How the EU silly season finally ended

A long-awaited serious discussion on Britain's place in Europe is the welcome result of a referendum that may never happen

The Government is now paying the wages of spin. The Europhiles have much to answer for. The media Europhobes may have behaved disreputably and pursued a line of dubious morality and questionable accuracy, but they have been shooting at an open goal. The blame for the state we're in lies elsewhere. If you're Prime Minister, and you shrug about loss of trust and say they've all got it wrong, particularly the media, then you certainly learn about the importance of trust when you need it, and haven't got it.

After a crazy week of chaos in Iraq, sniping former diplomats, European constitution fall-out, questions of whether "No" means "No" or "Try Again", immigration policy, and a few quick policies on the future of the planet, we have returned to the traditional meaning of spin. Being in one.

Never did blaming the media seem so unconvincing. Tony Blair and other cabinet ministers have the gall to talk about the "gross distortions" and misrepresentation of Europe over the years, and the media's refusal to discuss the "real issues". They brag about instituting a proper debate about the real issues, all dressed up as a referendum they never wanted. Where were you when we wanted a proper debate, wanted to stop the little England press getting away with it?

You had professional rebutters, such as Alastair Campbell, arrogantly savaging anyone who dared criticise the Government, rather than defending, or even explaining, the policy. It was always better to ignore the difficult questions about Europe while the opponents not only asked them but answered them too. The Eurosceptics, tapping a vein of support across the country, had a field day which actually lasted several years.

We weren't supposed to talk about the euro because there was no point until Gordon decided we had passed the five tests, and - anyway - there would be a referendum sometime so why waste breath now, particularly if it might upset Gordon. No one bothered to explain the constitution, except those who wanted to represent it as the end of Britain as we know it.

The pro-Europe press weren't much better. True, Europe did not sell many newspapers, but there were not many who engaged in a continuous and intelligent debate about this vital issue. With no lead coming from the Government, they had every excuse. But it was left to a very small number of interested columnists to keep the issue before their readers.

The Eurosceptic press did not need to feel constrained by the tedious aspects of the European project. Their wilful misinterpretations of what Europe really meant for this country were much more entertaining. I have collected the more extreme examples over the years. Like the Daily Mail telling us that a German would command the forerunner of the new European army. Like The Sun presenting "this stubborn French woman [Dominique Vovnet, the environment minister] who wrecked bid to save our planet." Like the Telegraph's obsession with "the metric martyr", Steve Thoburn, who insisted on selling bananas in imperial weights. Like the Mail's headline: "The scandal of why cod has had its chips - the death of Britain's favourite food is a devastating indictment of the European Union." I could go on and on. But one last one: The Sunday Telegraph telling us, under the headline "Lottery players to pay the price of joining euro", that lottery tickets would cost more if we joined the single currency. That one on the front page.

We have had more stories in all the papers about the EU over the past couple of weeks than in any similar period in the past seven years. Are we at last to have a proper debate as a result of the referendum that may never happen? Is Blair, for all the wrong reasons of expediency, at last getting the real debate he has done nothing, until now, to inspire?

So far, the newspapers have seized the hour. The accession of 10 new EU members yesterday has produced a series of articles on these countries, and a BBC Radio Five tour of the accession states. The Guardian published a full page giving both sides of the constitution debate, "The top 10 points of contention". The same paper gave the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, space to present the "No" case.

Blair, in his new state of spin-lite humility, takes the time to explain his attitude to immigration in a cool and considered speech. He (or an aide) takes the time to prepare articles in the Daily Mirror and The Times about the case for Europe. Suddenly, the art of persuasion rather than aggressive spin is being deployed by political leaders. And at last the newspapers, whose first job is to report, have something to report.

The Telegraph invited editors from major European newspapers to present their views on the constitution referendum debate. The Independent devoted a compact front page to the issue, with maps and details of the stance of all 25 EU states. The Daily Express and The Sun polled their readers, and amazingly both produced more than 90 per cent of "No" votes. The Telegraph's poll produced only 51 per cent.

It is not that the antis among the press have changed their views, or that the Express has stopped behaving unpleasantly over immigration and the "threat" posed by the accession states. But now the debate has two sides joining in. That is a healthy development.

I know it's not fashionable to say nice things about Andrew Neil (it never has been). I worked for him at The Sunday Times for two years and let us just say, for now, that dull it wasn't. These days he has what I think is called a portfolio career. I watch his late evening BBC1 politics programme, This Week, regularly. Its achievement - apart from being amusing, irreverent and informative - is the unlikely chemistry Neil creates. His regular guests are Dianne Abbott and Michael Portillo, who would be expected to hate each other in a Commons context but clearly don't. On Thursday, Iain Duncan Smith substituted for Portillo and seemed like a man who had at last found some peace, and some interesting things to say. Again, civilised discussion with Abbott. Complete absence of yah-boo. It wasn't like that at The Sunday Times. Perhaps editorial conferences should have been televised.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

MEDIA DIARY

Racing uncertainty

Tom Rubython is back. The founder of the original Sunday Business (which went bust under his charge), as well as Eurobusiness and F1 Magazine on motor racing, is promoting The Life of Senna, his biography of the Brazilian motor racing legend Ayrton Senna. The ever-modest Rubython describes the book as "the first proper story of a man the world revered and whose like will never be seen again". This will come as a surprise to our former colleague Richard Williams, whose 1995 book The Death of Ayrton Senna is regarded as definitive.

Mandy misread

The Daily Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle sought to read something sinister into the fact that Peter Mandelson (above) was seated several pews away from Tony Blair at the memorial service for the late Stewart Steven, former editor of The Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard. Perhaps Mandy was miffed at Tony's decision to call that referendum? The truth was less sinister. The politicians were simply following the instructions of Associated Newspapers, owner of the Daily Mail, which had allocated the seats.

Paris pied-á-terre

The resignation of The Daily Telegraph's Paris correspondent, Philip Delves Broughton - who is off to Harvard Business School, fed up with interfering features editors - raises a question mark over the future of the paper's vast apartment-cum-office on the Rue de Rivoli. Offering views of the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower, it has to be the swankiest of any of Fleet Street's outposts. Will the budget cutters now scrap it? Unlikely, says a Canary Wharf mole: "Our top editors and executives find it too useful a place to stay when they are on 'fact-finding' visits to Paris with their families."

Catholic tastes

Best known for his sermons as Minister of Wesley's Chapel in City Road, the Rev Leslie Griffiths (below) has a curious job on the side, fronting the radio show of The Tablet, favourite mag of Britain's Catholic intellectuals. Asked whether the Catholic Church has no sufficiently qualified broadcasters of its own, editor Catherine Pepinster declares herself well satisfied with the arrangement. (And is, one wonders, the Pope a Methodist?)

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