The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

03 Mar 2016

Politics and Society

UK in Changing Europe UEA-79

The big difference between reporting on Europe and the United States is that one is fairly easy and the other fairly hard. Reporting on the European Union is hard. It’s hard to explain, and while not so hard to be fair and balanced when doing so, incredibly difficult to convince people that you are being so. It’s also a much harder sell to programs and editors.

We are now at a moment when, because of the referendum and the migration crisis, the European Union is a critical, central news story. Trying to explain important, but head numbing detail to an audience that is largely ignorant of the ABC’s of European politics is a challenge in itself, and I’m not just taking about a broad collection of listeners and viewers – but often the very people who are experts on British politics (and American).

The history of the BBC highlights some of the differences in reporting Europe and the US. I was the first BBC Europe editor not because we didn’t have senior correspondents and a team in Brussels before then, but because of a report that was critical of our depth of coverage and our determination to explain what everybody recognized was a hard story. One senior figure told me he realized the root of the problem when he was taking a phone call from an irate Neil Kinnock vehemently complaining that we’d missed a really important story. As he listened, he glanced up at the bank of TV screens we have in the office, and saw every one the BBC’s senior Europe correspondents reporting from Iraq.

The Europe reporters were Jills and Jacks of all trades: they reported on train crashes, earthquakes, avalanches, murders, fires all over the continent. When there was a big story elsewhere they were often first on the plane out of Brussels and into a crisis zone. Big elections would be in there somewhere but the daily doings of Brussels and political shenanigans in other capitals rather got put on to the back burner, or covered by correspondents who sounded like experts talking to other experts, mouths full of acronyms and obscurity. Hence the job of Europe editor was created, in essence a Europe political editor. One of my first vows was never to let the words ‘co decision making’ pass my lips on air.

I was also the BBC’s second American editor – Justin Webb was the first. That was a result not about worries about our coverage but grade inflation: if there was a Europe editor and a Middle East editor it was pretty stupid not to have a US editor too. There are good reasons why we cover the US in such detail – there are also bad ones, and neutral ones. The good ones call be summed up in one word “Iraq”. What the US President decides matters directly to the UK.

Then there’s the relative ease of doing the job. I don’t want to make it sound like a doddle, but Americans speak English and they speak it well, with a turn of phrase that is often captivating, and a confidence that their opinion should be heard. There are a plethora of TV and radio stations pumping out content, much of which we can use. US politics is hardly simple, but it can often be portrayed as the decision of a single individual or a knock out race that in the end comes down to a contest between two people. Look at the Iowa causus: the interest, the drama, the flood of reports. Many of the British political elite – politicians and journalists – cut their teeth on watching American politics, sometimes participating in campaigns, know it in detail and love the tension and the drama.

Attention on US politics could often overshadow European developments. It is hard to imagine devoting the same time to looking at who might lead the German opposition as to Iowa. Indeed in the autumn I took the Europe job I wrote an irate message to the bosses arguing that it seemed easier to get on the air with an interview with the cousin of the bloke who almost certainly won’t be President than something about the woman who was likely to shape Europe for years to come. That was an exaggeration and it worked: I got my profile of Merkel on the Ten O’clock news, and reasonable coverage of the German election. But it was a hard push.

There are two other key reasons that reporting Europe is so different to reporting the US. The first is that that while US reporting focuses on the decisions of a President, power in the EU is diffuse. It is spread between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. I was determined to trace legislative processes, showing how laws were made. I picked one that really matters to people, limiting CO2 emissions, and decided to trace its progress in some detail for PM on Radio 4 and on my blog. I hope it worked to an extent, but when the guy in charge of getting the law through the Parliament committees himself admitted he had no idea what the next step would be, I realized that EU lawmaking is not just complicated, it is also fluid and unique. The listener or viewer who may have studied comparative politics at A-level or university and knows the difference between the US, British and French political systems won’t find it much help.

The Commission – Brussels in common parlance – is a strange hybrid, a politicized civil service with a mission. The best, if rather fanciful analogy I came up with was of a very weak high king of an imaginary early medieval period. The king represented the interests of a country that didn’t really exist yet, but which he was trying to forge. However, he was at the mercy of powerful barons – the prime ministers and presidents of EU countries – who were more interested in what was good for Mercia or Wessex.

The Parliament is a talking shop, only exists as a political sop in the first place, but is eager to claw more power, and has been somewhat successful in doing so. I think what works in this analogy is putting back the nation states in the argument. You would often think from the reporting that civil servants, ‘Brussels’, decide on a course of action and it just happens, against the occasional protests from offended countries. The truth is that if the big countries don’t want it, then it can’t happen. This is why things happen so slowly in Brussels, and that is another problem: snail-paced policy development doesn’t have the drama of soap opera politics that political aficionadas so love.

