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Politically engaged

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 08:50 UK time, Tuesday, 10 June 2008

The gripping climax to the long running struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic ticket in the race for the White House has highlighted, for me, the differences between the two countries about how their respective young audiences view the political process. I was lucky to observe the story from Washington as Obama triumphed - exactly 20 years after I first covered a US election from America as a reporter.

Radio 1 logoAs we know, here in the UK, younger audiences are broadly bored and/or cynical about Westminster politics. I detect something genuinely different about what's happening in America at the moment.

Rich or poor, old and young - but especially young - well educated or not - the election is the talking point. It may be because the American networks have saturation coverage. There's excellent coverage available on the BBC too - from Justin Webb's comprehensive online analysis to World News America's take on it all.

But for whatever reason - it's the talking point. There are theories on why Hillary should or could never be Obama's running mate. On why McCain is too old - Obama too young or inexperienced. Race, gender and age are in there: along with Iraq, healthcare and the issue that seems to be bothering Americans most - the economy, credit crunch and gas prices.

Many told me, on my trip there, that there was a mood of change taking place. Sceptical as ever I wondered if that might be wishful Democrat thinking. The polls, after all, are pretty tight.

US flagStudents at a journalism college in New York that I spoke to believed that young Americans felt they might make a difference in November at last. So does that mean a vote for Obama and change? If you listen to the politically engaged in the big cities, you could be forgiven for thinking so - though there are still those that feel Hillary was cheated - and that McCain will soon prove his worth.

But America is a big country as it's easy to get drawn into a sort of lazy journalism where a rather romantic notion of a "new JFK" might hold sway.

We probably have done rather too much on the Democratic race - and too little on McCain on Radio 1 and 1Xtra, so far. That's not down to a left-liberal bias - it's simply been the most compelling news story up to now. Now, the campaign proper starts - that's something we're going to have to correct by getting our reporters, Iain Mackenzie and Sima Kotecha, out and about into small towns and settlements. Testing this troubled nation's mood and the impact of McCain and Obama's policies and personalities.

We make no apologies for covering the US election on Newsbeat and 1Xtra News. As my colleague, World Tonight editor Alistair Burnett explained in his blog, we're all affected by what happens in November: our troop deployments in Iraq and potentially Afghanistan, the growing economic crisis that people sense up and down the country - and some very interesting US political stories and finally, perhaps crucially, the personalities of the two men.

Politics may not be the juiciest story from our young audience's viewpoint - but this story could turn out to be the most important in the world. We have a duty to report it. Perhaps it might even be an accessible and meaningful way into politics for younger Britons.


  • Comment number 1.

    "Many told me, on my trip there, that there was a mood of change taking place. ... [but] The polls, after all, are pretty tight."

    Who would not refer to JFK as an era of "change" (even you did later on). And that was an extraordinarily tight election.

  • Comment number 2.

    This 'demand for change' thing is what the BBC told us last time - then Bush got re-elected with an increased majority.

    It feels like there is going to be another democrat landslide in the BBCs minds but the reality may be very different.

    I agree it is about time you started some balanced reporting of the republican candidate not just your 'new JFK' (who I'm sure is not just another cynical politician playing the race card to gain massive power and wealth). The republicans have to take some blame for the lack of coverage though - they could have carried on with a contest to keep themselves in the news.

  • Comment number 3.

    There is a very simple reason why British youth is so interested in the US election. It's their growing incomprehension of how Bush managed to win and hold his position. They are instinctively aware of his intellectual limits, his aggressive rhetoric and bumbling conduct. They are simply fascinated to see how the world's (currently) most powerful nation can get things so wrong after taking so much time and trouble to find the right leader. As are we all...

  • Comment number 4.

    Young and old in the UK are more interested in the US election because they feel it makes more difference to them than the UK one.

    Perhaps the biggest issues to the young are high house prices and the Iraq war.

    Both of our major political parties support the Iraq war. No choice there.

    When it comes to house prices (which are clearly too high and need to fall) both parties are committed to propping them up. The Tories think affordability can be restored simply by lowering or abolishing the 1% or 3% stamp duty - which is absurd - 1% or 3% won't make a spot of difference when house prices are double where they should be. Just let prices fall and things will take care of themselves... but both parties stand for propping them up.

    Is it any surprise people aren't enthused about elections here - 2 parties, but zero choice?

  • Comment number 5.

    "We probably have done rather too much on the Democratic race - and too little on McCain on Radio 1 and 1Xtra, so far."

    No "probably" about it, Mr. McKenzie, if coverage by other areas of the BBC is anything to go by. Have a listen, if it's available, to the World Service reporting on the ninth of January, which I believe was the beginning of the primaries for nominating the US president. It was all Clinton on the World Service, easily eclipsing the historic visit of President Bush to Israel.

    When they got to 'World Have Your Say' on the same day, I was amazed to discover that instead of letting people have their say on Bush's visit, it was Clinton again. Five minutes from the end of the hour, one of the American guests - a journalist, I think - said, "We haven't got around to discussing the Republicans yet."

