Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Turkey's negotiations over possible membership of the European Union have triggered yet more scare stories in the British newspapers. In a speech at an EU seminar at Gaziantep in south-east Anatolia (28.3.2008), Nicholas Jones said the role played by the British press had important lessons for Turkish journalists at a time when much of their reporting was having to focus on divisive issues such as the debate over the wearing of head scarves and the lack of freedom of expression. Jones said he supported the demands by journalists in south-east Turkey for a greater awareness by the European Union of the news media's needs and more action to improve the flow of information about the potential implications of Turkey's possible accession. He gave his assessment of the hidden agendas of British media companies and the role of scare stories.

 

The first thing to say about the news media’s reporting of the affairs of the European Union is that the politicians and journalists of the 27 member states each have their own agenda. These agendas are almost always different from country to country and what you often find is that the politicians and journalists in each of these separate countries often have different opinions as to what is important. These mixed messages -- which can be very confusing to the public -- are especially evident in the United Kingdom where we have what can be famously be described as a love-hate relationship with the European Commission and especially with its officials who have their headquarters in Brussels.

Despite what you might read or see on television, the people of the United Kingdom are in many ways more at ease with British membership of the European Union than we have ever been. Our government, under the Labour Prime Ministers of Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown are most certainly the strongest possible supporters of continued British membership and the British agenda -- as far as the Labour government is concerned -- is that we want the widest possible membership of the European Union, which explains why the United Kingdom supports and campaigns for Turkish membership of the EU.

But as I said the messages are mixed: our biggest selling newspapers are very hostile towards the European Union, they ridicule and undermine what the European Commission is trying to achieve and all this negative reporting does affect public opinion in Britain. Support for the EU in Britain is lower than in any other member state. The proportion who are in favour and say membership is "a good thing" is well under 40 per cent. Well over 20 per cent say that staying in the European Union is "a bad thing". The very latest opinion poll was done in January this year. "Happy in Europe but still best friends with the US" was the headline in the Guardian (26.1.2008). It showed that over sixty per cent of British people think we still have the warmest relationship with the United States rather than the EU.

But behind the headlines the real position is confused and complicated. Take the possibility of Turkey joining the EU as an example. On the one hand the UK government would like Turkey to join. British ministers in the current Labour government do all they can encourage Turkish membership despite opposition in France and Germany. British politicians know it would be good for British business and they are convinced that politically the wider and more inclusive the EU becomes, the less it will be possible for countries like France and Germany to dictate what happens in the EU. So there is a clear political agenda by the Labour Party but not one that is necessarily supported by the main Opposition, the Conservative Party which would like to renegotiate the EU Treaty.

When it comes to our newspapers, there is more outright opposition to the interference of the European Union and there is no shortage of scare stories about how expanding the EU to include countries like Bulgaria and Romania --and now possibly Turkey -- will lead to uncontrolled immigration and give even further encouragement to Muslim fundamentalists who have been challenging British traditions. I mentioned "scare stories" -- by that I mean press reports which are exaggerated and seek to alarm and even frighten British people. Why might you ask would British newspapers carry such reports? Well here we come up against a hidden agenda, an agenda which is not publicised or properly explained.

There is no hiding the fact that the media proprietor Rupert Murdoch, who has a 42 per cent share of the sale of British newspaper market, uses his papers to denigrate the European Commission whenever possible. The hidden agenda of the Murdoch press and the influential Daily Mail newspaper group is that they campaign against Britain getting drawn further into the EU because they fear European intervention in the commercial affairs of their media companies. Britain has the most relaxed regime in Europe when it comes to media ownership and regulation. Literally anyone from anywhere in the world can buy up a British newspaper, television or radio station -- all they need is enough money.

Our regulations on competition between media outlets are very light, making it easier for the media companies to increase their profits. So that is why they are totally opposed to any attempt by the European Commission to curb media companies and to regulate their businesses. What I would like to do is give you some of my ideas on how to develop your reporting of European issues, how this can be made of interest to readers, listeners and viewers. One of the great problems in countries which have recently joined the EU is that their journalists can find they are up against what seems to be an impenetrable barrier when trying to understand what is happening in the European Commission at Brussels. I hope I can unlock some of those doors for you. But first "scare stories" that I mentioned.

It is difficult to know where to begin because most of the popular newspapers love to write stories making fun of the European Union -- and frighten British voters. The fear that the newspapers try generate is that Britain will be swallowed up into an enormous European super state and lose all its own national identity. Perhaps the European flag take the place of the British flag. Perhaps we ma all have to have a European passport rather than a British passport. Might we all be asked to sing the European anthem? Here are stories to prove the point: A claim -- not since substantiated -- that the European Union wants to stop ships flying the British flag: "Eurocrats Ban our Red Ensign" (Daily Express, 25.11.2005). Here’s another: "EU wants to purge the Queen from our passports" (Daily Mail, 10.9.2005).

