Wednesday, 30 June 2010

More egg-ceptional inaccuracy from the British media

When it comes to the British tabloids, you can assume that if they use the phrase "you couldn't make it up," that probably means they are making it up. At least, that's certainly the case when it comes to the EU. And it isn't just the tabloids. Blatant lies and flat-out inaccuracies about the EU are par for the course in the British media, even from respected news sources like the Independent or the BBC.

A typical example of this was floating around last week, when the British papers and the BBC were reporting that the EU is planning to ban the sale of eggs by the dozen. It followed a well-worn pattern. First, a right-wing paper like the Daily Mail runs a story about some new horrible injustice that will be perpetrated on the British people by Brussels. They base their information on either a deliberate misreading of the actual law being considered or they just flat out make things up. Eurosceptic blogs pick up the story and it receives chatter in the British blogosphere. Soon other papers are running the same story, with lazy reporters relying solely on the assumptions made by the Daily Mail. It doesn't take long for the BBC to pick it up, as they did with the eggs-by-the-dozen story. All of the subsequent lazy reporting is based solely on the assumptions made by the Daily Mail, which are almost always wrong.

Take this dozen eggs story for example. At no point - and I mean never - was the EU considering banning producers from selling eggs by the dozen or from labeling their egg cartons by the number of eggs. If the Daily Mail, or the BBC, had bothered to read the actual proposal they would have seen that nowhere is there any mention of outlawing selling products by the number. All the legislation would require is that food sellers also label the weight of their product in kilos. Egg cartons could still display the number of eggs as well. Most eggs sold in the UK already display the weight of the product in addition to the number of eggs.

But in this case, as in many others, lazy British reporters have decided that the actual truth of what is being discussed in the parliament isn't half as interesting as what they could make up by misconstruing the debate. What was actually being discussed is whether eggs should have an exemption allowing them to only display the number and not the weight. In the end, they did win this exemption.

It defies belief that the original Daily Mail reporter, one
Christopher Leake, could actually have confused a requirement to add additional labeling with a ban on existing labeling. Incredibly, he backs up this assertion by quoting an unnamed spokesperson from the UK government's food safety agency saying the legislation would ban selling eggs by the dozen. Now either that spokesperson is incredibly misinformed or they are deliberately lying. Or perhaps there never was any such spokesperson. Because anyone with two eyes can see quite clearly that such a ban was never a part of this legislation.

What's incredibly frustrating is that I see this same pattern repeated over and over in the British media. Just a few months ago there was a ridiculous story going around about how the EU was going to ban the term 'England', divide Europe into new cross-border regions that don't correspond to national borders and rename the English Channel the "Anglo-French Pond".  This was not only observably absurd (since when does the EU name bodies of water?) it was easily disprovable. They were basing this "story" on an informal map that was devised only as a tool for policy-making in border areas back in 2006. In fact The Telegraph had already run a "damn those Brussels eurocrats" story about it back then. The map, back in 2006 and still today, is simply a way to coordinate cross-border transport links and environmental concerns. Nothing new developed with the map this year, but apparently some lazy Daily Mail reporter just stumbled across it while reading an old issue of the Telegraph and decided to drudge it up again.

But even though the story is clearly nonsense, that didn't stop it getting repeated on the BBC just a few months ago. It was repeated on an evening broadcast of 'Have I Got News for You' with the assumption that it is true. And thus, the story is legitimised with the British public and people assume it's true. Watching that BBC program, hosted by Stephen Fry and with guests including Chris Addison, I just couldn't believe that such otherwise intelligent people would be so ready to believe illogical nonsense when it comes to the EU. It's something hard-wired into the British brain it seems - a sort of mental block against accepting the reality that Britain today is a small country that is part of the EU. The educated elite in Britain seem to think that if they just ignore it, perhaps the EU (and Britain's need for it) will just go away.

I was talking about this frustrating aspect of the British media the other day with someone who works as a press officer for one of the institutions. He told me when he picks up the phone and hears a British voice on the other end he already feels a headache coming on. I asked him if he finds he has to explain the very basics of how the EU works to British reporters calling from London. He told me he wishes they even asked such basic questions. They aren't interested in how the EU works, he told me, they just want him to tell them how Brussels is destroying the British way of life in 20 words or less. He said often these inaccuracies persist in the British press because the reporters aren't interested in the truth of what's actually happening in Brussels. They seem more interested in deliberately misunderstanding EU legislation to produce the most salacious headline than in getting the story right. Because the only time most of the British media covers the EU is when there's a perception of a power-grab or of 'Brussels gone mad'.

But here's what I don't understand about the British public that consumes this claptrap: after awhile, don't they notice that these things the papers told them were going to come to pass don't actually happen? Haven't they noticed that despite all the press furore many years ago, their bananas are still curved? Have they noticed that their circus performers aren't wearing hard hats? That their swings aren't lower to the ground? That their condoms are not one-size-fits-all? When they see that eggs are still being sold by the dozen in a few years, will they stop and think, 'Hmmm, maybe that BBC story was actually nonsense"?

It seems to me like nothing short of willful ignorance on the part of the British public. They eagerly consume these euromyths telling them the EU is "about" to do something, and then seem to not notice when those things never come to pass. It's absolutely perplexing to me.


Eurocentric said...

The problem is that there's never any proper debate in newspapers to counter the British media narrative of an evil EU empire. If there were stories and debates on SWIFT or possible bank taxes or environmental protection, then people would have a better sense of what the EU does (and who within the EU is doing it), and the absurd stories would contradict the more general media experience (and presumably journalists would be more accustomed to the EU under those circumstances anyway). Of course, it's wishful thinking for any of this to happen...

P.S. The banana picture is brilliant!

Francis said...

Dan Hannan says that: "On the rare occasions that the British press gets wind of the proposal in advance, there is usually enough of a fuss to ensure that it be modified. British Euro-enthusiasts then turn around and claim, with straight faces, that the whole episode just goes to show how ready sceptics are to invent things."

Who should I believe?!

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Nice try Hannan, but the Daily Mail story was written this Sunday, two years AFTER the proposal was published by the European Commission with no reference to banning labelling by numbers ( There has been no amendment tabled in the parliament to change the legislation so that it would ban selling by numbers.

When it comes to things Dan Hannan says, you can usually assume they're false.