Only in America

There are important elections taking place this month around the world, but you would hardly know from the media coverage, argues Rhys David

Remember the US presidential election? How could you not? Blanket coverage across the media from the start of 2008 to the elections in November, from the first primaries in some of the most obscure states through to the election itself.

Top BBC journalists embedded with the campaign teams, first of all in the primaries, following every twist in the Clinton-Obama battle, often at the top of the news, and then in the contest itself between Barrack Obama and John McCain. For the eventual vote vast teams assembled to analyse the incoming results, all fronted by the most senior news programme presenters flown over with their entourages to lend the gravitas that would come from reading their autocues on the spot.

So why is it that when the second and third biggest economies in the world – Japan and Germany – hold elections, as is the case this month, so little attention is paid by the British media? Indeed, how many people in Britain even know elections are going ahead, leave alone could hazard a guess at the names of the parties or the candidates? While neither country has the same inter-connections with Britain politically, socially, militarily or culturally as the US, Germany is a key partner of the UK within the EU, as well as being its biggest member. As such, many of the objectives Britain is seeking to achieve within the EU, including reform of the world’s financial system to prevent a recurrence of the near catastrophe suffered by the world economy over the past year, will require close co-operation with the German government. As such the outcome of the German election due later this month is important to Britain (and Wales) and the public deserves to be better informed.

Japan is perhaps a different case but it, too, is a very significant trade partner and has much experience of dealing with the impact of recession – its economy has been in the doldrums since the early 1990s, offering lessons we need to learn, and its national debt is significantly higher than that projected for the UK. In its way, too, the Japanese election result has been as significant and momentous as the election of the first black president. The new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama leads a party which has just broken a 50 year stranglehold on power by Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and may have a very different take on the economy, society and international relations from its long-lasting predecessor.

Whereas the LDP was the child of the close relationship with the US that has characterised Japan since the war, with a right of centre approach to business and a strongly pro-American stance, the Democratic Party of Japan is more socially-orientated and may be less accommodating towards the US in foreign policy. It has also promised to put consumers rather than business interests first and to promote domestic demand in place of the previous priority given to exports. Assuming these ideas survive the experience of government, this last approach could be important to business in the rest of the world as it seeks new markets to rebuild after the recession.

Germany’s elections on September 27th pit the country’s prime minister Angela Merkel against its foreign minister the little-known (in Britain) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose Social Democratic Party is a partner to Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats in government. Though Mrs Merkel is widely expected to win, the German electorate is being given a clear choice between two contrasting approaches to dealing with the economic problems, including high unemployment, facing the continent’s powerhouse. The traditionally leftish SPD would in government promote environmental businesses, tax the rich more highly, and make some significant changes to the regulation of markets. Again, this could impact on Britain.

Getting people in Britain, and in Wales, to take an interest in political developments even closer at hand has become increasingly difficult and as newspapers circulations have declined, managements appear to have taken the perverse and even counter-intuitive view that even more of the same sad formulae which now account for most daily coverage – crime, celebrity, and sport – is needed to stop the rot. If newspapers are a lost cause, however, it is surely time the BBC looked at the overwhelming emphasis it places in its coverage of world affairs on the US and provided the British public with a much fuller account of what is going on in other important partner nations, particularly our Continental neighbours. The German and Japanese elections would have been a good starting point.

Rhys David is an IWA Trustee and former Financial Times journalist.

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