These are ideas which some official somewhere in Brussels was considering but they are presented as fact when so far nothing has been decided. The same goes for daily life. Much has been made of the market trader who ignored an EU directive and insisted on always selling fruit and vegetables in the British weight of pounds rather than kilos. He died recently and was held up as a hero: "Metric martyr died defying Brussels". (Daily Mail 21.5.2007). Another constant source of stories concern the naming of foods. You all probably know how fiercely the French protect the word "champagne". Each member country asks the European Union to protect its famous names. Greece has caused outrage in the United Kingdom by saying only feta cheese from Greece can be called "feta".

This has upset the producers of "Yorkshire feta" in England. (Daily Mail 16.2.2005). Perhaps the best headline was in the Metro: "Feta? Why it has to be all Greek to me". (Metro 11.5.2005) Now you might think all these scare stories are a joke, just sensational nonsense but cumulatively they do feed the concerns of a group of voters who want Britain to withdraw entirely from the European Union. Their party is the United Kingdom Independence Party and it holds nine of the 78 British seats in the European Parliament. UKIP won those nine seats thanks to the European voting system, proportional representation, but a different system is used for electing Members of the House of Commons where UKIP has never managed to win a seat.

Before we get down to some serious suggestions let us just look at UKIP’s election broadcast in the last British general election in 2005. I warned you about scare stories so hold on to your seats. (Tape: UKIP election broadcast 2005.) In fact UKIP gained only 600,000 votes -- a mere two per cent of the entire national vote. But in previous years it has obtained a higher vote in European elections. This anti-European campaigning -- or as we often say Euro-sceptic campaigning -- does feature quite regularly in the newspapers. Britain’s biggest selling newspaper the Sun -- owned by Rupert Murdoch -- has been campaigning tirelessly in recent month -- so far without success -- to try to persuade the British government to hold a referendum on the new European Treaty.

This is the treaty which was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands and which had to be renegotiated and has to win full approval. The Sun has campaigned relentlessly, inviting readers to join its campaign by signing a petition, by post or the internet. (Sun 26.9.2008) The day after the campaign was launched it claimed massive support: "40,000 demand EU poll" (Sun 27.9.2007) but that was about as high as it got. That did not stop the alarmist stories: that Germany wanted to force the EU flag to be flown thus stopping us flying the British union jack. "Hans off the flag" (Sun 11.12.2007) was the headline.

What I hope to demonstrate is that every news story about the European Union can be approached from a different direction. Greece is delighted that the European Union defends its exclusive use of the word "feta" for feta cheese. But that was regarded in Britain as unnecessary interference. This is the challenge for journalists in Turkey. As you approach the possibility of future membership of the European Union you will see European issues from a Turkish perspective. But as journalists you will need to understand the agenda of other countries, you will want to explain the other side of the argument.

Why for example, a positive story in Greece about feta cheese was a negative story in the United Kingdom.

This is important to understand because it gets to the heart of how the European Union works, how decisions are made which could go positively or negatively for your country. And what must also be remembered is that a decision which might be negative for the government might in fact be positive -- and very popular -- with the people. One of the great initiatives of the European Union is to help protect European workers, to stop them being exploited and to improve their health and safety. One way to do this is by setting a limit on the amount of hours an employee can be forced to work.

Here is what undoubtedly is a positive headline for many working people in Britain: "48 Hour limit on working week…Euro Mps ruling could give shorter hours to millions" (London Evening Standard 11.5.2005) But that decision was bad news for the British government -- and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair -- and also for British employers, who insisted there should be no limit on the working week, that workers should have the freedom to decide for themselves how long they want to work. The British government believes that it is flexible employment laws which have made the United Kingdom so attractive to investors -- and which explains why so many young men and women from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa want to travel to Britain to get jobs -- jobs are available because of flexible working.

But it is this ability to work as much as you like, which other European states like France and Germany oppose. They want a strict limit on the working week because they believe Britain has an unfair economic advantage. So no wonder the Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s leading anti-European newspaper, did so much to support Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister: "I will defy all Europe…Blair vow on maximum 48 hour" (Sun 13.5.2005). This argument continues to this day with the British government insisting that it must continue to have an opt-out from the 48 hour week…but Britain is losing support, especially in Germany, because the opt out is damaging the competitive position of other European Union states.

We often see news stories which expose this conflict between what might be positive for the people but negative for the government and for the employers. A classic example was the decision by the European Union that in future all lorry drivers in the EU should be restricted to driving no more than 48 hours a week. They have been able to drive for up to 55 hours a week in the United Kingdom. The news stories in the Euro-sceptic newspapers were all negative: "EU rules threaten chaos on the roads" (Daily Telegraph 17.2.2005). "EU docks truckers’ pay by £80 a week" was the headline over the Sun’s calculation as to how much each driver would lose each week in pay. (Sun 4.4.2005)

Another new regulation is that lorry drivers need to be tested regularly. Again it provoked outrage: "Truckin Barmy! EU makes drivers retrain every 5 years" (Sun 17.8.2006). But each of those stories could have been written in a positive light, from an entirely different perspective if we take into account the opinion of other road users. As motorists we all dread being hit by a lorry or coach driver who has fallen asleep at the wheel. Surely then the European Union is to congratulated for regulating the lorry drivers. Where are the positive headlines. No doubt I would probably get a different and very negative answer if I spoke to some of the many lorry drivers from Turkey who drive on Europe’s roads and who would probably like to thank the Sun for fighting against these regulations.

