Monday, 20 June 2016

Yes, the gig for the UK journo in Brussels is to stretch the truth

A tell-all Facebook post by a former journalist at The Times has gone viral this weekend, exposing a truth that most in the EU press corps already know.

On Friday Martin Fletcher, a former foreign correspondent for Britain's The Times newspaper, posted some explosive allegations on Facebook.

"For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU," he wrote. "And the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson."

Fletcher describes how, in 1999, he arrived in Brussels as The Times' Brussels correspondent, shortly after Boris Johnson's stint covering the EU capital for The Telegraph. Johnson later went on to become the Mayor of London and the main politician backing a British secession from the European Union. If there is a vote for Brexit on Thursday, Johnson is likely to be the next UK prime minister.

"Johnson, sacked by The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quote, made his mark in Brussels not through fair and balanced reporting, but through extreme euro-scepticism. He seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue."

Johnson’s reports also had an amazing, explosive effect on the rest of Fleet Street...News editors on other papers, particularly but not exclusively the tabloids, started pressing their own correspondents to match them. By the time I arrived in Brussels editors only wanted stories about faceless Brussels eurocrats imposing absurd rules on Britain."

Reading Fletcher's comments, I was struck by how much they matched my impressions over the past seven years in Brussels working alongside British journalists working for UK national media. I've been writing about this grotesque aspect of British journalism in this blog for years. 

So I put Fletcher's post on Twitter, along with my own comment backing his observations. That tweet has since been retweeted 2,500 times.

What's fascinated me about the reaction is that people in the UK seem genuinely shocked by the revelation. To me it seemed like such an obvious observation. People here in the Brussels press corps, and in the EU institutions, already know it. 

We all know this is the gig for British journalists posted to Brussels by the national papers - I've had some of them candidly admit it to me themselves. Their editors are not interested in stories about how the EU actually works, or what it actually is. They are interested only in cartoonish stories about Brussels incompetence, about bendy bananas or limos for EU officials. 

It's such an obvious fact of life here in Brussels that people have long ago stopped questioning it. A European Commission official told me a few years ago that when there's an inaccurate story in the national papers, they register a complaint. But when it's the UK press, they don't bother.

Often times reading British media reports about the EU, from orientations left or right, is like reading an account of an alternative reality. At first, when I first arrived here in 2007, it shocked me. Then it bemused me. Now I've just gotten used to it.

It's sometimes been a strange kind of game that the rest of us in the Brussels press corps had to play. A story would appear in the UK press, and it would leave us scratching our heads. What on earth are they on about? We would have to go digging, and finally someone would find the kernel of truth that had been grossly distorted. 

Such was the case for the 2012 story about the EU banning hairdressers from wearing high heels. It turned out to be a suggestion in an own-initiative strategy by hairdressers unions and employers. But a UK journalist had spotted that provision, and knew it was something their editor would love. Nevermind the fact that it wasn't actually an EU law.

I went back in the archives of this blog to find just a few choice examples. During my time here the UK media has claimed the EU is going to ban cars in city centres, ban eggs by the dozen, ban toilet flushing, ban olive oil, ban cigarettes, ban football uniforms without the EU flag, and open the flood gates to Turkey. A retraction is never printed. We all know the gig here. Why waste your effort trying to set the record straight?

The most astonishing thing to me was when, over the years, I used to attend the press conferences by David Cameron after the European Council summits. 

Being in that room was like existing in an alternative reality. Cameron rarely spoke about anything even remotely related to what had just been discussed at the summit. The UK journos, who had all been shuttled over from London on the Eurostar train along with the prime minister, would all sit in a line in the front row, asking completely irrelevant questions.

Then I would pop next door, to Nicolas Sarkozy's press conference or Angela Merkel's. The difference was like night and day. 

They were actually talking about the substance of what had just been discussed at the summit. And, most importantly, the French and German journalists in the room were aware of, and interested in, what had actually occurred. Because their editors back home wanted the real story, not some fabricated amusing tale about Eurocrat bumbling.

I have so many stories of such tomfoolery in Cameron's press conferences, but perhaps the most absurd was when the prime minister came in railing against a colouring book.

Yes, a colouring book. It had nothing to do with the content of the summit and, despite his claims, Cameron probably had never actually brought it up with the other leaders. Yet we spent half the press conference talking about it, because the prime minister himself brought it up (he had even carried a copy of it up to the podium with him). And I wanted to bang my head against the wall.

Now, I have to take a moment here to note, if it needs noting, that I'm not tarring all British journalists in Brussels with the same brush. I'm referring specifically to those working for the national British media here. 

I'm not talking about those British journalists in Brussels who write for international papers that happen to be based in the UK, such as the Financial Times or The Economist. They do excellent work, mostly because they are not typical Fleet Street publications and do not have to kow-tow to a pre-written British narrative about the EU. 

I'm referring to the domestic British media, and I would include broadcast operations, including the BBC, in this characterisation. The tabloids may generate these stories, but the BBC often repeats them.

More than anything else, it's just incredibly sad. It's obvious why the English politicians want these stories. The EU makes for a convenient scapegoat on which to blame anything unpopular. Best, then, to keep the public impression of the EU a negative one. 

But why do the newspaper editors want these stories? Is it due to their very cozy relationship with the Westminster establishment? After all, this narrative benefitted both the media and the politicians in power.

Or did this narrative develop by accident, and the British media just ended up trapped in it through journalistic laziness?

Other EU countries haven't fallen so far into this bizarre way of covering the EU. To be honest, no country's media does a great job. The German papers are probably the best at covering the EU, in my experience. The British are without a doubt the worst - by a mile. I can't even think of any country's media that comes close to the UK media in their ability to report pseudo-reality as truth when it comes to Europe.

And so here we are, four days before the UK referendum, after a campaign in which the 'remain' side has tried to undo 25 years of lies and misinformation in two months. It was always an impossible task. 

The British political and media elite have been creating this Frankenstein's monster for a quarter of a century. And now it may not matter that the majority of the British politicians and the majority of British papers are backing remain. For years they were content to feed into a false narrative about the EU when it suited their own interests. 

Whatever the result on Thursday, the British people are owed an explanation about how they came to this state of affairs. And they deserve to know what their political and media elite have been up to in Brussels over all this time.


An Cigire said...

Well said Dave, you've hit the nail on the head there. Its incredible how constantly negative the UK media is about all things EU and how ready UK politicians are to jump on the bandwagon of blaming the EU for all their ills. UK politicians also generally refer to Europe or the EU as if the UK is an outsider looking in and that is part of the problem that has led to the current situation with this referendum.

Anonymous said...

The British media is certainly to blame, but we also bear responsibility as the British public. Why have we been so credulous?

Powen said...

It's kowtow, by the way, not cow-tow

Kate said...

This chimes with my experience in Brussels also. Was never worth correcting British press inaccuracy about the EU, because we never expected accuracy in the first place. Countering their distortions would be a full-time job (and I think there are now people dedicated to this, no?)