Over the last week or so, this website has published four prominent examples of allegations of bribery and corruption taking place in the European Institutions (1; 2; 3; 4). The accused includes a European Commissioner, an MEP, and the heads of two European banking institutions.
Yet, as Iain McKie has pointed out in each and every article, there has been not a peep from the British media on any of these stories. Why not? Our tax money – £50,000,000 a day – goes on, amongst other things, these people’s salaries. We are told that there is no democratic deficit in the European Institutions because we elect MEPs, but when was the last time you read any news story at all that involved an MEP? I defy most people to name all of the MEPs in their region (all, not just the UKIP ones!), let alone any of the 663 non-British members.
This is troubling. Leveson has split British opinion over the conduct of our tabloid papers, but most people in this country would agree that a robust press corps is a good thing when it holds our Parliamentarians to account. We delight in stories of expenses claimed on stables and duck houses. We welcome the existence of a media that publishes vociferous, and occasionally vicious debate on the cost of living, foreign policy, and whether the Opposition Leader’s father hated his country or not.
But for all its bearing of teeth in the direction of our national Parliament in Westminster, our media can be strangely meek when it comes to Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. There’s a much more juicy expenses scandal story to be had in Brussels, yet the media simply failed to look for it.
Why should this be? Considering that the vast majority of our laws are made within EU Institutions, surely it behooves our media to scrutinise those places all the more than they do Westminster?
And it’s not just the wrongdoing. Not only do European scandals go unreported in Britain, but the everyday work of the European Parliament likewise goes uncommented upon. When I worked in Brussels I would regularly return to the UK for weekends to find that the business of the European Parliament – regulations that were being discussed in Brussels meeting rooms – were being reported as though they were being thrashed out in Westminster. The media would say “Parliament ruled today”, but would omit to mention which Parliament they were referring to. Naturally, a British reader assumes that it is the Westminster Parliament that is meant.
I’m not suggesting malicious or duplicitous behaviour is taking place. Europe famously doesn’t feature prominently on many people’s radars. When asked to list political issues in order of importance, Europe normally languishes around the bottom. Perhaps journalists simply think that fudging the detail makes the narrative easier for the public to understand; that stories of scandal in European cities would be of little interest.
Perhaps so, but the reasoning is circular. People aren’t interested in Europe because they don’t think it’s an interesting place – they don’t think anything important happens there. And the reason they think that is precisely because it’s never reported.
Or, if it is reported, it is sensationalised. We hear the ‘ridiculous’ stories of bent bananas and the banning of yoghurt, which, whilst well intentioned, serve to make Euroscepticism seem vaguely silly and alarmist. People assume that these regulations are the oddball outliers, whilst the majority of regulations must be useful and mundane.
Thankfully UKIP has been making a very loud noise via interviews, letters pages and websites like this one. But if we are to win an referendum on a Brexit, we’ll need more than the goodwill of one or two media outlets. We need our media to be doing much better at giving a clearer picture on Europe – now.