    The Republicans? From the World Service coverage I was convinced the Republicans were having their primary on a different day. They weren't. It was on the same day. The BBC was busy proving, yet again, that it is dominated by left wing journalists with the narrowest of left wing agendas - who wouldn't recognise journalistic responsibility if they tripped over it.

    "That's not down to a left-liberal bias - it's simply been the most compelling news story up to now."

    Of course, you have a point there. An historic race between a woman and a black man for presidential nominee was far more newsworthy than the politics as usual on the Republican side. But, dazzled by the prospect of their own (black) man or woman in the White House, the BBC went totally overboard in its coverage. As the race continued, the Republicans barely featured - even before McCain had clinched it.

    The BBC failed here in its duty to be impartial and to inform the public.

    And if you really doubt that the BBC has a left wing bias, perhaps you'd like to explain the BBC's obsessive support for Labour - even when it's spelt 'Labor', as in the recent Australian elections, before which the BBC rolled up its sleeves and pitched in to promote the party in every way it could.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm 18 and have been interested in politics for many years. Many of my friends are also very interested in politics and a majority of my year is taking politics for A Level. I think that the lack of 'youth' interest is overestimated.

    I also feel that it is this belief that youths are not interested which has led to a focus on policies aimed at proffesional adults. Neither of the main parties has really dealt with youth issues and I think thier lack of interest in us is what leads to lack of youth turnout at the polls. Many policies have even alienated youth voters: top-up fees anyone?

    Newsbeat's coverage has been inciteful and useful to grasp the basics of the US system and has encouraged debate at school between many of my classmates. Even those who do not do politics have their views on what Clinton should do next. The USAs parties are different and McCain and Obama have very different polices. In the UK, we have seen years of concensus politics blur party lines and making debates very dull.

    Thus I do agree with the idea that the US election is more exciting. But I also feel the next UK election will be more intriguing too because it will be no sure Labour victory... and that is something to look forward to.

  • Comment number 7.

    Considering the fact that I'm going to be going to university in September - to study American Politics - I do agree that the 2008 US Election IS a talking point - amongst the young and old alike!

    I drive my friends crazy by regularly asking their opinions of who they think will win; strange that NONE of my friends think the Reps have a chance and they're all "Dem Supporters"!

    I have even heard some 14 / 15 year olds talking about (at the time Hillary was still in the race) who would have more authority over the US - Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

    Even in our 6th Form Common Room, girls who are interested in nothing but fashion, art, photography etc have been known to talk about the US election.

    Hopefully we can pull that US political interest over into UK political interest!

  • Comment number 8.

    Ron paul 'cured my apathy'

    If you look at Ron Paul followers, you will see true engagement in the political process. His followers tend to be well updated and have researched their candidate of choice, they don't just take what the media throws at them. Ron Paul has turned US politics on its head. There are tens of thousands of people who have found a leader they can trust.

    The Ron Paul Revolution has just begun

  • Comment number 9.

    Having watched your coverage of the presidential race, all i can say is that at best you have done your job of keeping the left right paradigm enforced.
    (leaning heavily to the democrat side)

    The most interesting thing about the primary race was Ron Paul.

    But the incredible grassroots movement and record breaking money raising were never covered by your news output. As far as the BBC were concerned, he didn't run.

    Instead you created a media story about Hillary vs. Obama, that was all that happened in the primaries apparantly. Then as soon as the race is over, you all leave, not even hanging around for a few days to witness them both going of to this years Bilderberg Meeting.

    I also noticed a complete lack of coverage of vote rigging, mainly the diabold machines. You can look to the excellent work of Bev Harris if you need details.

    In short you did good, you let us down and served them well.

  • Comment number 10.

    Both Obama and McCain are silent about the 35 reasons to bring both President Bush and VP Cheney to an Impeachment trial.

    On Monday lawmaker Dennis Kucinich gave 35 reasons to impeach in a speech.

    I wish the BBC would pick up the story because it has gone without notice in US Media.

    Here is the AP story:


    Here is my Indymedia article, please steal this story.

    peace, Joe Rowe

  • Comment number 11.

    Young people (i.e. 15 - 22) are not stupid; they realise, as does every other politically aware person, that politics affects their lives, and that the United States' politics affects our lives, just as our own.

    Clearly, those same people don't want to grow up living and working in a future where the world is run by incompetent, illogical government; those at the older end of the range are acutely aware of the possible implications of the credit crunch, and any recession it may cause, and are therefore concerned over the need for economic stability, and for public faith in those who lead, and who claim to represent them.

  • Comment number 12.

    Judging by the hours of coverage dedicated to them every week, the media clearly believe that, out of all the many important things going on in the world, the US elections rank far higher than anything else. Really? I'm a fully grown adult and if I find the blanket coverage mind numbingly dull (even the 10 seconds I am exposed to as I frantically search for the remote control), I can't possibly imagine why kids would be remotely concerned with this above all else. Yes, what happens in America is important to us but only because they seem to choose who we should go to war with, how much our houses will cost, etc. There are no signs that the outcome of this election will change our "special relationship" for the better, so I struggle to see why we should get so excited about it. Even if a Democrat gets in next time, will the US really become any less introspective and self serving?

