Having spent a valuable few days in Brussels with our BCU broadcast journalism students learning more about the workings of the European Parliament, I find myself left with a nagging question – in fact a series of questions. Why is the British media’s coverage of the Parliament so poor? Why do we report our relationship with our near neighbours in terms of us versus them? Why do we persist in talking about ‘Europe’ as if it were one big, bad body interfering in our lives rather than looking in more detail at the work of the Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers? And finally is there a link between all this and the general sense of apathy that descends on British voters when it comes to European election time.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t returned to dear old Blighty as some sort of Euro-evangelical who’s given his soul to the European project. Nor am I convinced that it is the job of journalism to act as some kind of international ‘civics’ teacher. It does, though, have a responsibility to keep its audience informed so they can make intelligent choices – and that means choices about their MEPs and whether or not to be in Europe just as much as it does about whether to buy cheap burgers and take the risk of eating bits of Dobbin.
Before I go on (and God knows I can go on…) just consider our reporting of the US Presidential elections alongside our coverage of Europe. None of our big broadcasters or newspapers misses a moment of the US polls from the Iowa Caucuses to the inauguration. From the primaries to the polls we learn about a cast of characters most of whom later disappear without trace and none of whom really matters a jot or tittle in terms of our everyday lives. Meanwhile just across the water our elected representatives work alongside those from 26 other countries and take decisions that can make a difference to each of us.
It’s a huge forum – far too big in fact – and it’s ludicrous that once a month it packs up its caravan and trails from Brussels to Strasbourg but it is a forum in which we have a say. Close as it is geographically it’s a million miles from the yah boo politics of Westminster and the schoolboy braying of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Indeed one of the Midlands MEPs we met suggested it was this very difference which meant the European Parliament was so poorly covered. Journalists, he said, insisted on trying to report its business through the prism of Westminster politics. One of his colleagues said the collaborative style of the Parliament made it much more like being a member of a giant county council.
That first MEP also said it was a disaster (his word) for the BBC to withdraw its only regular programme from the Parliament. In fact, while the students were in Brussels the BBC was there (in some force) broadcasting a live edition of the Daily Politics, though one of their main guests had been shipped in from Westminster for the event.
Broadcasters from other countries, meanwhile, do produce regular programmes from the Parliament and it will be interesting to discover what impact such output has on election turnout figures come next year. One thing is sure, those programmes offer deeper coverage than whether or not ‘Europe’ wants to standardise the banana.
I stress again that this isn’t special pleading for the pro-Europe lobby. When we have our promised ‘in/out’ referendum I will cast my ballot secretly along with anyone else who chooses to do so but I would like to think all of us who vote can do so on the basis of an informed view of what the real issues are.