The visit of China’s premier Wen Jiabao to England provides an opportunity to explore a clash of cultures. A Daily Mail article is chosen to represent the style and content of reporting in a popular British newspaper
Thanks to the freedom of the press in England we have numerous opportunities to explore the cultural beliefs they purvey. These reveal themselves particularly when a story can be written about a different culture.
The Daily Mail
The Daily Mail is, perhaps, as alien to Chinese culture as Mr Wen’s Culture is to most of the two million Mail readers. A study of The Mail’s history reveals a consistent pattern of robust and independent reporting which should not be mistaken as coming from a state-controlled institution. Left-wing commentators see it as the voice of Little Britain, popularist, and provocatively opposed to social reform. Yet it has never been an obliging supporter of Conservative policies when it considers them to be weak on issues such as immigration, ‘Europe’, or crime.
Its founders in the 1890s, were innovators whose energy and ideas helped create the so-called tabloid press style in England which has echoes in today’s NewsCorp of Rupert Murdoch. (Tabloid: smaller format newspapers with more higher entertainment to news ratios than the ‘serious’ papers such as The Times, Guardian, and Daily Telegraph).
The style is part nostalgia for a lost glory of Empire, part anger at frustration with post-imperial Britannia. It writes a lot about the BBC (which it sees as irredeemably biased to the political and social left), immigrants as a social evil, homosexuality, welfare scoundrels, and the restrictions to free speech imposed by what readers have come to call political correctness and the Nanny State. Foreigners tend to be written about as strange and often funny. The style is always lively, full of energy, and creativity, with a cheerful mix of opinion, invention, mischief and sometimes factual evidence.
Its journalists survive by being able to capture outrage and frustration for a proportion of the population of the United Kingdom which prefers news served up in this format. Part of the offering is its predictability of beliefs together with originality of the writing
The visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao was described by the paper’s political sketch writer Quentin Watts. Mr Watts has written extensively about the decline of standards in England. Extracts from his recent book were recycled as Mail articles. One claimed, for example, that
You see them clack-clacking along the pavement, fat-faced British girls with goose-pimpled thighs en route to the disco. In the third blast from his new book on the dumbing down of Britain, Quentin Letts holds Germaine Greer [celebrity feminist scholar] responsible for at least some of this destruction of feminine modesty and decency and the rise of (his terms) ‘an entire generation of loose knickered lady louts’
Quentin sizes up Wen Jiabao
Watts begins his sketch with the visual impression of the scene:
Tidy little chap, Wen, size of a retired jockey. He spoke at rare length but gave away little. It was a bit like watching Geoffrey Boycott [boring Cricketer turned celebrity commentator] bat. He stood on the podium largely hidden by his lectern. All we could see was a neat, inky hairdo, metal-rimmed spectacles and an immobile upper lip.
The article continues:
Mr Cameron, standing at an identical lectern a few feet away, towered over Mr Wen physically – and yet it was plainly the Peking premier who was the senior partner. Mr Cameron, looking a little careworn, did his usual range of facial expressions. He gave us variations of timbre, smiles, frowns, glances to the horizon, etc. Mr Wen, by contrast, just stood there like an off-duty washing machine awaiting its next load of smalls.
You Funny Little Chaps
Mr Watts is paid to write amusingly about politicians. The humour here is laced with nostalgia. Mr Cameron towers over Mr Wen (Our people are tall and powerful; you funny little chaps are small and weak). And yet, “it was plainly the Peking premier who was the senior partner”.
It is a kind of humour that was once applied to another funny little chap known as Adolph Hitler. This came to mind not because the article intended to liken the Chinese Premier with Hitler. It was because humour reveals a lot. It reminded me (thanks to Wikipedia) that The Mail’s founder Lord Rothermere was a supporter of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and for a time sympathetic to the ideas of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, during the 1930s.
Funny thing, culture
It’s a funny thing culture, too. I suspect it to be one of The Mail’s less favoured words, suggesting pointless initiatives peddled as University courses. But maybe there is much to be learned from reactions when cultures clash.