Not surprisingly, this was one opinion poll that did not win banner headlines. For British newspapers, there could barely have been a more embarrassing set of findings than that which emerged last week from a comprehensive survey of voters across the EU.
According to the Eurobarometer report, only one in five Britons trusts the written press, by far the lowest figure in any of the 15 EU states. The findings were based on polling which questioned 1,000 people in the UK in October and November last year. If the statistics are to be believed, a rather different reaction is being played out at breakfast time across the different nations of Europe. Over a croissant and café au lait, six out of 10 French newspaper readers will tend to believe whatever newspaper they read. Across the border in Germany, more than four out of 10 people feel the same.
As the cappuccinos are sipped in Italy – a land where the media holdings of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, have made conflicts of interest a national obsession – twice as many readers are likely to take their newspaper seriously as in Britain. Trust in the written press, though, is highest in Belgium, at 60 per cent. Meanwhile, the Irish are the most trusting of their broadcasters: 77 per cent approve of their radio and 78 per cent of their TV.
If these figures provide scant comfort for British journalism, they may throw a lifeline to those campaigning for British membership of the euro: perhaps the public will ignore the advice of an overwhelmingly Eurosceptic press and take its lead from TV and radio.
One does not have to look far to explain the disparity between the way that newspapers are viewed in Britain and on the continent. In few other countries is the written press so stridently partisan, or so willing to take sides in elections or on issues such as Europe. The press in France, for example, is more highbrow and less competitive, its less accessible style aimed at the élite rather than the masses. Le Monde is a more cerebral paper than any in the UK, the Financial Times included. Its approach is more discursive, and its preoccupations are more intellectual. Similarly, the top end of the market in Germany is less interested in headline-grabbing news, more preoccupied with analysis.
As one Brussels official put it: "There is a vein of anti-intellectualism in Britain. People in Britain do not trust the written word as they do in France, where there is great reverence for it."
This does not necessarily mean that journalistic standards are always higher on the continent. Many papers are dull by comparison with the more vibrant British press. Nor are journalistic practices universally superior. It is perfectly normal for German newspapers to give copy approval to their interviewees. Often, press officers will be allowed to change quotes on the basis that their masters hadn't really meant what they said. French journalists sometimes almost connive with their political establishment. Information from private dinners with ministers will often circulate widely in the press room, but certainly not be published, because the conversation has been off the record.
But in any event, the coverage tends to be more sober, less sensationalist and usually more considered than that of their British rivals, who see themselves as being involved in more of a competitive daily struggle. Moreover, countries such as France, Italy and Spain do not have a daily tabloid press in the way that we do. Germany does have a big tabloid, Bild Zeitung, but it is not as aggressive as The Sun or the Daily Mirror and, while it may have a slight Christian Democrat slant, it is unpredictable in the causes it champions.
In general, the tabloids that exist in continental Europe, such as Belgium's La Dernière Heure or Denmark's Ekstra Bladet and BT, tend not to blur the boundaries between reporting and entertainment in the way that British tabloids can.
Take, for example, coverage of a relationship between the England football manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson, and his fellow Swede Ulrika Jonsson. The story has been covered extensively in the Swedish tabloids Aftonbladet and Expressen, yet no other nation attempted The Sun's headline after the England manager's refusal to comment on the front page this week: "Supercool Sven – he's got balls (that's us talking... not Ulrika)". As one Swedish diplomat put it last week: "Compared with their British counterparts, the Swedish tabloids are more like the British broadsheets."
While much of this is seen as harmless fun by the public, it hardly reinforces the idea of trustworthy media. One EU official argued: "The behaviour of the tabloids in Britain infects all the media and therefore the level of trust in the broadsheets as well."
So what does this mean for a euro referendum in which the majority of the British press may be campaigning for a "no"? According to Eurobarometer, people prefer to get their information about the EU from television. Across the 15 member states, nearly six out of 10 people identified that as their preferred source of information about the EU. That bears out a finding in an ICM poll conducted for the Foreign Office last year in which 74 per cent of Britons identified TV as a prime source of information on the EU.
And the British public tends to believe much of what it sees and hears. According to Eurobarometer, in the UK more than seven out of 10 people say they tend to trust television and 65 per cent give the same approval to radio (above the EU average).
With the broadcasters committed to a code of impartiality, pro-Europeans see that as a significant finding. Moreover, Eurobarometer suggests that Britons think they know less about the EU than any other EU nationals, pointing to a genuine desire for impartial information. The spokesman for Britain in Europe, the pro-European pressure group, argues: "The influence of the press on the outcome of a euro referendum might be less than has been previously supposed. Pro-Europeans should have more confidence about getting their message across in the run-up to a referendum."
Clearly, these are positive findings for pro-Europeans, but their importance should not be exaggerated. The tabloid press in the UK has an influence that exceeds its physical reach in terms of readers. Because of the symbiotic relationship between newspapers and broadcasters, papers such as The Sun or the Daily Mail – neither of which have correspondents in Brussels – sometimes set the agenda on European stories even when their stories have little basis in fact.
As Jonathan Faull, the chief spokesman for the European Commission, puts it diplomatically: "Generally speaking, newspapers with correspondents here treat us reasonably fairly. The problems we tend to have is with papers without correspondents here, who inevitably find it harder to grasp the complexities of EU activities and therefore misunderstand what is going on."
A lively Eurosceptic story, with supporting quotes from opposition politicians, will often catch the eye of producers on early-morning programmes such as Radio 4's Today. If they can set up interviews with pro-European and Eurosceptic politicians, the item has intrinsic political balance, even if its premise is false. And publicity on the Today programme inevitably breeds interest in the broadsheet press. All of which makes it unwise to disregard the role of the Eurosceptic press in a referendum.
Meanwhile, there is one very tiny crumb of comfort from the dismal Eurobarometer findings on Britons' trust in their papers. Incredibly, the rating is 5 per cent higher than in a similar survey last year.Reuse content