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Why you can’t rely on the news media to understand… Europe

(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

March 16, 2018   4 mins

This is the seventh article in our series looking at people, places, institutions or subject areas that the news media does not serve well. Once completed, we’ll be polling UnHerd subscribers – asking which UnHerd author they most agree with.


Which country’s politics are most closely observed after our own in Britain? It’s easy: just look at the army of press corps in Washington and how the ripples of Donald Trump’s disruptive approach to his domestic politics reach over here. There is intense coverage of events in the United States, with deep analysis over contortions in the Republican Party and how Democrats might mount a fresh challenge for power, along with all those stories of deported Dreamers, gun crime and transgender troops.

As a former executive on various papers, I confess to sharing the guilt over pumping out ceaseless stories and comment from America while glossing over important events in Europe

This interest is reflected in the bias of our mainstream political parties, with leading lights from Westminster dashing over the Atlantic to mingle with pollsters, pundits and politicians in Washington. Commentators draw parallels over Trump’s appeal in flyover country, the impact of identity politics, the distaste for elites, the debates and divisions scarring the US. Books offering fresh insight impact on our own debates. Think tanks hunt new ideas in Harvard and Yale.

This is understandable to some extent. The US remains the global superpower, we share a language and many Britons cling to the myth of a special relationship. The American culture of music and film still carries great, if declining, influence. And there is, undeniably, strong crossover between politics and debate in our nations.

Yet how strange when you compare this weighty coverage of Washington with the sporadic glances at crucial events and issues in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Rome. There is reporting of elections, of course, along with cursory analysis of shared trends and excitable discussion of those populists plaguing the continent. Yet think of the airtime and space devoted to Hillary Clinton’s doomed candidature or Jeb Bush’s failed campaign, even a mayoral election in New York, then compare this with how little serious analysis there was over, say, the German left’s dismal failure to dislodge Angela Merkel or the Five Star Movement’s woeful running of Rome.

Events in Germany arguably have more impact on our lives given the efforts to depart the European Union, let alone all the close trading links. Yet how much do you know about Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former president of Saarland selected by Merkel as her apparent successor? She is now the crown princess of Europe, yet her rise has been little analysed on these shores. Nor has there been much on the fascinating Ursula von der Leyen, her aristocratic rival who is a doctor, mother of seven and once studied under a fake name at the London School of Economics to evade the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Name that Prime Minister..

Our nation sits 21 miles from France and 4,000 miles from the United States. Our history is bound up in alliances and rivalries on the continent, our politics shaped by events in Europe and many businesses reliant on trade close to home. Yet how many Britons could name the prime minister of Belgium (Charles Michel), perhaps even of Holland (Mark Rutte), Sweden (Stefan Löfven) or Spain (Mariano Rajoy – pictured, above)? Look how weak the analysis of Catalonian separatism, the impact of a growing Polish economy, or coverage given to Jean-Claude Juncker’s promotion of his chief of staff to lead the EU civil service that has sparked such furore in Brussels. Mind you, our meda’s approach to EU politics has been perhaps worst of all, given its importance.

Britain and much of its media are trapped in a timewarp, fascinated by Washington but less interested in events much closer to us – unless they feed an anachronistic narrative that sees Europe as a faintly threatening place. Is it any wonder we have just seen the self-harming stupidity of Brexit, ripping up an economic alliance that served us so well, when there is such poor analysis of European partners? Never mind the negativity that, according to one Queen Mary University of London study, saw antipathetic coverage of Brussels almost double between 1974 and 2013.

Is it any wonder we have just seen the self-harming stupidity of Brexit when there is such poor analysis of European partners?

Sometimes it seems the echoes of a war that ended more than 70 years ago still impact on our view of the world. This is a strange state of affairs given the ease of movement around the continent, the arrival of so many Europeans to live on our shores, the strong business links and steady erosion of US global dominance. There are also marked generational differences, seen so starkly in that divisive referendum two years ago.

Some things will change if Brexit goes ahead; in my view, mostly for the worse. Yet even if the supply of carers, entrepreneurs and doctors dries up, we will still enjoy television shows from Denmark, music from Sweden, food from Italy, buy homes in France and holiday in Spain and Greece. Even amid the rise of China and growth of Africa, it makes sense to have more informed understanding of our neighbours – especially when Russian nationalism is rampant under a gangster regime.

I am a big admirer of the British media, from the state-funded BBC though to our partisan newspapers. As a former executive on various papers for two decades, I confess to sharing the guilt over pumping out ceaseless stories and comment from America while glossing over important events in Europe. It may, sadly, be too late to stop Brexit. Yet this is but one indicator of how when the media faces so resolutely across the Atlantic rather than the Channel, we all end up the losers.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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