LONDON — British newspapers and commenters turned on President Obama, members of Congress and Americans in general Friday as they denounced the treatment of BP chief executive Tony Hayward by a House investigative panel.
Responding to what they variously described as a “savage grilling,” a hypocritical spectacle and even a “Stalinist show trial,” tabloids bristled at perceived anti-British sentiment in Thursday’s hearing on the BP oil spill disaster by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
British politicians, for their part, generally steered clear of the controversy. But one senior member of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government expressed sympathy for the Obama administration.
Chris Huhne, secretary of state for energy and climate change, said: “We have to put this in the context of the environmental crisis that Barack Obama is facing in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Speaking live on the BBC’s current affairs show “Question Time,” Huhne took a swipe at tabloids lamenting the alleged anti-British rhetoric coming out of Washington.
“I recognize there is, particularly in parts of the tabloid press, a strong lobby which would like us to re-fight the American War of Independence,” he said.
While “some of the [U.S.] rhetoric is clearly over the top,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague “didn’t find it was anti-British and reported back on that,” Huhne said. “But it is clearly anti-BP and anti-big oil for the understandable reasons that this is an environmental catastrophe which has cost lives and livelihoods.”
Cameron came to BP’s defense Thursday during a visit to Brussels, calling the British oil giant “an important multinational company” that is not only vital to Britain but is “also important, I would argue, to the United States.” He said BP “recognizes that it has huge obligations and it will have to spend a huge amount of money” to contain and plug its leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico, clean up the spill and pay appropriate compensation.
But tabloids and their readers lashed out over what they described as the six-hour interrogation of Hayward by grandstanding congressmen.
London’s Daily Mail said Hayward, a 53-year-old British geologist who has been chief executive of BP for three years, “was subjected to a grilling so savage yesterday that it was more like ancient Rome than Capitol Hill.” It said the “hapless boss and his company” were treated like “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Hayward “was always going to get a caning from U.S. congressmen playing to the gallery,” the Daily Express said in an editorial. “Cheap lines about taking his ‘golden parachute back to England’ revealed the anti-British prejudice that was at work.”
The editorial continued: “The insatiable demand for oil of the American lifestyle is what has prompted the need for so much inherently risky deep-water drilling. Until the Americans take action to curtail this demand then their complaints amount to nothing more than the squealing of hypocrites.”
A news story in the paper said Thursday’s hearing “took on the style of a Stalinist show trial.” It quoted Richard Branson, the British magnate who chairs the Virgin Group, as accusing Obama of “unseemly behavior” for repeatedly “kicking a company while it was on its knees.” Branson said BP “deserves to be criticized,” but that so do U.S. government regulators.
The Sun joined the indignant reporting. The paper’s business editor wrote that the hearing had a “distasteful anti-British feel.”
British actress Helen Mirren also took some flak in the British press Friday for criticizing BP on the “Late Show” with David Letterman. Writing in the Daily Express, columnist James Delingpole said Mirren’s “treachery” would not be easily forgiven.
“She has ganged up with President Obama in his cheaply xenophobic and quite appallingly unfair campaign to make out that the BP oil spill is somehow Britain’s fault,” he said.
Daily Mail columnist Philip Norman agreed: “One might have thought that a Dame of the British Empire who has portrayed the Queen (and, in many American eyes, is almost inseparable from her) would try in some graceful, light-hearted way to counteract the decidedly anti-British rhetoric coming from a grandstanding President Obama.”
Online commenters weighed in with more criticism.
“So these are the rulers of the most powerful nation on earth,” a “Mr. Grimsdale” wrote on the Daily Mail’s Web site. “I think the rest of us should be worried, very worried by this bunch of ignorant potato heads with their fingers on the nuclear button.”
On the Sun’s Web site, a writer named “dispondant” complained: “It was an accident for god’s sake. Do the yanks think it was done on purpose. . . . Obama needs to back off & let BP get on with the job in hand they dont need a prat of a president posturing about & getting in the way.”
Commenter “littlesod” wrote on the same site: “so when are the Americans gonna say sorry for IRAQ?? that was a LIE based only on OIL and a foothold in the Arabic region. but then again the US think they rule the world. . . .”