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President and Mrs Obama visit the UK

The most recognisable couple in the world have recently completed a flurry of diplomatic engagements in Britain: the G20 summit, meetings with world leaders, tea with the Queen.


And although the focus has rightly been the paradigm shift in American politics, spearheaded by Barack Obama, his wife has been the subject of no less attention by the British press. From the trivial (her wardrobe marathon with Carla Bruni) to the inspirational speech Mrs Obama made at an inner city girls’ school.


BBC coverage of the event has been gushing. In fact, the Obamas have received far greater attention than the prime minister: TV instantly snapped away from Gordon Brown’s press conference the minute the President walked onto a stage in the next room. This kind of favouritism feels slightly undignified, particularly from a broadcaster noted for its impartiality; the contrast with Obama’s predecessor couldn’t be greater.


Even if the BBC can be excused for overexposing the Obamas, especially considering the novelty of America’s new-found popularity in Europe, their focus on more trivial matters has drawn some complaints from viewers. One comment on their website expressed frustration that the licence fee was being spent on discussion of the First Lady’s lurid cardigan. It’s not doubtful that this kind of trivia taps into the popular mood, but does it do anything to inform the audience? And is real journalism being sacrificed?


Both ITV and Channel 4 News fell into a similar mould, although neither station is obliged to follow such exacting standards as the Beeb. Although bias on British stations is hardly as palpable as on their American countparts (Fox and MSNBC being the main culprits), there is a very obvious reluctance amongst newscasters to present criticism of the Obamas.


It is not as if the President has failed to court controversy: his unprecedented spending program and escalation of the war in Afghanistan has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, G20 and NATO leaders seem, at the least, reluctant to buy into either initiative. Yet little of this seems to be filtering down to the press.


So is this one-sidedness real or imagined? In truth, both Obamas are enjoying a honeymoon with Europe that ended long ago in their home country: and the overall success of their visit will only prolong that. Yet contrast this with the hostility former President Bush received at the same point in his presidency: the British press took him to task for his conservative appointments, contempt for climate change and farcical contested victory in the elections. But Bush’s approval ratings after 75 days in office stood at 62%, a figure Obama has not reached since inauguration day. It would seem that all news channels have, to some extent, been drawn into the style to the detriment of substance.


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