The press's distorted coverage of Europe must stop

'The continental media appears to be at one event; the British at a completely different one'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For obvious reasons, one story on Europe that is rarely written by journalists is the story of the British media and Europe.

For obvious reasons, one story on Europe that is rarely written by journalists is the story of the British media and Europe.

Spin-doctoring by journalists is such that sections of the British media no longer simply report the story. They are part of the story, manufacturing news that has lost perspective and contact with reality.

But with a mandate from whom? We may disagree with the views of that two-thirds of the Conservative Party that believes Britain is better off at the margins of the European debate rather than at its centre. But they at least are elected.

But it is not the anti-European Conservative Party that poses the greatest obstacle to Britain playing a full part in Europe. When the Prime Minister stands up for what he believes in, and says that it is in Britain's interest to be in Europe, the backlash is rarely led by elected representatives. More often it is led by an assortment of unelected editors, leader writers and columnists in the press.

I certainly do not deny the right of the press to take positions on Europe. But the British people and democratic debate are starting to lose out from the nature of the coverage. Few issues are more important to Britain's future than its relationship with Europe. No decision is more important to get right, either way, than the decision on the single currency.

Britain needs an objective debate on Europe. One that answers once and for all the question: is Britain better off at the heart of the process that sets Europe's agenda, or are we better off hanging back? Instead, we are in the usual media frenzy on Europe with journalists chasing each other's headlines, prejudices and febrile reports.

The problem is that, on Europe, much of the British media is caught in an Eighties Thatcherite time warp. It goes something like this. Britain will always be isolated in Europe. The EU is a Franco-German plot. The Continentals want to do away with the nation state and build a centralised federal superstate. British prime ministers all start by saying they want to put Britain at the heart of Europe and end up being pushed to the sidelines. And most exciting of all: Europe breaks British governments.

Anything that stands up to that thesis - or can be distorted to do so - becomes front-page news and is then seized on by the broadcasters. Anything that doesn't is binned.

Take President Chirac's speech in the German Parliament last Tuesday. To read the British press, you would think the President of France went to Germany to give a speech about Britain. It was an interesting speech at a time when France is taking on the EU Presidency. But it was not a speech about Britain. Yet out come the headlines of isolation, snub, superstate, Franco-German plot, whereas the truth is one of significant Franco-German disagreement.

The contrast with how the continental media covered it could not be more stark. The Spanish newspaper ABC was typical of many: "France, with its only superficial innovative rhetoric, showed its inability to sell its ideas to Germany."

The French media went further and highlighted the difference between their president and his own government. French radio reported the European minister saying that President Chirac's speech was "not a speech by the French authorities... it is totally out of the question to draw up a constitution". When French TV asked Prime Minister Jospin to comment on the proposals in President Chirac's speech, he said "they are interesting, always useful, even when they are not all compatible with one another, and should be put to the test of reality". So much for reports of British isolation.

Much of the German reporting was in the context of the Franco-German relationship. "Alliance on Probation" was Suddeutsche Zeitung's headline, going on to say that "Paris wants an EU... rigidly controlled by nation states". The respected financial daily, Handelsblatt, looked at the differences between Paris and Berlin on the future of Europe, concluding that "German-French agreement primarily concerns the path, not the goal; the form more than the content. This is clear over the European core: Fischer [the German foreign minister] favours a group which would sign a new fundamental European treaty, with its own justifications, which all the others can subsequently sign up to. Chirac specifically rejects such a treaty."

In Italy, Il Sole 24 Ore - the Italian FT - echoed other Italian commentators, saying "Chirac's vision has its sights on conserving and reinforcing the powers of (national) governments". No sign of a centralised superstate there.

In all the continental reporting, the British premier featured rarely and then usually in the context of the British media commotion the speech provoked. On another note, Le Monde quoted an anonymous German official saying "France, for Schröder, was like an old mistress whom you no longer love and who is clinging to you, while he had eyes only for Tony Blair, who seemed to him to embody the future".

Different perspectives, balanced perspectives. And rather more accurate.

We have seen this time and again with major European events. The participants and the continental media appears to be at one event; the British media at a completely different one. The Lisbon Summit on economic reform in March was hailed across the Continent as a major success for Tony Blair and his vision of a reforming and competitive Europe. But that story didn't fit the caricature. So instead, the British public were treated to thousands of words about Ministers' travel plans and alleged splits in the Cabinet.

At the Feira Summit last month, after months of the papers telling us Gordon Brown would be defeated over the withholding tax, Gordon won on tax. Not because he had to resort to the veto. But because he won the argument. Some of the better columnists picked up on the significance of this in the following days. But the editors all but ignored the story on the day itself. For them, only defeats for Britain are front-page news. Success does not fit.

And again last year at the Tampere Summit in Finland, when the EU agreed far-reaching plans for police, judicial and intelligence co-operation in the fight against drugs, international crime and illegal immigration. Hugely important for the future of Britain and Europe. All but ignored by the British press.

It is no exaggeration to say this media coverage is damaging Britain. Not only by becoming obstacles to, rather than the medium for, honest political debate about Europe. The distorted media reporting is also being confused with Britain's view of Europe. The media is becoming the story and Britain's international standing is liable to suffer as a result.

For the Government, this media phenomenon carries an added implication. Our own views are being distorted and misrepresented so as to support slanted media reporting. In recent weeks I have opened newspapers to discover sentiments and views attributed to me that I have never expressed. Other ministers have had similar experiences.

We should not be afraid of speaking up for Government policy. But we now have to guard against those in the media who say they want honest debate when they are more interested in fermenting divisions in the Cabinet through quite dishonest debate. They want to recreate the faultline on Europe that ran through the cabinet of John Major, when in Tony Blair's Cabinet no such faultline exists.

It all amounts to a tough challenge for those (politicians and journalists) genuinely interested in Britain's future in Europe. Hopefully, though, the facts will out and truth will turn out to be our strongest weapon.