though, have been a staple of British media since the Cold War and have shaped the way Brits see the world, said Nicholas Cull, a U.K. native who directs the masters program in public diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

“British people come here and they’re surprised that America has special relationships with a lot of countries,” he said. “It’s rather like finding out that you’re father is a bigamist. I found it to be a very strange experience to find that the story that I’d heard growing up wasn’t necessarily so.”

After the two heads of state finally had their formal bilateral meeting, a 30-minute sit-down in a side room at the G-20 leaders' summit which came after they appeared side-by-side at a press conference condemning recently revealed Iranian uranium enrichment activities, Brown lashed out at the British press, accusing  them of an “obsession” with the special relationship and urging them to focus on “big issues” and to learn how “diplomacy really works.” 

“I have been meeting the President all week and I am not going to get into this game," he said. “We have talked about Iran, we have talked about Afghanistan for the third time this week and we have talked about the global economic crisis."

The London Times, in a story headlined “Success at last: Brown enjoys private meeting with Obama at G20,” asserted that “the meeting was arranged after Mr. Brown was humiliated when his unsuccessful attempts to fix a private encounter with the President were exposed.”

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