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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The EU, the British media, the BBC, and “balance”

An email comes in – I thought I may as well turn the response into a post:

“I’m a journalism student working on an article about British press coverage of the EU. I’m particularly interested in the spiral of scant EU coverage creating reader apathy, and public disinterest then discouraging editors from spending much energy on Europe.

“I’m an admirer of your Nosemonkey blog, and was re-reading your post from April 2008 when you say the press are to blame for Britain’s increasingly eurosceptic nature, both through lack of coverage and the dominance of eurosceptic editorial policies.

“I would love to know how you see press influence playing out ahead of the possible referendum on the UK’s place in Europe next year, and whether you think the BBC has become more balanced since the independent review of its coverage.”

For want of time I won’t try and tackle the whole issue – books have been written on media agendas and media bias. Instead let’s hone in on the “balance” angle…

There’s a fundamental problem the BBC has when it comes to its interpretation of balance that’s distorting the debate, and that has infected much of the rest of the British press: the artificial black and white eurosceptic vs europhile divide, and the peculiarly British definition of euroscepticism.

“Euroscpticism”

By British standards, UKIP are eurosceptics: in the British debate, being actively, vocally opposed to the EU and calling for its abolition is considered scepticism.

But scepticism isn’t opposition, it’s doubt. Uncertainty. As such, by European standards, *I’m* a eurosceptic, because I’m critical of aspects of the EU where warranted, and (despite thinking that, in general, the EU is a good thing) tend to doubt the value and sense of many of its projects and approaches. I’ve been anti-EU in the past, and could see myself becoming opposed to it again if it doesn’t sort out some of its shit in a timely and sensible manner.

This continental understanding of euroscepticism does not apply in the UK, where I’d be considered a europhile by many, purely for not actively wanting the abolition of the EU and having occasionally been known to say nice things about the general concept.

Nothing in politics is black and white

This concept that you’re either a eurosceptic or a europhile is an invention of the eurosceptics. It’s a fallacy. A nonsense. An obvious nonsense. Yet one that has infected every aspect of EU-related reporting and discussion in the British media.

Even when the terms “eurosceptic” and “europhile” aren’t explicitly used, the debate is still framed in those terms – that there are only two options: you’re either in favour of the EU or you’re opposed. There is no room allowed for shades of grey – nor for acknowledging that the EU itself is not a monolithic entity, so approaches to it shouldn’t be either.

Because of this very British confusion over terminology (not just confined to the term eurosceptic, but also to the much simpler concept of federalism – which in the British sense is used to mean the opposite of what it actually means when mentioned in the context of the EU), when pursuing balance, the BBC has a serious problem.

A balancing act is easier when it’s a see-saw

The BBC is charged with being balanced in *all* its political coverage. As such, it tends to look for opposites – Labour vs Conservative, Left vs Right, etc. – based on precisely this assumption there are two sides to every argument.

Historically, this has often been more or less true, and so has more or less worked. It’s only in recent years, with the onset of the Coalition, that they’ve started to realise that sometimes politics is a little more complex than that – and they haven’t yet worked out how to respond. (How do you treat the Lib Dems, who are part of the government yet sometimes critical of the government? Give them their own seat? But then the government may have two representatives to the opposition’s one. Is there an opposition equivalent to the Lib Dems? UKIP would claim they are – but they have no MPs, so they aren’t comparable. All the other parties are far too small or (like the SNP or Plaid Cymru) too regional.)

When it comes to the EU, the BBC has had this problem for years, and has made little effort to even acknowledge the issue: instead it still tends to treat everything as for or against, ask on hard anti-EU voices (easy to find), and then hunt around for someone to represent the opposite side and act as defenders of the EU.

A distinct lack of europhiles

However, there are few true opposites that the BBC and others can call on to achieve “balance” to UKIP in its EU debates – I’ve only ever met one person I’d class as a europhile true believer in over a decade writing about this stuff, and the pro-EU movements in the UK have been notoriously poorly organised for decades, and unable to mobilise to improve their media representation as a result. (Related: there are also few truly hardcore anti-EU voices – or, at least, few that their respective organisations are happy to have going on TV to represent them – which both is why Nigel Farage is on telly so often.)

I still maintain that no one with any better-than-average knowledge of the EU – yes, even employees of the EU institutions – can be fully uncritical of the thing. In fact, employees of the European institutions are often among the most critical people you will meet – because they know the little inefficiencies and frustrations from bitter, daily personal experience.

A bad compromise

So, with such a lack of true EU believers, how can you get balance against someone like Nigel Farage – who not only wants the UK to leave the EU, but has also called for the EU to be abolished for every other country as well? You can’t – you have to make do with someone who, like me, reckons that on balance the EU is better than the alternative, and persuade them to go up against true believer anti-EU voices while being presented as some kind of foaming-at-the-mouth europhile.

