This is an excerpt from Ethics in the News: EJN Report on Challenges for Journalism in the Post-truth Era.
Ever since it joined the European Union in 1973 Britain has had the most eurosceptic press in the Brussels-based club. Its two top-selling papers, The Sun and the Daily Mail, are rabidly anti-EU, reporting on its affairs with a mixture of hostility, mockery and contempt.
When former European Commission President Jacques Delors had the temerity to propose a single currency in 1990, The Sun screamed “Up Yours Delors” on its front page accompanied by a two-fingered salute to the “French fool.” In 2003 the Daily Mail described a draft EU constitution as a “blueprint for tyranny.” And in 2011 the same paper warned that Germany was turning Europe into a “Fourth Reich.”
The Daily Telegraph, the fourth best-selling paper in the UK, feeds its readers a daily diet of negative news about the European Union, while the sixth biggest — the Daily Express — has led a “crusade” against British membership. Typical headlines include “EU brainwash our children,” “Now EU Wants to Ban our Kettles” and “Get Britain out of the EU.”
Due to strict impartiality guidelines, British TV reporting is fairer. But even the BBC broadcasts more negatively than positively. An April 2016 report by Zurich-based analysts Media Tenor concluded that only 7 percent of BBC coverage of the EU was positive and 45 percent negative. It also found that the tone of coverage was more negative than that about Russian and Chinese strongmen Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Even Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad received more positive mentions than the EU.
The study also looked at the quantity of coverage from 2001-16 and found the EU accounted for just 1.5% of stories on the flagship News at Ten in 12 of those 16 years. As the referendum approached, coverage became more intense and more positive. However, the study concluded that “reporting about the advantages of EU membership has come too late and will not convince a public that has been accustomed to EU bashing.”
It was indeed too late and on 23 June 2016 British voters opted to leave the EU by a slim majority after a referendum campaign that will be best remembered for the lies told by leading campaigners.
On March 8, The Sun ran a front-page story with the headline “Queen Backs Brexit” based purely on anonymous sources. After Buckingham Palace lodged a complaint, Britain’s press watchdog IPSO judged the headline was “significantly misleading” and not backed up by the text. On June 15, the Daily Mail published a front-page story showing migrants getting out of a lorry in Britain with the headline “We’re from Europe, let us in.” However, police footage clearly showed the migrants saying they were from Iraq and Kuwait. In both cases the newspapers published small corrections on inside pages. But by then the false stories had become ingrained in the collective consciousness of readers.
It is easier for the UK media to get away with publishing untruths and half-truths about the EU because the British public knows less about it than do citizens of any other country bar Latvia. Asked by pollsters whether three simple statements about the EU were true or false only 28% of Brits answered correctly. Indeed, one of the most revealing signs of British voters’ ignorance was the fact that the most-searched EU question on Google on 24 June was “What does it mean to leave the EU,” followed by “What is the EU?”
Many British journalists also display ignorance of the EU’s workings — either because they lack basic information about its decision-making procedures or because it serves their mission to discredit it by cutting corners on facts.
In October 2011 the Daily Mail published a story — repeated by the Express and the Telegraph — on how “EU bureaucrats have banned children under 8 from blowing up balloons because they might hurt themselves.”
The article is typical of lazy, error- strewn British reporting about the EU. For a start, it refers to a “new directive” when this was a draft text. Second, “bureaucrats” don’t make EU laws — the Commission proposes them and the European Parliament and Council of the EU pass them. So there was no “new directive” and certainly no “ban” — the Commission merely recommended children under eight be accompanied by an adult when blowing up balloons in case they choked.
A whole industry has sprouted to produce these largely fabricated stories about the EU’s bullying and nannying. In his submission to the Leveson inquiry on the British press in November 2011, Labour’s former UK government communications chief Alastair Campbell said: “At various times, readers of UK papers may have read that ‘Europe’ or ‘Brussels’ or the ‘EU superstate’ has banned, or is intending to ban kilts, curries, mushy peas, paper rounds, Caerphilly cheese, charity shops, bulldogs, bent sausages and cucumbers, the British Army, lollipop ladies, British loaves, British-made lavatories, the passport crest, lorry drivers who wear glasses and many more.”
