I may well have only made the shortlist for the UACES-Reuters Reporting Europe Award because the selection panel felt that in this day and age they needed a web-only publication to be sufficiently down with the kids (at least, I assume that’s why I’m on there alongside people like the Europe Editors of the BBC and The Economist…) – but the fact that I am on there at all demonstrates one of the fundamental problems at the heart of Britain’s turbulent relationship with the EU.
Because, you see, the Reporting Europe Award is designed “to honour a leading journalist whose writing and reporting on Europe has made a real impact”. Now, by no stretch of the imagination am I a leading journalist. Nor have I had a huge impact, even in the small world that is online discussion about European and EU politics.
But think about it a moment. Bar Mark Mardell, by far the highest profile Europe/EU-focussed journalist in the UK (and my fellow shortlistee) thanks to occasionally cropping up on the BBC news of an evening while we’re all sitting down to our tea, how many high-profile Europe-focussed journalists are there in the UK? How much coverage of European politics is there, for that matter (even when the French President popped over for a visit, most coverage was focussed on his good-looking new missus rather than anything he said or did)? In particular, though, how much coverage is there of EU politics: the goings on in Brussels and Strasbourg at the Parliament, Council and Commission?
I keep regular tabs on all the major British papers’ coverage of EU politics via a combination of RSS and Google News, and I can tell you – there’s hardly any. American politics? By the bucket-load – even when there’s not a presidential election imminent. Brussels? No chance – not unless there’s an obvious impact on the UK (or, more likely, an impact on the UK that some pressure-group or other has highlighted in a press release…)
Of course, this is all entirely understandable. Most news organisations exist to make money, and so fill their papers/bulletins full of the sort of exciting, interesting news people want to find out about. The EU, however, is both insanely complex and mind-numbingly dull – little wonder that hardly anyone is interested in EU politics.
Both pro- and anti-EU types have, from time to time, moaned about this lack of EU coverage – both groups believing that the more information you have about the EU, the more you are likely to join their side. Yet in Britain, to really get an idea of what’s going on in the European Parliament, what the European Commission’s got planned, what the European Council’s been discussing and the like, you have to know where to look in advance (namely – and primarily – EU news sites EU Observer and TheParliament.com, and the EU’s own impossible to navigate Europa website). Most newspapers simply won’t cover that sort of thing unless there’s something obviously major going on.
Contrast this lack of coverage with the amount of information we get about what’s going on in Westminster, where each newspaper has numerous reporters with press passes nipping in and out of the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall on an hourly basis, and you can start to see the problem. Because you don’t have to agree with the eurosceptic claim that 80% of all British laws originate with the EU to acknowledge that the EU has a sizable impact on the way Britain is run, yet the number of British journalists devoted to giving us EU-related news is minimal at best. (Which is, no doubt, why no one seems to be able to give an accurate idea of just how many British laws really DO originate from the EU…)
This lack of coverage was one of the key issues in the independent report into the BBC’s EU coverage a couple of years back (the one that was reported by the largely eurosceptic British press as finding the Beeb to be institutionally pro-EU), which noted:
“Many newspapers and other media have committed positions on Europe. The public themselves feel illinformed. Much is at stake. As the public service broadcaster, the BBC bears a heavy responsibility for raising the level of public awareness and understanding of EU matters without itself taking sides in the debate.”
Yet despite this, the BBC only has finite time to bring EU matters to the public’s attention – something Mark Mardell noted a month ago while explaining why he didn’t report on the MEP expenses scandal – there’s no way it can give us a good idea of what’s going on in Brussels every day while still covering Westminster politics alongside the usual kidnappings, murders, train wrecks and the war in Iraq (or should that be train wrecks LIKE the war in Iraq?).
But this isn’t just a problem for the BBC. Big EU stories – and allegations of endemic corruption in the European Parliament is a pretty big EU story in anyone’s books – simply aren’t as interesting to the public at large as UK-specific news, be it political or social. Even the most rabidly anti-EU newspapers rarely give EU affairs any real prominence, because the public simply don’t care. Why waste valuable column inches on something few people are going to read, and that will attract little in the way of advertising?
Hell, you can even take a look at the blogs covering EU affairs and spot further evidence of the trend. By far the most prolific (and popular) English-language EU blogs are both eurosceptic – the in-depth withdrawalism of EU Referendum, and frothing-at-the-mouth europhobia of The Brussels Journal – because it is only the eurosceptics who really care. There seems to be no such thing as “a passionate pro-European” (to borrow Tony Blair’s phrase – with Blair himself being a prime example of what I’m talking about) prepared to devote the sort of time and energy to covering EU politics that opponents of the EU do on a daily basis. Why? Because the rewards are so paltry, the readership so minimal – and the petty annoyances of eurosceptic trolls appearing in your comments boxes to accuse you of being a traitor to Queen and country seems to put most people off fairly sharpish.
All this has led to a self-perpetuating distortion of English-language EU news coverage in favour of eurosceptic analysis. People hunting for news about the EU will rarely get it from their regular news sources; when they do the news is usually unrepresentative thanks to being UK-specific; and when they hunt online for more information, they’re far more likely to come across eurosceptic sites than they are unbiased or pro-EU ones. The impression that the EU is only ever up to no good becomes further reinforced, and so on ad infinitum – and, in turn, the newspapers see the apparent growth of eurosceptic voices online, see the piles of anti-EU letters coming in from the vocal eurosceptic obsessives, and their eurosceptic editorial policies become ever more reinforced.
Yes, I am indeed blaming the British press for Britain’s seemingly increasingly eurosceptic nature – but as much for their lack of coverage as for the dominance of eurosceptic editorial policies.
Even ignoring the fact that the majority of people couldn’t tell you the difference between the Council of Europe and the Council of the European Union, without regular, reliable, impartial EU news coverage, how are the people of Britain ever going to be able to come to an informed decision about what they think about EU membership?
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that there is a severe paucity of EU news reporting out there – so perhaps it’s not so surprising that some lone blogger with a stupid pseudonym is being allowed to compete for a prize with the big boys, so shoddy a job have the British press done of it for much of the last half century…