28 November 2022

What is behind the New York Times’ bizarre coverage of British crime?


There’s a fun game to be played with the New York Times’ coverage of British crime. It’s very simple, and you can play along at home: how many paragraphs will it take the paper to tell you what the sympathetic victim of the legal system actually did?

Take this recent piece on modern slavery. The article lists the restrictions on a man recently released from prison. After eight paragraphs, it reveals that these were imposed due to ‘a novel interpretation of a 2015 law that was written to prevent the trafficking of Vietnamese women and children’, after he sent ‘a 16-year-old-runner to sell drugs’. Beyond this, the author is curiously reticent, preferring instead to focus on the ‘disproportionate’ impact of the law on Black communities.

If you turn to contemporary coverage of the convictions, you will find slightly more detail. The man in the New York Times article was one of three drug dealers jailed under modern slavery laws. They used three boys and three girls aged 14-19 as drug mules, who were sometimes ‘forced to stash drug packages in body cavities’, kept ‘in squalid conditions at the homes of local drug users’, had their movements ‘controlled’ by the dealers, ‘had to ask permission’ to use money to buy food, and were forced to stay far from home until the drugs they held were sold.

The Modern Slavery laws were used because they cover the movement of people for exploitation. These people were exploited, and they were shuttled around the country for that person. The New York Times appears to believe that adding ‘years’ to a Glodi Wabelua’s prison sentence using this law is unfair. In their upside-down world, the three and a half years that he served are excessive, and the bail conditions designed to minimise his risk of reoffending an onerous imposition.

For most people, it is possible both to wish a man the very best in turning his life around, be pleased at signs of progress, and also to believe that the crime he originally committed deserved to be punished. The New York Times does not have this luxury; it must believe the best of every British offender, in the injustice of every British (usually English) law, and in the general inferiority of Britain.

You can see this strange attitude to the UK throughout its coverage; joint enterprise laws disproportionately target black people; British food is porridge and boiled mutton; electing Britons from ethnic minorities to high office doesn’t change our government’s ‘racist heart’, and on and on it drones, in a never-ending buzz of deeply ingrained dislike.

If you detect a hint of the imperial core rebuking the barbaric fringe to the tone, you are not alone in this. The New York Times’ values are governed by domestic culture wars. The fact that Britain has a very different history, political consensus, legal system, and demography will not prevent the newspaper projecting these values onto the country, and then recoiling from the mismatch.

But that, again, is a matter of tone. It is not an explanation for why the paper chooses to publish this output. On that front, things are simpler. As I’ve said before in the Telegraph, the New York Times is certainly in the business of evangelism, but it is even more in the business of business. And it is profitable to hate Britain.

The basic logic is simple. A large share of the British population detests these articles, and they share them when they make their dislike known. A reader who is outraged is still a reader; an ad impression is still an ad impression no matter how many curses are being flung at the screen. You just have to look at the ‘success’ these pieces have on Twitter; British people love to hate them, and the Times is simply satisfying our demand for their product. Better still, our hate shares put the material in front of the second part of the target audience: the British progressive eager to be told that they really do live in ‘rainy fascist island’.

The 70-odd editorial staff at the New York Times’ British newsroom know perfectly well how to appeal to this sensibility, as do the British writers they commission. It may have a US culture war gloss, but at its core it’s still just British resentment of other British people. And as in the UK, there is a simple way to deal with it: ignore it. Don’t share it, don’t read it, don’t reward it. Yes, an unfortunate share of our political elite read the paper and import its ideas. But if you starve the beast of food, it will eventually leave for better hunting grounds.

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Sam Ashworth-Hayes is a writer and economist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.