Green Ink on the Mediocracy

The most undemocratic thing about the EU is the media.

John Cleese

The weekend before last (April 14), The Sunday Telegraph published a news article by Andrew Gilligan claiming that the “EU pours millions into groups seeking state control of the press.” 

Gilligan claims that the EU was angry with the way it is treated in the British press, and is therefore “seeking new national and Europe-wide regulatory powers over journalists.”  He apparently asked Dr Rachael Craufurd-Smith, a researcher on Mediadem – one of the recipients of EU funding, whether the EU had funded projects like hers because it felt unfairly treated in the British press; to which answered: “I think there might be an element of that, Citizens have a new expectation to obtain reliable information about what’s going on in Europe.”

One of the most frequent criticisms of the EU is that important decisions are made and nobody knows what goes on, so it is undemocratic. The Telegraph is certainly no stranger to such concerns. Gilligan claims in his first paragraph that the EU is ‘quietly pouring millions’ into these initiatives.  He goes on to say “The EU has spent £2.3 million on the previously unpublicised  Mediadem project.”

If you put “Mediadem” into Google it returns 19,900 results, the first few pages of which clearly show that it is very far from being ‘unpublicised’. However, it is certainly true that not many people in the UK know about it.  The accusation, so common in the British press, that the EU deliberately operates in secret so as to sneak things past its unsuspecting citizens is in fact gross hypocrisy that itself illustrates the dangers posed by the current state of the UK press. It is the press who are responsible for our ignorance of what happens in Brussels. 

The first step towards a more democratic EU is that people should actually know what happens there. The EU is not reported in the British media, except for articles like Gilligan’s that inculpate it for being a proto-fascist empire that has banned curved bananas. Ironically, it is tabloid newspapers like the Telegraph that whip up a nationalist frenzy so that we then elect UKIP to the European Parliament who have no interest in taking responsibility for actually governing the EU, and don’t turn up to work. What actually happens in Brussels is just never reported.  How many people know that on the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament, they are represented by the BNP?

One of the “five concerted and coordinated initiatives being pursued by Brussels to increase its powers over the media” that Gilligan mentions is the European Citizens Initiative for Media Pluralism and Freedom.  Far from calling for state regulation of the press, this is a petition to the EU to do something about concentrations of media power including in Hungary where the government is taking advantage of its two-thirds majority to make constitutional changes that seriously affect press freedom. The petition specifically calls for safeguards to protect any media regulator from political interference. The petition is also not ‘being pursued by Brussels’, it is organized by over 100 different groups across Europe, including both Hungarians and Italians worried about political control of the media, who are pressing an, if anything, reluctant European Commission to take action.  (I have written about the motivation behind the Citizens Initiative here.)  It is notable that Gilligan omitted the word ‘Citizens’ when naming the initiative – presumably it didn’t fit his narrative.

Gilligan’s article contains a number of other deliberate distortions, for example:

·        He says that Professor Natalie Fenton has attacked the “naive pluralism” of “assuming that the more news we have, the more democratic our societies are”. The insinuation is that Professor Fenton is arguing that there ought to be less news. Of course she is not.  The point is that pluralism cannot be measured simply in the number of column inches printed.  To have a plural media that shows us lots of different points of view, we also need diversity.

·        He quotes Hugh Grant who was speaking after a meeting with the Vice President of the Commission: “I had a very useful meeting with Ms Kroes. I think there is an appetite to do something about it [media regulation] and I think the EU is potentially uniquely placed to do something about this because many member state governments are effectively captured by the media. The EU is perhaps less biddable and we have more chance of getting something done at this level.”  Except the “it” Hugh Grant wants the EU to do something about is not “[media regulation]” it is media concentration. He was talking about the problems of the Hungarian government (see here) and Berlusconi (see here) as well as Murdoch in the UK.

·        He also gives a typically misleading account of the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, which I have already written about here.

Andrew Gilligan has been scouring the web looking for quotations that he can twist into an argument that the EU is trying to take away the free press. Why?

Andrew Gilligan himself is an interesting illustration of how media power works. At Cambridge he was an active Labour supporter and he was an intern for Keith Vaz who claims to have sacked him for faking references on his CV. I have none of the details;  perhaps it was unfair. He later worked on the Today Programme at the BBC where he exposed the Labour government for spinning intelligence on the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein. As a result, Alastair Campbell brought the full weight of the state down on top of him. The Hutton Inquiry thought him unreliable and he resigned from the BBC.

In short he has his reasons to be angry with the Labour party and wary of any state involvement with the media, and perhaps also of public inquiries.  Which is precisely why he has been hired by the Sunday Telegraph, where he is free to pursue his agenda.  The Telegraph is the Conservative newspaper, so naturally it doesn’t like the Labour party, and it doesn’t like the EU, because EU rules are a compromise between all the member states, and the average country is perhaps somewhat to the left of the UK and a long way to the left of the Conservative party.    There is nothing unusual or wrong with any of this. It would be better if journalists like Gilligan were not deliberately misleading, but there is no sensible way of compelling them to be honest.  What is needed is a change of culture.  An independent regulator with real teeth could not and should not try to stop people twisting half-truths about the EU, but perhaps it would do something to change the complete impunity of the abuse of media power, which adds to the irresponsible culture of journalism.

The real problem though is that the two or three billionaires who own 80% of the press by circulation all share this same agenda and all hire people like Andrew Gilligan. Most of them do not pay UK taxes and some do not live in the UK. They have no reason to care about anything that does not affect their narrow business interests.  When such a tiny number of people have ultimate control over who writes our news, can we call that a free press?  Of course Gilligan’s purpose is not to further the interests of the Barclay brothers; nevertheless, that is why he has been hired. One result is that voters know less than nothing about the EU.

For all their protesting about the threat to freedom and democracy of any mention of the press in statute, the truth is that the British press is not free and is not fulfilling its vital democratic function, not only with regard to the EU, but also within the UK.

It is a valuable thing for the Telegraph to be making the case for Britain leaving the EU, but it should do so without resorting to deceit. It is treating its readers with contempt, as a rabble to be roused rather than citizens to be informed.

As it stands though the UK is still in the EU, and we need the media to play its part, not in promoting the EU, but in educating citizens on the actions their representatives are taking on their behalf.  The most undemocratic thing about the EU is the failure of the media to educate citizens.  The Telegraph is acting in the interests of its owners, but for 80% of the electorate, there is no other side of the debate. It is time for strict limits on media ownership; for rules that media owners should be taxpayers; and for those businesses that see the economic value of reforming the EU to start investing in the mainstream press.  A European Union needs a European media.