  • Comment number 13.

    Characterisations of youth as being apatehtic to politics are generalisations. Other posters have noted how the rush to the centre in British politics has left little point to the debates. We no longer debate policies just delivery.

    American youth have been interested in politics since the previous election due to how close the Bush/Gore election was. They felt they could make a difference.

    This has only increased with the realisation that Bush has probably been the worst persident in US history. It doesn't necessitate a rush to the Democrats, just a distinct shift from the Bush approach within the republican party.

    The same is possible here, it happened in 1997 when people were tired of the Tories. However, as said above British politics is in a quagmire. Political parties won't get people interested untill they offer a choice and persuade people to vote on their policies, rather than just responding to focus groups and ending up with the same try to please everyone and achieve nothing labour third way.

  • Comment number 14.

    Arghhhhh! Ok, interesting article with an equelly interesting point to make, worthy of discusion.... So please, why use it to make Yet Another whinge about the BBC's left wing bias? The percentage of voters in our last general election was pitifull, its desperatly important that we try and encourage people to at least be aware of politics. No amount of whinging changes it, only voting does.
    Is this about BBC bias? NO! Is it about Ron Paul? NO! Is it about the Republican nomination? NO!! And two lines of text briefly mentioning the subject followed by twenty on the subject of your choice, however closely related Isnt comment.
    My teenage brothers have Zero interest in politics of any kind, they dont see how it affects them. Thats a problem. Why the BBC chooses to report what it reports, thats a differnt conversation alltogether.
    Oh, and for the record, yes, i get the irony/hypocrasy of my post.

  • Comment number 15.

    No doubt BBC America will do its tiny best by puffing at the Democrat sails…

  • Comment number 16.

    I was in the USA during our General Election of 2005. It got the same coverage there as a story about a rabbit that had adopted 6 kittens.

    The US primaries are of no relevance to us in Britain whatsoever. We only need to know the outcome of the Presidential election itself.

    The huge coverage of the primaries here is just reality-TV for politics fans. (So why should Suzanne Shaw be interested?)

    But being a politics fan myself, I will admit to being very interested this time in the race to become Democratic nominee.

  • Comment number 17.

    Why just not admit the facts mckenzie, US poltics is interesting, it is fun, it can be maddening, it is loaded with drama and suspense, it has a million twists and turns and in the end, the single most important job in the world gets decided. By comparison, UK politics is dead, dead, dead. Does anyone actually care who runs the UK? Even uks?

  • Comment number 18.

    There is one more article of bias which cuts across ideological lines. This affects both US and foreign media outlets and liberal, conservative and neutral media outlets.

    The media has been heavily covering the US Presidential Race...but there are other political races this year. 1/3 of the US Senate is up for grabs, as is all the US House. Most people tend to focus on the presidency as though the President made all the political decisions in the USA. He (or she, in the future) doesn't. Most media outlets focus entirely on the presidential race. This ignores all the other races that are going on. The BBC should spend a bit of time covering the House and Senate races too.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm 24 and I've always taken an interest in politics and what's happening in the world. I remember watching the 1997 election with my mum and thinking how much better things were going to be (sad to say we were taken in along with the rest of the country). Young people are interested in the American election because Obama is much cooler than other polticians, and he's been using Facebook/YouTube to great effect, knowing how to get in touch with people of my generation. It's been a competition of two big personalities so far, and now it'll be another two, and that's what holds our attention. The fact Obama can make incredible speeches that don't actually induce sleep is another bonus.

    The problem with politics is this country is that it is utterly, utterly DULL. The people who are involved are so terribly boring. None of them inspires me in the slightest. I've gone from being someone who strongly believed in voting, and the importance of everyone using their vote, to someone who is probably not going to vote at the next election. It's not that I don't care - it's that I feel they don't care, and they're all as bad as each other. Gordon Brown is uninspiring, David Cameron's a big fake, the LibDems lost my interest when they stabbed Charles Kennedy in the back... it's just a waste of time. None of them listens to anyone, young or old, and I'm fed up. I'm not the only one.

  • Comment number 20.

    #16 - That's nearly as much coverage the UK GE of 2005 got in the UK...

    The fact that America has primaries - elections to select party candidates - while the UK doesn't means there is an extra barrier between ourselves and our elected leaders.

    People have moaned that the primaries have been going on too long and the rules are complex, slow and expensive but at least it's better than a half dozen party officals getting together and "selecting" the MP - usually with a heavy hand from the party central office. How can any normal person feel connected to their MP with a system like this?

  • Comment number 21.

    Mr. McKenzie, I believe you're right about the story may be the most important one this year; and agree that you and yours may at times recklessly disregarded the good news from McCain vs. the popular and hot news from Barack et al. Now time will tell through reading you and yours IF you continue to ignore the good of McCain vs. the popular and hot.


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