A Well-Spoken Invasion:The Brits Taking Over American Media

ABC and NBC News have British chiefs, the CEO of the New York Times used to run the BBC—how and why have the British risen to such exalted positions within American media?

When Howard Stringer was appointed president of CBS News in October 1986, the occasion was sufficiently bizarre—really? a Brit taking over a major U.S. media outlet?—that senior CBS Evening News producer Andrew Heyward jokingly presented Stringer with a framed quotation from Edward R. Murrow.

“Can you imagine an American broadcasting company asking an Englishman to take charge of it?” the Polecat Creek, N.C.-born Murrow marveled to a friend, at the height of World War II, after declining Winston Churchill’s offer to be deputy director-general of the BBC.

It was, in Murrow’s mind, a laughable notion.

“I had that quote hanging in the ‘fishbowl’ for quite a long time,” Sir Howard says now, referring to the glass-walled editorial office facing the CBS newsroom on West 57th Street. “Well, it’s a different world today, isn’t it?”

Indeed. If a digital-age Paul Revere were to jump on his steed to sound the alarm—or, rather, pick up his iPad to tweet “The British are coming!”—he would already be years too late.

The invaders have landed in force, occupying massive acreage of American media territory, running the news divisions of two broadcast networks (Deborah Turness at NBC and James Goldston at ABC); a television entertainment division (Paul Lee at ABC); several major newspapers (including Gerard Baker at The Wall Street Journal and Colin Myler at The New York Daily News); sundry glossy magazines (notably Anna Wintour at Vogue, Glenda Bailey at Harper’s Bazaar, and Joanna Coles at Cosmopolitan); and even launching an influential Internet empire (Nick Denton at Gawker Media).

Was the War of Independence in vain?

“You should not be taking the British cultural imperialism angle,” cautions former Londoner Mark Thompson, who in 2012 left his job running the BBC to become chief executive officer of The New York Times Co. “We are grateful immigrants rather than returning colonial masters.”

The Oxford-educated Thompson, 56, adds: “There’s quite a long tradition of Brits being very portable—a small-country tradition of going off and making careers and lives in other parts of the world. I’m not suggesting it’s imperial, but that sense of portability is quite a strong British tradition, and I’m a pretty good example of that.”

What’s more, Thompson says, the Brits benefit from a media tradition in their home country that sometimes resembles Mortal Kombat. “The U.K. journalism world, in particular print journalism, is ferociously competitive,” he says. “We have in Britain a large number of national newspapers and the culture has got a lot of cut and thrust.”

Sir Harold Evans, editor at large of Thomson Reuters, landed in New York three decades ago after running London’s Sunday Times, and became the top editorial executive of American media properties ranging from Random House to The Atlantic Monthly to the Daily News, while founding Condé Nast Traveler in his spare time.

“In general, there’s the receptivity of Americans to aliens—they’ve met aliens before and they know they are actually ordinary people,” says Evans, offering reasons why Brits arrive and thrive in the U.S. media while there exists no reciprocal phenomenon. “Whereas in the U.K., it’s a much more homogeneous place with fewer aliens and less accommodating to outsiders,” Evans continues. “The second thing is the class structure in Britain. If you come from a strange place called Eton or Harrow, you’re going to do better than if you come from a strange place called North Carolina or wherever it may be.”

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Evans adds that the British media culture—while animated, especially in Fleet Street, by “the feral nature of competition”—is also characterized by a certain resentment of interlopers. “In any of the editorial positions I had in the States, I never ran across any resentment. It was a joke occasionally—‘Limey, what are you doing?’—but it was much more welcoming.”

Evans, 85, thinks of himself as part of a British media “diaspora” which is currently in its third wave. Evans and his wife, Tina Brown, the founding editor of The Daily Beast, along with Vogue editor Wintour, were part of the first wave; Harper’s Bazaar’s Bailey was in the second; the New York Times’s Thompson and NBC News’s Turness are part of the third; and Stringer—who arrived here in 1965 to take a lowly job as a researcher and promptly found himself a military draftee in Vietnam, where he served as a sergeant in the U.S. army—was arguably a one-man diaspora.

“It’s the story of the classic immigrants who decide they want something else,” says Brown, who after turning Tatler, the British society magazine, into a razor-sharp must-read, came here to revive Vanity Fair. “It’s self-selecting. If you want something else, you’re already somebody who’s creative and imaginative and you’re willing to take risks.”

Although the money in the States tends to be more generous than in Britain, “it’s not about economics, actually,” Brown says. “It’s about a mindset. Mark Thompson didn’t have to come here. He could have stayed in London and served on boards and become a poobah…It’s creative adventure reasons on the whole.”

Brown adds that Brits tend to do well because they bring a certain swagger and independence of mind to an American media culture that increasingly has become “so corporatized, with no individuality and the sense of being terrified by their own corporations or stifled by them. They’re sucking up to advertisers all the time and it’s difficult for journalists to express themselves. Individuality is leaving the profession. But that’s not true in the U.K.”

Stringer, for his part, points out that making the transition across the pond to American television executive is arguably more difficult than for Brits in print. Turness at NBC News (who led the journalism at ITV) and Goldston at ABC (a BBC alum) must operate in an environment that is materially different from back home.

“The cultural perceptions are different,” Stringer says. “I would suggest that British training… is fairly undiluted by ratings anxiety”—which obviously overwhelms American television executives. “If you’re a news person, you remain a news person, and your experience is pretty damned steady and clearly editorially journalistic and single-minded in its journalistic approach.”

So should the U.S. media burst into a collective refrain of Rule Britannia? Maybe not, Mark Thompson suggests. “There is a well of deep fascination among British media about America, about American media, and about American politics,” he says. “To state the obvious, America remains the most important country in the Western World, arguably the most important country in the whole world.”

Perhaps then, there’s hope for the Yanks yet.