To really understand the politics of the EU you have to understand the politics of 28 countries, the basic outlines of concerns and tensions, the governmental and the opposition positions. There are very few people who have that level of detailed expertise, so most of us try to keep abreast, dip in and dip out, spend some time one day looking at Poland, and the next talking to some from Spain. But developments are hard to understand if you don’t stay on top of them: the weekend before last I went to Portugal to talk about Mr. Cameron’s ‘emergency brake,’ but it’s hard to make sense of the reaction if you don’t know about Portugal’s recent change of Government and their problems with the EU.

Even if you do all this it can be deadly dry and dull. There are two ways to do both of these editor jobs: staying in Washington or Brussels and being across all the latest moves. I believe passionately that this is, if not wrong, then not the way I wanted to do the job. It doesn’t make for good TV and radio. But also I felt reporting the impact of policies on people, illustrating the difficulties of various countries, why they are coming to certain decisions, is really important. It’s so important to link developments with the big picture. It is odd to me that in a democracy we don’t do more in this sense. America is especially bad. If US reporters had spent more time talking to the tea party over the last six years and realized they are not weird hard liners but represent a very common view among rural white voters, they wouldn’t be so surprised by the rise of Donald Trump.

The second thing that makes reporting about the EU hard is the elephant of objectivity in a room full of passions. Of course people used to complain I was pro-Obama or anti-Obama in the States, but Europe evokes passions that have destroyed prime ministers and is the central question for many political animals, one that we are all about to debate, a climax to a story that has run for half a century.

When I became Europe editor it was felt we had ignored the arguments against the European Union and against British membership because they fell between the cracks of Westminster and Brussels. Perhaps some held their nose at the distortion and over simplification of the tabloids. But it was an oversight, which I hope we corrected, and certainly isn’t true now as this debate is central to the most important political decision this country has faced for years.

We must be, should be, an honest broker. There will be huge pressures. A problem which I call the ‘Serb’s smile’ is important here. Alongside a blog about Kosovo I published my cameraman’s very fetching photo of an old Serbian man smilingly slightly. I thought it was just a nice portrait of someone who was at the event I was talking about. If I had thought about it, which I didn’t, I would have said he looked strong and proud. But to Serbians who wrote in it was another attempt by the BBC to portray the Serbs as old, degenerate, poor, backward, as one said ‘with a toothless grin’. The fact that his mouth was closed and there was no indication if he had teeth or not didn’t matter. They knew what they thought – that we were biased – and they would find evidence for it. We will suffer from that in this referendum, no doubt.

There are hard questions to answer. How much should we try to provide objective analysis of the facts? How do we react if the facts seem to go against the contention of one side or the other? When does exploring faults in an argument start to look like advocacy of the other side’s argument? How far does explaining how the EU works, for instance challenging the idea that ‘Brussels’ hands down diktats to member states’ look like special pleading?

On Any Answers a couple of weekends ago I heard someone complaining about ‘straight cucumbers’. There was in fact such a regulation – sort of – but it was scrapped eight years ago. It was first announced eighteen years ago and it did come from the European Commission in Brussels. But I have failed to find out when the general principle of standardization was approved by nation states and that’s another EU problem, it is hard to nail the facts to the wall. But is pointing this out to the gentle man on the phone pedantry, bias or is it objectivity?

There’s also the ‘blue banana’ problem. If some people argue that bananas are yellow, others that they are green and yet others that they are black it is fair enough for the BBC to maintain that they can be all these things in their life cycle, and back it up with the science and the pictures. We might even jokingly suggest that they are at least never blue. Which is fine until the Blue Banana party comes along, backed in opinion polls by a sizeable majority of the population.

Then I think there is a switch: we have to listen to the experts, ask hard questions about where are the photos of blue bananas and so on, but we also have to allow the view to be expressed and take it seriously. I hasten to add this is not code for talking about a particular view, but just a way of exploring what happens when expert opinion seems to differ from political passions. Our duty is not just objectivity but to allow a whole range of arguments and opinions. We have to beware, and set a high bar of objectivity for experts, acknowledge that in many matters there is no central Platonic objective truth – it is a matter of interpretation.

Some people assume that BBC reporters manage to keep a lid on their own personal feelings by keeping the lid screwed down tight to stop any bias escaping. It is honestly not like that most of the time; in fact the reverse is true. I’ve been doing this so long that I find it hard to have any strong convictions: it is my job to examine a problem from every angle, to test arguments to destruction. In most case I find a complex shade of grey, rarely black and white.

In the coming referendum, there will be a battle for the news agenda: the ‘in’ side don’t want to the debate to be all around migration, but events may very well dictate otherwise. If the ‘in’ campaign is led by the Prime Minister it may be difficult not to lead a bulletin on a big speech. In an election there is the leader of the opposition, and we give their words equally weight. But will there be a clear equivalent in this campaign? Perhaps, perhaps not. Achieving balance may be less organic and require more organisation, a matter thankfully above my pay grade.

I’ll end on a personal note which many will find weird: I found both jobs fascinating, rewarding and I loved doing them both. But now I am back in the UK I still feel a passion to explore and explain the European political story, and its impact on us. It’s someone else’s turn to go to New Hampshire.

Mark Mardell is the presenter of Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. To see the video of this speech, and other at the ‘Reporting Europe’ event, click here.

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