But these people aren’t europhiles. They are critical. This means that when an anti-EU voice presented as a sceptic attacks the EU and has a valid point somewhere in their argument, the “opposing” pundit will tend to follow this entirely reasonable formula for a UK EU debate response: “yes, there is some ground for criticism, but…” – as a result of which, whenever anyone anti-EU appears on the BBC, the anti-EU pundits continually score micro-points, merely by dint of the fact that their supposed opponents are usually relatively reasonable.

The truth hurts

The added problem is that as most anti-EU attacks are based on some small grain of truth, usually blown out of all proportion, most EU debates in the British media follow the general line of anti-EU assertion -> attempt at explanation of why this is wrong -> further anti-EU assertion -> further attempt at explanation of why this is wrong.

This means the “pro-EU” side is almost always on the back foot, trying to counter assertion with fact – and explanations and facts are fundamentally boring.

Why would anyone sane volunteer for one of these debates? They’re no win situations – as the recent Clegg-Farage debates appear to have proved.

I don’t agree with Nick

And then we have the other problem – again amply illustrated by the Clegg-Farage debates: if the “pro” side goes on the attack, the anti side can always fall back on a few last-ditch responses that play well to their base, like “no matter what the truth is, why is this being decided in Brussels rather than Britain?” – which would again lead to a necessarily long, complicated and boring explanation about the merits of intergovernmental and supranational cooperation that either turns off the audience or sends them to sleep.

This is why every post-debate poll showed an overwhelming win to Farage – Clegg may have been speaking truth, but truth is boring, and the anti- crowd have the perfect fall-back every time.

How to achieve balance?

So, there’s no balance because there is no pro-EU equivalent of the anti-EU campaigners. But there’s also another, more fundamental reason: Balance implies that all views are represented – yet increasingly the panellists tend to the extremes. This is very far from representative. Why? Because most British people don’t really have much of an opinion about the EU, with repeated opinion polls rank it as a low priority. Most people float somewhere in the centre – not liking some things about the EU, but appreciating others (even if they don’t always realise that the things they’re appreciating stem from the EU – but that’s another matter entirely…)

Don’t believe me? How else do you explain the consistently low (and falling) turnout at European Parliament elections, and continued failure of anti-EU parties like UKIP to win any MPs in general elections? The public either don’t care at all, or don’t care enough to allow the EU to alter their voting choices except in elections – be they Council or European – where they don’t see the outcome as really mattering.

A more balanced, representative debate would therefore involve a panel made up of something like the following:
- an anti-EU UKIP type
- an EU institutional spokesperson to give the official line
- a knowledgeable yet critical commentator in favour of major EU reform sitting alongside
- someone going “meh, who cares – can’t we talk about something important instead?”

22 Comments

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  6. The BBC has indeed shaped the dividing line (on either side of which they seek balance) as being pro or anti EU, rather than, as in other countries, what policies you want the EU to implement. It is as if inn British politics, they were to seek a balance between pro and anti UK, with Lab/Con/LibDem always balanced by SNP/Sinn Fein. While they’re at it, shouldn’t they try to balance flat-earthers and those who think it’s round?
    Intrigued that you don’t know more than one europhile: I can think of a few!

  7. I think the BBC has a difficult job. It is always hard to define what is “proper balance” as it will depend on your point of view.

    I also agree that there is a middle ground between the euro-sceptics and europhiles. I believe most of the people are in the in between group – generally agreeing with the need for a single market in goods but generally opposed to unrestricted freedom of movement and the grandiose goals for political union and the heavy bureaucracy that underpins it….

    For me, the problem with the argument about staying in the EU and seeking to change the organisation from within, is that we have been told this for years. It has been clear that the core “federalists” of the European political classes, believe in building a European state as a counterweight to the USA. They have not listened to the Pro-market voices seeking greater flexibility in labour markets etc. Going back to the days of Delors, the EU politicians have been guilty of over-interpretation of EU rules and treaties to achieve their endless drive for ever greater political union.

    Well, now the chickens are just about to hit the fan (to mix my metaphors). Given the deep rooted skepticism among the UK population and the belief that the UK view of a flexible free-trade area is not possible without the political baggage, I cannot see any other result than a UK exit.

    • You want a single market across 28 states, but then you wish to restrict the movement of people in it. You also state a desire for greater flexibility in labour markets. Well how will this market remain free and flexible, when it’s going to have the movement of people controlled and restricted alongside national politics, rather than considering the interest of the entire ‘single’ market. You wish to claim to have a single market while governments discriminate the people within it. Reads like someone trying to have their cake and eat it in my view.

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  21. Reminds me of “A Balanced Programme on Balance“, a brilliant edition a few years ago of The Infinite Monkey Cage, on the relationship between media and science.

    Basically everything you describe above is what your typical scientist has to deal with when going on Radio 4 and finds him/herself up against a climate “sceptic” (sic), brought in “for balance”.

    Shameless blog tip, complete with Nigel Farage, from 2012: http://mathew.blogactiv.eu/2012/01/21/of-technocrats-journalistic-balance-and-telling-eu-stories/