Reporting the EU: Media’s mission impossible

by Yojana Sharma | 10.02.2016


Asked straightforward factual questions about the European Union, such as how many member states it has, and whether Switzerland is a member, British respondents perform worse than citizens from all other EU countries except for Spain, according to a Eurobarometer opinion survey.

The survey for the European Commission in Brussels was carried out last year. Even after more than 40 years of membership most people in Britain have no idea what the EU is or does.

Should we be surprised? At a conference in London this week on Reporting Europe: UK Media and the EU, journalists who cover Brussels for British media repeatedly highlighted how difficult it was to interest their editors back home.

Alienating jargon and an impenetrable bureaucracy make Brussels difficult to convey to a general public; its consensus politics seems dull compared to the cut and thrust of Westminster. For the most part, Brussels is a soundbite-free zone.

“UK reporting on the EU is an impossible task: describing the indescribable to the indifferent,” Will Moy, director of the fact-checking organisation Full Fact told the conference, which was organised by the Economic and Social Research Council’s UK in a Changing Europe Initiative.

The media elsewhere in Europe are critical of the EU, but the tone of the UK’s coverage is particularly partisan and robust, the conference heard. The UK media report the EU through the prism of us versus them with a focus on ‘beating’ other member states in negotiations, according to Charles Clarke, a former home secretary in Tony Blair’s government. The print media don’t see the relationship between the UK and EU as reciprocal, but as a one-way street.

It was ever thus. During my time as a reporter in Brussels in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher got her money back – the famous British rebate – the London-based political correspondent of one daily tabloid would fly in and bag a seat in the European Summit press room. It was the pre-laptop age and he clanked out his headline on the typewriter for everyone to see, even before the negotiations started: ‘Margaret Thatcher won a victory in Brussels yesterday.’

The ‘facts’ would come later. Or perhaps not.

The wrangling was over sums of money – who would pay what for the British rebate. The figures changed daily, but what mattered was whether Thatcher banged the table or ‘handbagged’ French President Francois Mitterrand, a convenient bogeyman for the British press.

Plus ca change. It’s not just that many newspapers and the people they interview cannot get their facts straight – providing this website with constant fodder – but that many outlets base their EU coverage on emotions. The BBC’s Mark Mardell described it as “the elephant of objectivity in a room full of passions”.

We can hold to account those who glibly make up facts. But correcting misinformation (or lack of information) and perceptions built up over decades is another matter.

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    The EU office in London made a valiant effort some years ago to compile an A-Z of Euromyths perpetrated by Britain’s media since 1992, and, yes, straight bananas were among the hundreds of examples. If the EU hoped to prevent such Euromyths from fuelling Euroscepticism, its initiative must be judged a disappointment. Oliver Daddow, an expert on Britain’s European policy at Nottingham Trent University, this week put the anti-EU versus the pro-EU ratio of Britain’s national dailies at 8:1.

    However, Susan Banducci of Exeter University played down the role of the media. She said it was difficult to find evidence that media coverage had any impact on people’s support for the EU, and that people don’t get their information from other sources too. She was both right and wrong.

    Right, because many are put off by the strident tone of some newspapers. But wrong, because by and large newspapers set the agenda on the EU for the rest of the media, including social media.

    It is against this backdrop that voters will have to try to interpret reporting from the European Summit on February 18-19 at which Cameron hopes to finalise the terms of the referendum deal. There will be horse trading. Cameron will have to make concessions to some member states in return for their backing.

    But the UK media, beyond a few internationally minded exceptions, will care little for what other EU capitals think of the final agreement. Newspapers will simply declare, as they did with Thatcher’s rebate, that a victory was won in Brussels – or not, as the case may be.

    Edited Alan Wheatley

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    3 Responses to “Reporting the EU: Media’s mission impossible”

    • “Alienating jargon and an impenetrable bureaucracy make Brussels difficult to convey to a general public”

      Thank you for that story. Just a brief comment about that one line of yours mentioned above: As a Non-UK citizen, I alway found the British system of governance and the lack of a codified constitution in the UK much more difficult to understand – or ‘impenetrable’ – than the European institutions. Are you sure that you aren’t yourself too invested in what appears to be a very British narrative of the EU being impossible to understand and overly bureaucratic? Isn’t the structure of the EU much more straightforward and easier to map than the UK’s political system?
      Best wishes and thank you again for writing this piece.
      Wolfgang Blau

    • Journalists over and over again said the same thing, it took them a long time to get to grips with the structures and vagaries of the EU bureaucracy, more so compared to Washington or Westminster, for those who had covered both or all three. Perhaps the EU systems appears more opaque because national media do not follow all the ins and outs of the policy process, as they might back home. Certainly when I was in Brussels, recently posted journalists were shell-shocked for the first 6 months, even if they were very experienced political journalists. One said to me recently: “covering Brussels is like covering every single ministry. Back home my paper has specialists for each area but here I’m having to do it alone.”

    • The UK’s eurosceptic press have a lot to answer for when it comes to the way the UK interacts with the EU.
      I sat next to the Press team when I worked in the UK Representation in Brussels for 5 years and I saw their daily battle getting EU stories into the UK press. Here were all our UK diplomats working their arses off- getting the Russians to turn the power back in January 2009, securing the EU patent, Single European Skies, Energy Security, ending roaming charges to name but a few….
      The UK press didn’t want to know. But give them a fictional straight banana or custard cream story and the press were all over it until the Prime Minister was batting off questions in PMQs.
      I have so many friends who say they know nothing about the EU. No wonder. It is never in the press for anything positive. I’m not by any means saying it is perfect because it certainly isn’t but the UK hasn’t been given a balanced view for decades.