Forget Murdoch: British Journalism Is Still Great

Lest we forget, there's a lot more to the British press than tabloid fare and phone-hacking scandals.

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(Reuters)

The scandals at News Corporation have dominated coverage of the British media for months -- understandably, given the acts themselves and the unfolding consequences for Rupert Murdoch's empire. So, with ignominy tarnishing British journalism, this seems like an especially good time to examine the role that several of News Corporation's more prestigious competitors have come to play, particularly on the American scene.

The Economist, the Financial Times, and the BBC's World News operation produce consistently outstanding work and have secured a niche among their elite target audiences that is large enough to be influential and, from all accounts, successful in business terms as well.

The leadership of all three enterprises is London-based, and their respective viewpoints and mannerisms are definitely British. What makes them especially notable in the tumultuous contemporary media environment is their longevity. They adhere to time-honored values and practices that are updated enough to meet today's styles of delivery, but seem to have changed less to meet demands of the moment than much of the upmarket American media.

As a weekly magazine of news and commentary, the Economist is a superb example of analytical writing, with a distinctive tone that is authoritative and yet generally brisk enough to avoid earnestness. The Financial Times reflects the sophistication of its reporters, columnists, and editors, and manages to be both comprehensive and comprehensible on complex issues in its purview six days a week, an astounding accomplishment. The BBC is unmatched for global breadth. BBC's World News broadcasts are available on public radio and PBS. There is also a 24-hour television news channel that is included on some cable and satellite services, plus a high-quality web presence. Wherever there is a breaking story, a BBC correspondent is seemingly on hand.

The Economist was founded in 1843. I have been reading it since the 1960s, and most of its contents -- leaders (editorials), briefings, special reports, and its sections have barely changed their format, as far as I can tell. Only lengthy special reports are by-lined. Otherwise, the anonymity of the articles underscores their omniscience. The addition of a weekly China section this year was a significant measure of how important that nation has become. (The United States earned its own report in 1942.) Lately, when mail service delays the Friday arrival of the magazine, I have downloaded it on the iPad. The process is smooth and quick, with a display that would satisfy even the fussiest traditionalist. The Economist website is doubtless a good supplement to the weekly, but this is a case (for me, at least) where just keeping up with the magazine requires as much time as I can devote to the publication. Ownership and oversight is clearly structured to give maximum independence to its editors. The Economist Group is half owned by the Financial Times, itself a subsidiary of Pearson PLC. The balance is in the hands of the Rothschild family and senior staff. Worldwide circulation is now about 1.5 million, of which well over half is in the United States, with an annual subscription of $138 at full price.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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