Europe is emerging from the morning mist and we are fed only nonsense

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LYING on my back and listening to the radio, I find that one ailment is slowly being replaced by another. The slipped disc may be getting better, pain or no pain. What is getting worse is my repetitive strain injury - the sense that my intelligence is being insulted over and over again, and always in the same agonising place.

Over the airwaves, daily, monthly and yearly, comes this soap in 10,000 instalments: the story of the European Union and its slow, toiling climb towards unity. But it is not the snail-pace of this play that enrages this captive British listener. It is that there are two plays being broadcast at once on the same wavelength.

First there is the "real" script, about the progress of the union towards enlargement, a single currency, a common foreign and defence policy and all the rest. It has many boring intervals, made even longer by heavenly choirs singing what the Germans call "Zukunftsmusik" - psalms to the glorious future. But laid over this drama, and blotting it out for much of the time, is a quite different script. This is a Dark Ages epic called The Deeds of Big John of Britain in the European Forest.

Each episode of The Deeds chronicles how Big John travels from one tribal assembly to another, settling disputes and dominating the crude European feasts with his prophetic songs. The Europeans huddle round to hear the words of Big John, then put their shaggy heads together to debate his warnings. They swear to change their ways and to obey the wisdom brought - like tin, amber and hunting hounds - from the island beyond the sea.

That is the version of European Union politics provided for us by the mainstream British media. Not just Frog-baiting tabloids or fogey London weeklies, but ITN and the BBC itself now report the summits and conferences of the EU "from a British perspective". To find out how these events look from Brussels or Strasbourg, or what seemed important to the public in other European countries, has become almost impossible. It is like trying to listen to Radio Free Europe in the bad old days, through the jamming. Or it is like going to the theatre to see Hamlet - and finding that a noisy production of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern is happening on a corner of the same stage. Something like that is what British reporting is doing to our understanding of Europe.

All through the Madrid summit earlier this month, the BBC in particular led with accounts of what John Major had told his partners about monetary union and its timetable. This "hard news" lead was plumped out with selective mini-features about the decay of support for a common currency in Germany or France. Television stories purported to show Mr Major forcefully spelling out the true doctrine to the European heads of government, although some at least of these shots were taken at the Prime Minister's press conference with British journalists. The French strikes earned some coverage in their own right, but their real significance - so I was told, as I lay cursing on my back - was that they would knock the bottom out of the French approach to monetary union and show it up as the pathetic illusion it was. The meeting between Chancellor Kohl and President Chirac at Baden Baden was presented as the encounter of two failed statesmen whose world - not just monetary union, but the Franco-German alliance itself - was crumbling around them.

And then you get hold of French, German or Spanish papers and you wonder if the British journalists were at the same meetings. The foreigners record the handling of huge issues: enlarging the union to include east-central Europe, preparing sweeping changes in the union's voting system, the next round of trench warfare against the Common Agricultural Policy. They certainly write up problems over monetary union and the common currency, and the new wave of doubts in Germany, ranging from the Social Democrats on the left to the big-business Frankfurt press on the right. But the approach is different, and broader. Journalists in Paris or Hamburg are as ribald as we are about the naming of the "Euro" - which sounds like a flat-beer belch in any language. But they are angry because they know that a common currency is going to happen and deserved a better name. In the same way, they know that European political union is not a potty dream but something which is already taking place all around them, like a landscape emerging from morning mist. Europe is not "them" or "that", but "us".

British coverage of the EU, especially in the last six months, amounts to an information disaster. At first it seems a mystifying disaster. Most editors and programme makers regard the Government with contempt and flirt ostentatiously with Mr Blair. Why, then, have they adopted the Tory line on Europe - for that is what it is? To present EU summits as meetings dominated by Mr Major, at which British views steadily convert all the other partners - that is not a "point of view", because it is a distortion so gross that nobody with direct experience of those occasions could possibly adopt it. It is mere party propaganda, the line from Conservative Central Office. For ignorant punters, it pretends to be a true account. For mutinous Tories, it is offered as a symbolic text: this is how Mr Major would like, one day, to see Britain throwing its weight about at "the heart of Europe".

So why on earth do our media borrow the lens of Tory propaganda to show us the European Union? The explanation lies in the deadly little phrase "British interests". This summer, under pressure from their Europhobes, Messrs Major and Rifkind proclaimed "British interests" as their criterion for judging all EU policies or proposals.

This touched Britain's news editors and programme presenters at a weak point. At one level, they recognised that "British interests first and last" was a shabby slogan, reeking of Tory insularity and Great-Power bombast. But at another level ... it did come in handy. Before, an interviewer had to imagine the European interest as a whole, and ask whether this or that Tory policy made problems for Europe collectively or its component nations. How boring! But now there was a wonderful new stick with which to thrash Tory ministers concerned with Europe. Every issue, every summit, could be reduced to the familiar cockfights of British domestic politics. "Good evening, Minister, and can we take it for granted that you have totally sold out British interests by agreeing to the new fisheries policy/by not agreeing to the fisheries policy/by taking unemployed British kippers out of the Social Chapter ...?"

So the moral slither began. If British interests are the only relevance of the European Union, then of course it becomes right to reduce EU coverage to the Deeds of Big John. And in their hearts, most of those news organisers have always thought of Britain as "in Europe" but not actually "of Europe". That approach used to sustain reasonable, if sceptical, ways of reporting the old European Community. But since Maastricht, it has not worked. Since 1992, the European Union has asked its members to understand it as a creature in itself, with interests of its own, and not just as the sum of its member states.

This is too much for the British. Even the liberal pro-Europeans who form the majority of journalists are finding it one imaginative leap too far. And as they stand and hesitate, Tory propaganda and its language of "British interests" offers itself, conveniently shaped to fit bulletin or interview, familiar, safe. We are drifting out of Europe, and we do not even know it.