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Those Crazy Americans on @theJeremyVine Show: Another Balanced Debate from The BBC

Aerial view of the White House in Washington, D.C.

The United States: not European enough apparently ... you can't see a single Greek rioter anywhere.

Yesterday’s Jeremy Vine show had a discussion on “What has gone wrong with the USA?”. Though ostensibly a discussion about the current federal debt crisis, I can’t help thinking that in the programme’s planning the rather broader premise of the question was barely queried.

This could still have been an engaging debate – even with the time restrictions imposed by the show’s easily digestible puréed format which shoehorns four topics and music into less than two hours, leaving little time for the sort of audience engagement that listeners of ‘proper’ (sorry, Jeremy) phone-in shows allow. Sadly, though, one is left distracted by the BBC disease: a lack of impartiality almost to the point of failing to “educate and inform”.

First up was Justin Webb, the BBC’s former Washington correspondent, who quickly settled into a caricature of the U.S. that we have become familiar with from the BBC. Within seconds he had mentioned Sarah Palin and “rootin’ tootin’ huntin’ fishin’” types not wanting anything to do with the federal government. How ungrateful these people are, he opined, given how much the federal government had spent on them. Americans, he said, “don’t really understand the extent to which, in a modern society, you need the government to spend money” … they were not “willing to pay for it”, he lectured.

America needs to become “more modern and European”, said Webb, without a hint of irony or clue that he’d actually been aware of the economic hurricane over the Euro-zone. (Perhaps, like so many, he had been more focussed on the media’s navel-gazing and BBC’s Murdoch gloatfest of recent weeks.)

Then, in a statement that would have struck a sweet chord with so many Marchers for the Alternative, Webb pointed out that the U.S. national debt was not that high, as a percentage of GDP.


He finished off with the ubiquitous mention of healthcare. Cued up by Jeremy Vine suggesting that Americans don’t spend that much on healthcare, Webb did go momentarily off the script by pointing out that the U.S. spends twice as much on healthcare as the U.K. … but they “don’t spend it as efficiently”. Phew, and God bless our own sleek and unbeatable NHS, eh?

Next up was Maureen Boyard(?) who was given little introduction. She had been warned by an insightful American friend that she was being set up by being invited on, but she’d thrown caution to the wind and gone ahead anyway. All was well, though; she rounded off her contribution with a little diatribe against the war and poor healthcare provision (can you see a theme emerging here?)

Then Scott Lucas, Professor of American Studies at Birmingham University, came on. In 2001 the budget was in surplus; ten years’ later they are trillions in debt. It was all the fault of Bush’s administration who went on a spending binge, including expensive wars. Jeremy Vine mentioned the Laffer curve (which, as all good lefties know, despite weighty evidence to the contrary, is all a right-wing myth) and he and Lucas then had a chuckle while the good professor dismissed such economic nonsense, had a dig at trickle-down economics to boot and argued for raising taxes.

However, it then came as a refreshing change to hear from Carol Sarler who subtly but effectively trashed Justin Webb’s statements by educating us on how things actually work outside the Beltway. Across much of the U.S., state politics usually trumps federal shenanigans in most American’s considerations, since most of the issues that people care about fall within the purview of their governors and state legislatures. In essence, though she didn’t specifically say it, Americans’ indifference to the federal government is not so much the libertarian caricature that Justin Webb treated us to, but a pragmatic localism.

So, a number of points came out of all this:

Of the four guests, three were clearly coming from a left-wing, big government perspective. Hardly a balanced approach, but we are sadly familiar with the BBC’s half-hearted approach to its duty of impartiality. Sarler actually gave the only balanced and seemingly best-informed view of what is going on in the American psyche. (By that I mean genuinely balanced and not right-wing; I am very much aware that I find it easier to spot left-wing or statist bias than any towards my own political position.) She alone appeared not to be soaked in the condescending cynicism that is characteristic of so much coverage of the US on the BBC.

Specifically, Justin Webb blew the cover of many in, and formerly of, Auntie Beeb’s bosom with his comments on the unquestioning goodness of public spending and his veiled mockery of those nutty right-winger Palin types who hold these mad small-government views.

What was clear from the only two guests who were expressing an explicit view on the federal fiscal crisis in the US – Webb and Lucas – was that they felt that public spending and higher taxes were the way forward. Funny that these views should come from two people who owe much of their livelihoods to public spending isn’t it? They conveniently ignored the fact (indeed, explicitly, in the case of Webb’s ostrich-like comments on the size of the debt) that it was excessive spending – yes, even under the “conservative” Bush – that got the US into the current mess … just as it did the UK.

Indeed, the most striking result of any analysis of the current problems between Capitol Hill and the White House arises from that fact that both the US and UK administrations are dealing – in whole or large part – with the problems inherited from their predecessors: of the two, only the UK is demonstrating more determination to do something about it. Obama, in contrast, faffs around trying to work out ways to slam those evil tea-partiers for leaving their fire-hoses in the way.

(The full programme is available on iPlayer until 3/8/11.)

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