Stephen Glover: Let's send more reporters to Brussels and lift the muslin veil
Monday 02 November 2009
The President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, has almost been run to earth, and will soon sign the Lisbon Treaty. It will then become law, and nothing an incoming Tory government has up its sleeve is likely to change that.
This should have a huge effect on the way politics is reported in this country. Even before the ratification of Lisbon, many of our laws emanate from Brussels. Once the treaty is on the books, with an unelected European President (perhaps not Tony Blair) speaking for us on the world stage, and a "High Representative" framing European foreign and defence policy, the balance of power will tilt even further from London to Brussels.
How will the media register this? Reporting of national politics is extremely thorough. The BBC has an army of political journalists at Westminster, and newspapers have small platoons. Columnists anatomise our politicians in terrific detail, and brilliant sketch writers poke fun at the most insignificant of them. Rogues may go unpunished, and mistakes unreproved, but no one can doubt the scope and energy of our home-grown political journalism.
By contrast, what goes on in Brussels is glimpsed through a veil of muslin. Late night wheeler-dealing is not always recorded, and the European Commission spews out important directives that are barely noticed.
Whereas a middle-ranking minister in the British Cabinet can be a household figure, most of us could not name more than one or two Commissioners, though they may wield far greater power over us. Few could identify the prime ministers of Greece, Holland or Austria, yet these people sit on the European Council, the EU's highest institution.
I realise some British media organisations such as the BBC and the Europhile Financial Times do devote considerable resources to covering the EU. The so-called serious papers all maintain bureaux in Brussels, and there are several excellent British journalists working there. But editors of even the most high-minded titles fear that there is a limited appetite among their readers for EU news, analysis and commentary. It is easier to fasten on to the national institutions they recognise, as well as characters with whom they are familiar.
Now it so happens that I write as a Eurosceptic who believes the EU is an undemocratic, oligarchic organisation which we should hold to account. Better find out what is really going on than merely marvel, as some Eurosceptics do, at ancient and sometimes apocryphal stories of Euro-folly. That is why I would like the British media to take more interest in decisions made in Brussels. But if I were a swivel-eyed Europhile, to coin a phrase, I would be equally keen on greater coverage in order to advertise the positive aspects of the European project.
Whether you like or hate it, the EU after Lisbon will generate even more of the political weather. It is as though we have forecasters obsessed with local showers on our own island who assume that storms sweeping across Europe won't affect us. Or, to put it another way, there are too many critics in the wrong theatre, and some of them should move across the road. I realise it is quite costly to expand bureaux – or, in the case of the tabloids, to set them up – but Brussels is only a Eurostar ride away, and journalists armed with wireless laptops are much cheaper than the foreign correspondents of 30 years ago. What alternative is there if journalism is to speak truth to power?
Capitalism has been unhelpful to the capital's newspapers
Last week's announcement of the impending closure of London Lite was widely predicted. It made no sense for its owner, Associated Newspapers, a subsidiary of Daily Mail and General Trust, to go on publishing the loss-making freesheet after Rupert Murdoch closed its rival, thelondonpaper, last month.
Any residual doubts at Associated must have vanished when the London Evening Standard announced a few weeks ago that it was going free. With a 24.9 per cent stake in the Standard, Associated has an interest in its survival. The paper's prospects will be slightly enhanced by the closure of London Lite.
The freesheet wars were about business rather than journalism. Rupert Murdoch launched thelondonpaper in 2007, partly to damage the Standard, then entirely owned by Associated, and partly to lay claim to the London afternoon freesheet market, which he then believed might be profitable. Associated retaliated by launching London Lite.
In the end no one really won. Murdoch hastened the weakening of the Standard but lost a lot of money. Associated also lost money, though not so much. It saw off Murdoch from a patch of turf which in the worsening economic climate proved to be unproductive for both parties.
What is left? Just a weakened Standard. Without a freesheet war it might be struggling as a paid-for newspaper. The war increased its difficulties, and it is entering uncharted territory as an upmarket freesheet. Should it succeed, its owner, Alexander Lebedev (who acquired 75.1 per cent of the paper from Associated last January), will be the main victor.
If only Murdoch had never launched thelondonpaper. If only Associated had been able to invest the money and energy it has squandered on London Lite on the Standard. The machinations of capitalism have hardly served the cause of good journalism.
Ingrams must write tale of the Eye becoming an oldie
It is an amazing thought that in two years Private Eye will be half a century old. Ian Hislop – equally extraordinary reflection – will then have been editor for slightly longer than Richard Ingrams.
A Private Eye writer called Adam Macqueen is writing an official history to mark the anniversary, having been encouraged in this endeavour by Mr Hislop, whose protégé he is said to be. Interviews of key figures have already begun.
Gripping though Mr Macqueen's account may well be, it would be a pity if Mr Ingrams let the anniversary pass without making his own contribution. Although the author of several books, he has not written about the magazine between hard covers since 1971. The only other histories of the Eye I can recall were by Patrick Marnham and Peter McKay, both of them more than 25 years ago.
As the guiding spirit of Private Eye (he has been its chairman since handing over to Mr Hislop), Mr Ingrams should surely produce his own authoritative account. He may have an opinion as to whether the anniversary would be a fitting moment for Mr Hislop to hand over to a younger man. Mr Macqueen's name has been mentioned.
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