European Council on Foreign Relations

The British press and euroscepticism: mirror or magnifying glass?

ECFR's Europe at the crossroads project aims at examining the state of the debate on the euro crisis and the future of the UK's relationship with Europe. This is a guest blog post by John Palmer, the former European Editor of The Guardian and founder of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

The British capacity to be unhappy fully inside the European Union, while also being unhappy to be completely outside, is nothing new. The late Max Kohnstamm, deputy to Jean Monnet in the early years of the European construction, once told me about his and Monnet’s first visit to London in 1951 seeking UK government support for the proposed European Coal and Steel Community. Although warned they would get a frosty reception, they were warmly welcomed by a senior diplomat who said: “We greatly admire what you are doing to bring Europe together.” “But,” he went on, “if we were to decide to join and then change our minds how could we get out?”

Such doubts about membership of a sovereignty sharing system of supranational governance are perfectly normal. But the fierce, sometimes xenophobic, character of much current eurosceptic reporting is something else. That said, eurosceptic attitudes can be found in some parts of the media in some other European Union countries. A decade ago such media hostility to the EU and to the very process of European integration was confined to the UK and to a lesser extent, Denmark.

Within the EU institutions, the virulence of British dissent from European engagement has traditionally been attributed to the malign influence of the media – and in particular the tabloid press. The fact that some of the most influential British tabloid newspaper have “foreign” (that is non-European) proprietors is seen as reflecting personal vested interests as well as ideological hostility to anything emanating from Brussels.

It would be a mistake to conflate the role of the press in reporting European Union affairs with wider economic, social and political developments which feed criticism and cynicism about the EU. The British media reflects rather than creates popular attitudes although it does so through the distorting prism of a massive magnifying glass.

Most journalists who have worked for any time covering the European Union – especially those based on Brussels – can cite dozens of examples where EU decisions have been misreported in the Euro-sceptic media, and then subsequently transformed into a popular mythology. Think only of such fictions as alleged EU policy directives enforcing the wearing of “hairnets by fishermen” or regulating the permitted shape of bananas. As serious reporting has declined, what appears in some newspapers appears more driven by the values of the entertainment industry rather than professional journalism.

More serious is the unbalanced reporting of serious problems such as the fraudulent spending of EU funds – notably in agriculture. Some Euro-sceptical British newspapers insist that the responsibility lies with a grossly incompetent, if not corrupt, European Commission. The reality is that national governments have exclusive responsibility for ensuring the proper use of EU funds. The Commission is denied legal powers to interfere in such an area of “national sovereignty.” 

Any analysis of media responsibility for the popular cynicism in Britain towards the European Union must take into account a more serious long term problem: the of paucity of British media representation on the ground in Brussels and other European capitals. The tabloid British press has virtually no representation in most European capitals and especially in Brussels. It is more often than not simply “flying blind” - writing and interpreting stories in London about events in Europe.

When the UK acceded to the (then) European Economic Communities, 40 years ago, the picture was very different. Even tabloid British newspapers such as the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail had an impressive network of correspondents across Europe including those covering the fledgling European Union.

The real problem is the diminishing resources being devoted by newspapers to foreign based correspondents. A few years ago I heard a senior editor on the New York Times put it this way: “Twenty years ago, the press in some way resembled a pyramid with a large reporting base and a much smaller apex of commentators and analysts at the top. Today that pyramid has been inverted. Thanks in part to the new media as well as what is happening within newspapers there is a vast and ever expanding apex of commentators and analysis and a rapidly shrinking reporting base.”

No one can deny the increasingly positive contribution being made to public policy debate by the new, social media. Many more voices can be heard in the debate today than was possible in the past. But this rapidly expanding “commentariat” is being ill served by the contraction of factual reporting on the ground. The more remote commentators are from primary news sources, the less reliable will be the commentary.

Ignorance, as much as prejudice, helps to shape part of British press attitudes to European affairs. This not only affects direct coverage of the EU but is also reflected in the dearth of serious reporting on the domestic economic and political affairs of even Britain’s most important European partners. The British public knows vastly more about Washington than about Paris, Berlin, Rome, Warsaw or Madrid

If the current crisis afflicting the Euro-area has produced no other good, it has at least temporarily focussed unprecedented attention by the British press on what is happening elsewhere in the EU. As a result there is some greater awareness that what happens in the Euro-area will inevitable have a profound impact on Britain itself - is in or out the Euro.

As the Euro-sceptic newspapers turn their attention to the various alternatives to full UK engagement with the European Union being sought by the Cameron government, will there be greater scrutiny of the alarming costs to Britain of relegation to the outer fringes of the EU?  Is it possible that as that decision beckons the European political debate in Britain becomes more even handed?

A final word on the “British” media and “British” politics: how meaningful is such language? The political debate about EU membership in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont is subtly but significantly different in tone to that in England, something already being increasingly reflected by the media in the three “Celtic nations.”

John Palmer was the Brussels based European Editor of The Guardian between 1975 and 1996. He was Founder/Political Director of the European Policy Centre between 1996 and 2007. He is a Practitioner Fellow at the Sussex European Institute and blogs for The Guardian, Social Europe and Open Democracy.

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