The British Press’ Preemptive Anti-Backlash Backlash

Heather Horn at The Atlantic has a hefty roundup of British indignation at the supposed wave of anti-British hysteria sweeping across the US following the still-unresolved Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As I suggested earlier, this whole episode has taken me by surprise and left me asking whether the rift in the “special relationship” is being created out of whole cloth by the tabloid tendency of the British press with the help of prickly British politicians.

Just how bad is it? Consider the alliterated rage of Lord Tebbit, former Tory Party Chairman, who labeled President Obama’s rhetoric “a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance.” London Mayor Boris Johnson — also a Tory — has taken a similar tack, signaling that Tory enthusiasm for US lost during the Blair years is still lost with Cameron at the helm. Pols are always looking for a way to turn the masses towards an external enemy, so I understand their motives, but the British press’ headlong dash into like-minded nationalism is quite striking. And whatever the motives of British editorial writers, their chosen narratives, taken as a whole, lack perspective, coherence, and sympathy.

A disaster whose environmental carnage will rival the human toll of Katrina and whose economic cost will utterly devastate the American gulf coast is touted by David Strahan in the Independent as a helpful wake-up call for Americans to change their habits. Strahan’s cold-bloodedness is matched by the The Mirror’s eagerness to pin the blame for the disaster on an American company that allegedly manufactured a faulty valve used on the Deepwater Horizon. Nevermind that valves do break and BP remains utterly unprepared for a worst-case scenario.

(In fairness, it’s not just the British who are failing the perspective test: both international commentator Fareed Zakaria and Will Inboden in Foreign Policy have criticized Obama for putting the oil spill ahead of his international priorities, ignoring both the international nature of the crisis and its existential threat to the southern US economy.)

We are told by many writers and British politicians that BP no longer stands for “British Petroleum” — much in the way that KFC doesn’t mean “Kentucky Fried Chicken — and that calling the company this name amounts to “anti-British rhetoric.” Yet the fortunes of this very same company are touted as vital to the livelihoods of millions Britons, despite being “not British.” You cannot, as we Yanks like to say, have it both ways. If the company is truly fundamentally British, you cannot chafe when we label it such.

The worst of the lot are anti-American ranters eager to climb up on the detritus of shattered ecosystems and shattered lives and shout about American venom towards Britain. It doesn’t actually matter that people throughout the region will suffer, that many endangered species will be lost — all that death and destruction just doesn’t matter so long as there’s another chance to vent against Washington. (Just like old times!) Many commentaries feature the bizarre tendency of the British press to focus on President Obama’s supposed genetic predisposition to Anglophobia, which first surfaced during alleged “slights” by Obama to Gordon Brown and the Queen, and which has become Britain’s very own species of anti-Obama Birtherism.

My British friends should take heart that Americans are unlikely to see in BP the face of our former colonial masters; instead, we look at BP and see an oil company. There may be differences with how people think on the other side of the Atlantic, but in America oil companies rank just behind the tobacco industry in the tally of “most despised” businesses. This is simply a fact of life, and those who decry the British jobs threatened by BP’s crisis in the Gulf of Mexico should ask whether they, too, encouraged the public to view oil companies as soulless machines of greed.

2 thoughts on “The British Press’ Preemptive Anti-Backlash Backlash

  1. You don’t seem to understand the problem with Obama. BP is British in that it was founded in Britain and its head quarters are in Britain but the majority of its workers are American, half the board is American (I believe the chairman is Swedish) and 40% of the share holders are American.

    The problem is the American attitude. Why is such aggressive language being used when it won’t help solve the problem and why the unnecessary attacks on BP. For example trying the stop the dividend payment is unjustified since the company has far more than is required for the current costs of the clean-up in its bank account so why try to harm pension funds by stopping the dividend. The attacks on the CEO are unnecessary since he is clearly doing everything we can – just because obama is a politician and all politicians know about is PR and spin where as the CEO understands business and science.

    Then there is the problem of the double standards when comparing the oil spill to other disasters caused by American companies/people in the rest of the world (in particular pipa alpha in the UK and the chemical works gas leak in India that has recently been in the news)

    And we must also remember that BP share of the blame is small as you said it was transocean’s rig operated by transoceans employees and the blowout preventer which failed was made by the third party you mentioned and the whole thing was regulated and approved by American regulators.

    • I do understand that Obama feels the need to talk tough to avoid a meltdown over his handling of the disaster, and he may yet melt down. But you cannot shift the blame away from BP as the principal entity — and in this sense BP’s share of the blame can never really be small, especially since they seemingly had no established SOP for Gulf spills — and though the government’s methods may well trend towards overkill, especially in the post-GM-takeover environment, that doesn’t make it an attack on Britain and it doesn’t justify the anti-American tirades being unleashed in the British press.

      By-the-way, is it a double standard for Americans to criticize a foreign company when American companies are regularly criticized for their actions? And was it not possible for Britain in the Piper Alpha case and India in the Union Carbide poisoning case to punish the companies involved as best the governments could? For instance, when Occidental Petroleum was charged with the pollution of Love Canal, it had to pay heavy fines in the late 1970s — so why didn’t the British pile on against Occidental a decade later? It’s not hypocritical to punish companies for disasters at home while other governments fail to do so. Remember, as pols on both sides of the Atlantic would say: all politics is local.

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