Most high-school textbooks claim the First World War precipitated the breakup of the British Empire, but it's hard to believe British newspapers didn't have something to do with it. Outside of San Francisco, Great Britain consistently produces the worst daily journalism in the civilized world, newspapers unmatched for sleaze, inaccuracy, and bad writing. Everybody knows British newspapers are terrible, and if I had been paying closer attention I might not have returned a call the other day from Allan Hall, the New York correspondent for the Daily Mirror.
I might even have recognized Hall's name. A longtime tabloid hack, Hall is well known in England for his groundbreaking dispatches from the New World: "Bill Gates Has An Insatiable Sex Drive," "Don Johnson Weeps For Wife While Seducing Blonde In Booze Clinic," "Jacko's Wedding Album: He Wore Black And A Lot of Grease; She Wore A Miniskirt." Hall spent a chunk of the early 1990s covering the Lorena Bobbitt dismemberment trial, keeping readers back home up to date with evocative follow-ups such as "Sliced Stumpy Works Again: Severed Penis Man Claims He Can Have Sex." Hall has also chronicled former tennis champion Billie Jean King's struggle with eating disorders ("Billie Jean Binge Agony").
Unfortunately, on the day he called my office I'd never heard of him. "What do you think of the Monica Lewinsky thing?" Hall asked. The interview was short and dull. I let loose with a few trite observations. He thanked me and hung up. I did think it was odd when an editor from the Mirror phoned my house from London a few hours later to ask where he should send the photographer to take my picture. But I ignored the message and went out to dinner. And that was it.
Until a week later, when I got a message from my father. "Caught your piece in the Mirror," he said. "Are you leading a double life?" He seemed to be snickering on the phone. Confused, I called him back, and before long I had the piece in my hands. It had my byline on it. Identified as an "expert commentator" and a "political staff writer with Washington magazine THE WEEKLY STANDARD," I went on for 750 words about Clinton's sexual technique -- "a quickie here, a feel there, a grope somewhere else" -- as well as his political prospects ("he lives to cheat another day"). The article became more overheated with every paragraph, and by the end the imagery matched the tone: "The house is on fire and the clock is ticking. Bill Clinton is medium rare, scorched in places, but he will pull himself from the ashes."
Sure he will. Unless, of course, the lame duck's fair-weather friends take the impeachment bandwagon by storm. Or the jackboot of oppression sings like a canary. Or some other exotic coupling of cliches occurs. In which case, the piece predicted, "he really can go to the Big House for serious time."
Who writes like this? According to the Mirror, I do.
Pretty embarrassing. For a moment I considered calling the paper's editor to make threatening noises. Then I realized he'd just laugh at me. No reason to waste a transatlantic call on that. And anyway, I figured, it's not like anybody but my father is going to see it. Who reads the British tabloids?
For starters, British people. Within a day, a particularly florid selection from the piece was reprinted by the Independent in London. Then, last week, I got a call from a woman named Annette Witheridge at the Scottish Daily Record wondering if -- as an expert commentator familiar to the British reading public -- I'd like to share my insights into the Monica Lewinsky affair. Not a chance of that, I said. Let me tell you about a funny experience I recently had with another British journalist.
She didn't sound surprised. Those are the perils of working with editors thousands of miles away, she explained. "Once the story gets to London, who knows what happens?" You mean you've heard of this sort of thing before? Sure, she said. "It just happened to Jonathan Turley. Actually, I was the reporter who wrote it. He called here pretty miffed."
No wonder. Americans familiar with Turley from his television commentaries on the Lewinsky scandal might be surprised to learn that the sober-minded law professor writes like a British tabloid reporter when he writes for British tabloids. According to Turley's August 21 article in the Scottish Daily Record -- "The Mud Is Sticking And The President's Sinking" -- Clinton already has one foot in the Big House. Indeed, writes Turley, "the American public is now so disgusted with him he can never recover. Impeachment lies just around the corner."
It does? Not according to the real Jonathan Turley, who still seems baffled by how his name wound up on a Scottish newspaper article. "Something remarkable happened in the course of editing," Turley says. "I called Miss Witheridge and asked her to issue a correction. She's never called me back." One suspects she won't. At least until the next scandal.