British Journalism and the EU: An Uneasy Affair?

Paul Gough

“Let me be absolutely clear: leaving the EU would be economic suicide. You cannot overstate the damage it would do to British livelihoods and prosperity. So we need to counter the myths. And we need to explain the real reasons Britain belongs in the EU and what is really at stake in this debate”.

Do you recognise this speech extract? Or know who said it? You are probably one of a large majority of the public who won’t have seen, read or heard about Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s speech delivered earlier this week.

I noted this speech – and how it was reported – with interest, having attended an event at King’s College the previous evening, entitled ‘Reporting Europe’. With a distinguished panel of George Parker (Former Brussels Correspondent, The Financial Times), Nick Robinson (Political Editor, BBC), John Peet (Europe Editor, The Economist) and Bruno Waterfield (Brussels Correspondent, The Telegraph), there was plenty of insightful and provocative opinions shared on reporting the complex, divisive and misunderstood political phenomenon that is the EU.

One thing the panel did agree on was that the EU brings out strange character traits in British journalists and influential proprietors, such as Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, and Richard Desmond.

Look no further than the editorials, which discuss everything from the benefits of bringing Europe closer together politically and economically, to the implication that Brussels is running Britain. Parker argued that some newspapers even set out to deliberately misinform their readers, through a policy of wilful ignorance.

But why is this?

A complicated story
Most of the panel agreed that the EU is a difficult and “boring” story to cover.

Decisions are made across the institutions “at a snail’s pace, by faceless characters in faceless bodies”, according to Parker. In particular, the panel felt that the European Parliament – often presented as the ‘travelling circus’, as it shifts between Brussels and Strasbourg at great expense – does not explain its functions and powers effectively.

Waterfield added that this was not helped by its perceived lack of democratic representation and the arrangement of secretive summits, “consisting of diluted resolutions which result in EU documents filled with dead, diplomatic language that is not a true reflection of what happened”.

Parker stated that many journalists had found sensationalising stories the only option for creating something interesting, by covering issues such as bendy bananas, rather than cover prolonged legislation. Robinson legitimately added that it has to be a powerful, strong debate to get coverage in news terms. Often it’s not.

Similarly, Parker stated British journalists should be a lot more aware of what Europe means and what the EU covers. He argued that part of the solution is that “better journalists” should be dispatched in Brussels, referencing Boris Johnson’s time there as a correspondent for the Telegraph. Although seen as a staunch Eurosceptic who “arguably stretched the truth”, in Parker’s words, Johnson’s style of writing was engaging and was given sufficient coverage for his readers to at least develop a fuller opinion on the workings of the EU.

Us and them
Nick Robinson moved onto the angle of reporting, and how journalists have regularly presented Britain and Europe as ‘us and them’.

Different personalities have had the ‘wicked eurocrat’ caricature treatment over the past 50 years, such as Jacques Delors (think of the headline ‘Up Yours Delors!’). But this treatment isn’t dished out by just the media. Robinson noted that it is played upon by national governments too, particularly when the political and media circus arrives in Brussels for summits at the European Council.

Peet and Robinson observed that with intergovernmental interests inevitably taking priority, it was not uncommon for representatives of all 28 member states to tell a different story of how the summit has gone, ‘battling against the Europeans’ to protect their own country’s interests, presenting it as a ‘win’.

The reasons for this angle? Not only does this generate more coverage, but newspapers, television and radio rarely invest in sending full-time, specialist reporters to Brussels to actually spend time understanding how the political process works there. Instead, the majority of relevant British journalists shoot in and out for the large events, and have little time to understand what the EU does and its influence on Europeans.

Educators, commentators or investigators?
So in order to fill this vacuum of misunderstanding the EU, should journalists be spending more time educating its audiences on the EU? Robinson argues not – “We shouldn’t be acting as a civics class, it’s not what the licence fee is for”, he stated.

But should journalists simply report the facts, or rather look to uncover the story behind the story? Whilst Robinson and Parker argued the former, Waterfield interpreted it differently. He said: “It is the role of a journalist to go against the grain, cut through the spin that comes from these summits, and make sense of it. I would be very suspicious of any journalist who went against the curiosity, mistrust and objectivity of how he/she reported on the EU”.

Perhaps that is missing the point though. With the on-going euro crisis, the economic landscape has changed. Peet observed how certain European countries – Germany in particular – have become kingmakers in the future of member states such as Greece. Yet only the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Economist covered their recent election in any great detail for English speaking audiences.

So as the ‘EU’ and ‘Europe’ become more intertwined and continue to expand beyond the epicentre of Brussels, it seems that not only are partiality, political constraints and journalistic inquiry important issues, so is where journalists should be reporting from. Perhaps they should be booking flights to Berlin.

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