The most depressing result from my analysis of media coverage of EU reform is the complete absence of substance and detail in the arguments presented. Politicians and commentators alike seem to think that by simply saying that the EU needs to change then that’s enough, argument won. If pushed, they roll out vague complaints like EU ‘social and labour law’ (20%), ‘too much regulation’ (27%) and maybe even a Euromyth (20%). The truly informed out there might even throw the working time directive at you (7%). Few, if any, can give you more detail than that.
This lays bare the appalling state of media coverage of European issues. I cannot think of another political topic where such lazy argumentation stands so little scrutiny. For example, the Fresh Start group launched its manifesto last week which, to any vaguely informed observer, is clear would lead to British exit from the EU. However, their ideas went virtually unchallenged with even the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow complimenting Andrea Leadsom MP as ‘plausible’ and not ‘swivel-eyed’. Compare this meek acceptance of the Tory agenda with the painfully detailed debate that swirls around Osborne’s inflammatory use of the word ‘skivers’ for benefits claimants. Every day Labour, the media and NGOs are producing new figures of nurses, soldiers and other ‘worthy’ types that will lose out in the change. So why isn’t the same intellectual scrutiny being lent to EU reform?
Inevitably, these stereotypes have found their way into the popular perception of the EU in the UK. A YouGov/Chatham House poll found that 65% of respondents thought there were ‘too many European laws and regulations’ while 46% associated the European Union with bureaucracy. Most staggering of all, on average the respondents believed that the UK contribution to the EU budget was £74 billion, when the actual total in 2010-11 was only £8.1 billion.
Much of the blame lies squarely with the media. Firstly, the press has failed in its duty to provide in-depth coverage and attention to the decisions taken at an EU-level and the institutions which take them. Despite being rarely out of the headlines since the onset of the Eurozone crisis, analysis has tended to revolve solely around big EU summits and how EU issues affect the Westminster political scene: whether Britain contributes to the Eurozone bailouts, whether the government will be defeated on the EU budget vote in the Commons, whether Cameron will get a boost in the polls from vetoing a treaty and so on.
Serious coverage of political developments in the European Parliament, Council, Commission or indeed other EU countries is non-existent outside of the Economist and Financial Times. As the Charlemagne column reported some time ago, it is now rarer for daily British newspapers to have a Brussels correspondent than not. And the buck doesn’t stop there. The coverage provided by the BBC is limited to 30 minutes every month on a Friday lunchtime when a bored looking Andrew Neil is forced to discuss the European Parliament. I am unaware of any significant coverage on other TV channels.
Conversely, there has also been too much EU coverage. The Eurosceptic press has been relentless for the past thirty years in its attacks on the EU playing fast and loose with the truth. From ‘Up Yours Delors’ all the way through to today’s Express campaign to ‘Get Britain out of Europe’, the EU has been subject to a relentless barrage of scurrilous attacks, based on a range of lies and half-truths. This was criticised in the Leveson Report where it was stated that:
“Articles relating to the European Union, and Britain’s role within it, accounted for a further category of story where parts of the press appeared to prioritise the title’s agenda over factual accuracy”.
This ‘agenda’ was highlighted recently by Mary Honeyball MEP who was outraged by a ludicrous story in the Daily Mail that the European Parliament was trying to ban school books. She wrote a letter to the Mail disputing their false claims but the paper refused to publish her letter as their reporter knew better than her ‘the byzantine workings of the European Parliament’!
Of course there are other factors which have contributed to the dislocation between reality and discourse in the EU debate. Blame can be laid at successive British governments for failing to honestly explain their actions at an EU level, at the education system for failing to give rudimentary lessons on the EU, at the EU institutions for their misfiring PR machine and self-inflicted scandals, and to the Lisbon Treaty for failing to bring true democratic accountability to the European Commission.
But these do not deter from the simple truth that the British media has simply not evolved to reflect the reality of how Britain is governed in the 21st century. Britain is not just Westminster and news happens outside London. Somewhere between 10-70% of all UK laws come from EU legislation depending on who you believe and, whatever the truth, it is enough to justify genuine debate and scrutiny. Local press report and scrutinise local Councils, the devolved press report and scrutinise the devolved institutions but no one is effectively reporting or scrutinising the EU. Time for the national media to step up.
Follow me @liberlaboratory on twitter.