So the challenge to any journalist when faced by a story like this is to understand that we do have a responsibility to be fair, to try to analyse what is being proposed and to be aware that there might be a hidden agenda and that the story could be possibly be written from a positive or a negative perspective. But some of the techniques of the British newspapers have to be admired. They do campaign in support of what they believe their readers want. They do commission opinion surveys and seek the participation of their readers. So as a journalist I admire their inventiveness.

When I said that the opinion polls show that the British people are becoming a little more comfortable with membership of the European Union, this is partly due to the fact that the man and woman in the street can see the benefits. For example, Britain has led the way in the development of cheap, no-frills airlines. We have more low-cost airlines than any other EU state and British people fly overseas, to another country, more frequently than anywhere else. The European Union has encouraged that competition, it has helped open up the skies of Europe to the budget airlines, to get airports and air traffic controllers to make this possible. British customers have the cheapest phone charges in the world because the British telecommunications market is so competitive.

Again the EU wants those benefits to be Europe wide. Despite the criticism of the European Commission in many of the national newspapers, the local press in Britain is much more positive in reporting European initiatives. European funds for redevelopment -- where there is high unemployment, help with transport such as subsidising the cost of new railway lines, or for improving the environment -- attract a lot of coverage. I am sure the prospect that Turkey could benefit from European assistance and investment are the kinds of issues which will attract the attention of the Turkish news media. Another phenomenon is that the public realise that if they cannot sort out their problems in Britain, they can always take their case to Europe.

So if the British government says "No", if a local council refuses to help, then often an appeal can be made direct to the European Parliament or to the Commission. The European Human Rights Act is increasingly being taken advantage of by British people who believe their human rights are not being respected. So these wider benefits of British membership of the EU -- benefits which do not always get positive publicity -- are understood by the British people. Much to the annoyance of the European Commission it never gets any thanks in the British newspapers for many of these positive developments. The European Commission has become an easy target for British journalists and it can be attacked and vilified with little chance of redress.

Although the Commission will seek to clarify -- or even deny -- what the British newspapers say, their denials do not always get reported and often they are ignored. Partly this is due to the fact that British journalists rarely go to Brussels so they do not have to meet European Union officials face to face which allows the media to say what it likes. This tide of critical stories in Britain shows no sign of receding: Here is the Sun on Tuesday of this week reporting that the EU has gone mad again by proposing "a barmy EU" law to say that after driving for thirty miles a bus driver needs a break and must be replaced by another bus driver. (Sun 25.3.2008)

Here is The Times of the same day claiming that a European Union directive on the size of wine bottles could cause financial problems for one of the few winemakers in Britain. His bottles are said to be the wrong size. (The Times 25.3.2008). Perhaps we can discuss how such stories would be reported here in Turkey. Would there be this same criticism of Europe trying to order the lives of ordinary people? In some new EU members countries there is a far different reaction: their people often welcome the pressure that comes from the EU in Brussels to raise standards especially in health and safety. This phenomenon of sections of the news media attacking the European Commission is not restricted to the United Kingdom. There is the same criticism in many other European member states.

Indeed it has got the point where the EU is trying to do much more to encourage positive reporting of its activities and decisions. Journalists in the United Kingdom are alarmed by this as there is evidence that the EU is being tempted to engage in what is called "paid for journalism". There could be arrangements with television channels around Europe -- CNN has been mentioned and so has ITV in the UK - under which these channels would carry more European news and the cost of the programming would be partly funded by the EU. The danger is that this might become a way of buying favourable publicity…that the reporting might not be critical, and might veer towards propaganda for the European Union.

There is no doubt that journalists throughout Europe face a challenge. Are we doing enough to analyse what the EU is doing, are we investigating possible malpractices in order to scrutinise what the European politicians are doing on our behalf. Or are we simply reproducing what we are told by our local politicians and failing to hold them to account. There has been a great deal of controversy recently in Britain about a scandal involving the way our Members of Parliament --and Members of the European Parliament -- are claiming money for expenses under false pretences. They claim they have spent the money, perhaps on travel or employing staff, but in fact they haven’t -- it is just a scam.

The headlines in The Times give a flavour of a scandal which only now is being exposed: "Clamour grows to reveal the secret report that throws light on Fraud" (The Times 22.2.2008) and then "Whistle-blower criticised as MEPs vote to keep their scams secret" (27.2.2008). The British newspapers are no friends of the Members of the European Parliament of the officials of the European Commission. But that is the importance of a free press: that journalists do hold the politicians to account. The UK has a very strong and vibrant Turkish community and I personally have no doubt those links will get stronger in the years.

As a journalist I know that we are all going to be reporting more and more about European initiatives -- whether it is about how European countries tackle global warming and the threat to the environment, the threat of terrorist activity, illegal immigration, people trafficking or trying to control drug trafficking. These problems are going to have to be dealt with on a Europe wide basis and as journalists were need to understand how important it is to be well versed in European affairs so that we can keep our readers, viewers and listeners informed.

(Nicholas Jones was the guest of Links-London which assisted in the organisation of the seminar).