Why the French press loves Mr Blair

The Prime Minister wins high praise in Paris. Why can't he expect the same treatment here?
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The Independent Online

During the inquest into the latest spat between the Government and the media, a set of press clippings has done the Labour Party rounds, one of which makes cheery reading for Tony Blair on the vexed issue of Europe.

The reports on the recent summit of EU leaders in Lisbon include headlines such as "Tony Blair, ideological master", and "Tony Blair can be happy: his partners gave themselves up to his Third Way". But few voters will have read this because it came from the French, rather than the British, press. By contrast, home coverage of Mr Blair's most recent foray onto the European stage provoked an acrimonious dispute with the media and a formal complaint to the BBC.

All this happened at the so-called "dot.com summit", the meeting Downing Street billed as one of the most important economic tests for Europe in recent years. The event would, some of its British architects said, help Europe compete with the US on job creation and even help persuade voters in the UK that they are safe to embrace membership of the euro. But Mr Blair's minders found themselves dealing with questions about government travel arrangements and the PM's plans for paternity leave.

As he toured the press area in Lisbon on the first day of the summit, Mr Blair was fuming, his anger directed particularly at the BBC. Although it covered the substance of the summit in its radio bulletins, the first day's proceedings were largely ignored by TV. Asked about the corporation's coverage by a Scotsman journalist, Mr Blair said it was "absurd", before instructing his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, to dash off an acidic letter to BBC bosses.

Meanwhile, details released by the Portugueseshowed that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary had come to Lisbon on separate RAF planes. The next day, most papers centred on this, as much as the Internet revolution. A front-page story in The Times ran under the headline "One man, one jet for Labour's summit trio".

Was this another example of spin that went wrong? It is a question destined to be asked in the run-up to a general election in which Europe will be one of the Tories' key issues. But the answer is complicated.

It is undeniable that a Eurosceptic section of the press has hijacked the Europe debate and distorted the image of all things emanating from Brussels. But the Government's response has been confused. Despite its Commons majority, a media-obsessed Labour government has not only taken note of Eurosceptic coverage but actually hardened or changed government policy as a result. Labour's sensitivity to criticism from the right has become a political fact and part of a story which the rest of the press cannot ignore.

This, is turn, has infuriated Messrs Blair and Campbell, who increasingly believe that they are being let down by the more pro-European media, too.

Downing Street's argument appears to be: because there is an overwhelming weight of distorted Eurosceptic coverage, the pro-European media should compensate by becoming a reverse mirror image, ignoring negative stories and accentuating the positive. Hardly the height of objectivity.

So what did the coverage of Lisbon show? A closer look at the French press shows that Mr Blair's "triumph" was presented as a political defeat for their prime minister, Lionel Jospin.

For the British media, things were less clear-cut. The broadsheets did cover the central element of the summit and the BBC gave it a much bigger billing on its second day. But the domestic political angle was uncontroversial because the promotion of Internet technology and liberalisation of markets is accepted government policy. What was more significant was that the UK had wrested the agenda from Germany and France. That subtle but important point gained less coverage than it deserved, partly because it is not the stuff of headlines and partly because a media used to Britain being isolated in Europe was slow to detect that this was different.

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