Thursday, 14 July 2011

Will NotW shock force rethink of British press accuracy?

Another day, another euromyth batted about by the British tabloids. Today's little page seven gem, repeated in several papers including the Express and the Telegraph, is that Brussels is planning to force all sports players to wear the EU flag on their uniforms. And like most of the euromyths the British press peddles, this is complete nonsense.

Of course this little piece of news can't hope to compete with the big story this week, the News of the World hacking scandal and the implosion of the Rupert Murdoch media empire in Britain. Commentators are saying that this scandal will erode the public's confidence in the British media. I can't help but think – looking at stories like this EU unform nonsense – that that's probably not such a bad thing. But will this scandal really force the British public to be more sceptical toward the claims made by their printed press, particularly regarding the EU?

As I wrote about in a related post today, the current scandal is not centred around the accuracy of British journalists but rather the methodology used by them in gathering news. The allegations being made may be shocking and sleazy, but not one of them involve false reporting. Will there be a connection, in the public perception, between Murdoch's manipulation of the British political class and his manipulation of the British public? Will people start to think about how their own attitude toward things, for instance the EU, is shaped by the stories they read in the tabloid press? And will they stop being so credulous when reading these things? As I read the comments on this Daily Express article from today, I'm inclined to think little in this respect is going to change.

It's the classic set-up. A British paper finds some vague, random statement uttered somewhere in the EU lawmaking process, distorts it and says it's ameasure that is "about to be imposed". The British public read the story and scream about how the EU is a power-hungry monster. But then a year later, when this thing their papers told them was "about to be imposed" never materialises, they don't seem to notice. Whether its regulations on crooked bananas, renaming the English Channel as the "Anglo-French Pond" or banning the sale of eggs by the dozen, this pattern is repeated over and over.

So today's story is that the European Parliament is proposing a law requiring all sports players to wear the EU flag on their uniform instead of their national flag. The Express tells its readers that "the European Parliament's culture committee has already endorsed the plan," and that it is set to be made law by the European Commission. This is completely false

The origins of this story are in a draft report by a Spanish European Parliament member which "suggests that [the EU flag] should be displayed on the clothing of athletes from Member States". The report is not law, it is merely a statement of opinion from an MEP. Nor does it mention anything about replacing the national flag.

The report has not, as the Express claims, been approved by the culture committee. Such an approval won't happen until October if it happens at all, and the full parliament probably wouldn't vote on the report until next year. And even if the wording suggesting that the EU flag be displayed makes it through all those different votes, the whole report is still just an opinion, not law. The European Commission has made no such proposal for regulating sport uniforms. In fact, in response to parliamentary questions in the past, the commission has specifically ruled out ever asking member states to display the EU flag at international sporting events.

I know exactly where this bogus story came from, I received the same press release from a eurosceptic Tory MEP this morning. The press release from Emma McClarkin claims that, during a discussion of the European dimension in sport in the culture committee, "Fanatics in the European Parliament this morning gave a rapturous reception to plans that would see the EU flag on sports team shirts - and Conservative MEP Emma McClarkin found herself shouted at by fellow members after she described the plan as 'outrageous'."

But take a look at the video. The EU flag on uniforms subject was barely mentioned. To describe the reception to the idea as "rapturous" and to say Ms McClarkin was "shouted at" is, to say the least, a gross mischaracterisation. But the British journos who receive the press release take it as gospel, and they don't bother to check whether it's true or not. Then the British public reads this story, and because it fits their preconceived notions about those 'wacky Eurocrats in Brussels' (notions that have been fed to them in a steady diet of misleading newspaper articles like this one), they don't stop to think that something just doesn't sound right about this story.

But in the end everybody gets what they want. Ms McClarkin gets free publicity looking like the champion of Britishness, the Express gets to sell more papers and the readers get to stoke their feelings of moral outrage that their poor beseiged nation is being taken over by foreigns.

In a post-NotW landscape, will this kind of formula continue to work? Will the tabloid readers think back to all those euromyth stories they've read over the years and wonder why, despite the warnings of an 'imminent decree from Brussels', they still have double decker buses, barmaids can still show their cleavage and stores can still sell British yoghurt? Looking at the reader comments under the Express story, it doesn't seem that people are feeling any more skeptical just yet.

1 comment:

Brad Zimmerman said...

As long as there are millions of lazy readers there will be loads of lazy writers or writers with agendas.