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British media fail: Why we need a new cultural education

Peter Preston, former Editor of the Guardian - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The British media has always failed in its coverage of European affairs.

It was midnight and we were knee-deep in envelopes sent in by Guardian readers. As we sorted wearily through thousands of responses to a survey requesting suggestions for a name for the single currency, my Greek colleague and I decided that this was at least a high point of the Guardian Europe project; other newspapers around the continent were also collating their readers’ responses to the very same survey – here was true EU collaboration in action.

The brainchild of former Guardian editor Peter Preston, Guardian Europe was a daily section in the G2 tabloid that ran during the mid-1990s, containing news, features and commentary in translation from more than a dozen partner newspapers including El Mundo (Spain), Le Monde (France), Suddeutsche Zeiting (Germany), and others like Literaturnaya Gazeta (Russia) and Eleftherotypia (Greece).

Moreover, it was a partnership between liberal-leaning newspapers that aimed to provide editorial to underpin discussion around the EU.

‘My sense was that we were introducing readers to issues in various European countries, writers, politics, society,’ says Isobel Montgomery, one of the small team of international journalists.

‘It wasn’t so much about the great European ideal, as seen by Brussels, but about topics like the Tour de France, which wasn’t well known at that time – or Scandinavian social democracy in action.’

Occasionally, our small band of Europhiles also reported from the field, covering politics and social affairs, and even Eurotrash, the hit TV show that returned on the eve of the referendum to remind Brits ‘of the alarming cultural delights enjoyed by our European cousins’.

With hindsight, Guardian Europe was as optimistic as it was forward-looking in its aim to engage more UK-based readers with issues in Europe mainly through the perspective of foreign journalists. This ambition was never going to thrive in a media landscape that had progressively fed the deep insularity of public life in Britain.

As enthusiasm waned, Guardian Europe was moved to a weekly page in the broadsheet and finally dropped. The coverage of continental Europe was again the turf of reporters vying for space with those based further afield. Elsewhere in the media, coverage of the workings of the EU continued to contract as the union expanded.

But how did the wider narrative about Europe get so derailed? To what extent is the media’s failure over decades not just to inform about the workings of the EU, but also to even acquaint us with our nearest neighbours to blame for the Brexit vote?

How Brexit has exposed British ignorance about the EU is well documented, from reports of people Googling ‘What is the EU?’ in a panic on June 24 to surveys showing that some leading Leavers could not name a single EU law.

It even reaches the upper echelons; EU negotiators have let it be known that their British counterparts don’t know the first thing about the EU and that such ignorance could lead us to crash out without a deal. Once, this wilful unconsciousness looked like a joke on the rest. But the last laugh is unlikely to be ours.

I asked Peter Preston about the media’s role in denying the public a true picture of what was happening in Europe. Leaving aside the evident political bias of some proprietors of the europhobe press – one study in particular nails this – he points to the territorial nature of Westminster journalists unwilling to let the focus shift to Brussels. ‘Another [cause] is the failure of the broadcasters – lumbered with fairness and balance rules – to break out of the in-or-out debate over the last 40 years, so that nobody explains how the EU works (compare and contrast today’s Politico coverage, which makes Brussels seem like an extension of Westminster),’ he said.

For decades, politicians have lowered the tone by spinning EU developments either as Brussels bullying (when it goes down badly) or their own personal triumph (when it goes down well). Similar personality politics were evident in the run-up to the referendum; who won the last point took precedence over analysis of issues.

At the same time, the UK media has held up a mirror to our cultural isolation. While elsewhere in Europe the media has taken for granted a basic understanding of the workings of the EU and interest in the news next door, ours has simply confirmed that we couldn’t care less. It’s enough to wheel out the tired trope about past glories, indulging our ignorance of foreign languages, cultures or politics and our society’s failure to renew itself culturally. And can we be surprised we rejected an organisation, which ‘we’ve been told was stupid’.

But what does it say about Britain that we are so eager to accept this without question? That we parrot media claims about excessive EU red tape and ‘health and safety’ and then look on bewildered when the Grenfell Tower fire exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of this? We nod at dark mutterings that the old enemy Germany is pulling the EU’s strings but there is radio silence about Germany paying most money into the pot. Most depressingly, the notion of solidarity that underpinned the EU project has rarely had a mention.

It is the extent of this cultural malaise that has shocked observers on the continent. Of course, our new populist politics has a forerunner in the news media. Over decades, as focus shifted from informing citizens to competing for the attention of entertainment-hungry consumers, foreign affairs of the ‘boring’ European kind were sidelined and leaders like Angela Merkel judged for their entertainment value.

What comes next? Will the media do a better job of informing people about the consequences of leaving the EU than they did of being in it? What about the deeper issue of solidarity with continental Europe, which Guardian Europe perhaps naively took for granted? We need a new form of cultural education – one that asks children to think about their country and identity in a much bigger context.

As for the Guardian Europe survey about a new name for the euro, countries from Greece to the Czech Republic, Italy to Ireland, and Denmark to Spain proposed that it should be called the ‘euro’. The results were published simultaneously around the continent and we even won a journalism prize for fostering European integration.

But all of that is history.

Jo Griffin is a freelance journalist who has reported from Germany, Spain and Latin America

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