The European Commission’s representation to the UK even has a separate section of its site dedicated to these euromyths. The problem is, these stories are sticky and rapidly become shorthand for Brussels bossiness. And, as many studies have shown, rebutting dubious claims or downright lies only serves to draw attention to the untruth rather than debunk it.
It is hard to disagree with Lord Justice Leveson’s claim that when it comes to the EU, “there is certainly clear evidence of misreporting.” However, most Brits get their news from the TV, internet and social media, not newspapers. Added to this, the British press tends to over-exaggerate its importance and influence. In 1992 The Sun had over 3.5 million readers. Now it has less than 1.8 million. British people also expect their newspapers to be unreliable. A 2015 Eurobarometer opinion poll found that 73 percent said they did not trust their newspapers — the highest percentage in the EU. Finally, the link between media ownership and political influence is often overblown. The Mail on Sunday came out in favour of Remain, despite its owner being ferociously anti-EU. Likewise, The Times backed Britain staying in despite having the same proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, as The Sun.
Coverage of the Brexit campaign was often shrill and shallow. But the referendum was not all grim news for quality journalism. Much of the reporting in the Guardian, Times and Financial Times was balanced and even the pro-Brexit Telegraph published commentaries by Remain backers. Sky News Political Editor Faisal Islam won plaudits from the media by putting Prime Minister David Cameron and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove on the spot in a 20-minute primetime interview he spent a week researching and rehearsing.
The referendum was also notable for the proliferation of fact-checking sites analysing claims made by politicians. The BBC devoted a whole section of its site to a Reality Check aimed at getting to the “facts behind the claims in the EU referendum campaign and beyond.” For example, it looked into the Leave camp’s controversial claim — plastered over buses and billboards — that “We send the EU £350 million a week.” “We don’t,” the BBC bluntly replied, pointing out that the money the UK gets back from Brussels is £161 million. Despite its close links to the Remain campaign, the pro-EU InFacts website also did valuable work in puncturing the myths propagated by both sides.
Fact-checking has become more difficult in a world in which politicians lie so brazenly. One of the Leave campaign’s whoppers was a billboard screaming “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU” despite negotiations barely crawling along and no expert, whether in Turkey or the EU, expecting membership in the foreseeable future.
The duty of journalists in this post- truth environment is the same as it has always been — to separate lies from facts, to inform readers as honestly as possible and to aim at the closest approximation of the truth. Inventing or doctoring stories to t the political lines of media outlets, as often happens with EU coverage, is an abdication of basic journalist ethics. It also blurs the line between public relations and journalism to the extent that the two become indistinguishable.
If your primary role as a reporter is persuading readers or viewers to back a certain position, whether keeping migrants out of the UK or the UK out of the EU or both, you are no longer doing journalism; you are doing communication.
Journalists in this position should ask themselves “am I enlightening my audience or obfuscating the truth, allowing them to make a free choice or pumping propaganda down their throats, and working in the interests of the readers and viewers who ultimately pay my wages or for owners whose primary loyalty is to shareholders?”
So how can journalists improve reporting of the EU to make it fairer, more honest and more accurate?
First, understand how it works. If you don’t know the difference between the European Council, Council of Europe and Council of the EU, it’s time to start studying.
Second, don’t be lazy. If one MEP opines about an issue, that does not mean it is the position of the European Parliament. And if the Commission drafts a proposal, that doesn’t mean the EU has decided anything.
Third, blurring reporting and commentary rarely enlightens readers and viewers. So avoid pejorative descriptions of EU officials as “barmy Brussels bureaucrats” and shrill headlines that are better suited to political pamphlets than newspaper articles.
Finally, don’t lie or feel the need to repeat the lies of lying politicians.
A journalist’s job is to hold power to account, not flatter those who wield it. It is to question untruths rather than parade them as facts. And it is to report as honestly as humanly possible rather than indulge in political grandstanding or public relations.