Right but Repulsive
The trashing of Britain’s euroskeptics
Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
The sharply told tale of how the opponents of the Eurozone’s madhouse money came to be regarded as nuts takes up some of the most interesting sections of Guilty Men, but it’s worth pausing to note how the structure of Britain’s politics and media makes it easier to manipulate public opinion there than in the United States. Power is much more centralized. There are fewer movers and shakers who need to be convinced. There are no awkward states to cajole. The press is ideologically diverse, but television and radio matter far more, and in broadcast the loudest voice is that of the officially nonpartisan, taxpayer-funded BBC, a megaphone for the pieties and prejudices of the soft left. There is no meaningful equivalent to Fox News or America’s gung-ho Genghis talk radio to bite back. And at the time when the euro wars were at their most intense, the blogosphere was still being born, and Twitter had yet to hatch.
The BBC had therefore an immense advantage, and it abused it. In the course of one nine-week period in 2000 on BBC Radio 4’s influential Today program, Oborne and Weaver record, “the case for the euro was represented by twice as many [speakers], interviews, and soundbites [as] the case against.” That’s not the end of it. A controversy can be defined by the way that it is framed by the media. When euroskeptics were heard on the BBC, it was often in the context of hugely exaggerated reports of splits within Conservative ranks over the single currency. A divided party is electoral poison, and the splits became the story. The argument against abandoning the pound was shelved for another day.
Word games of a type all too familiar from America’s mainstream media were deployed (it was euroskeptics who were the “hardliners”). Scare stories of the terrible fate that awaited Britain outside the Eurozone made headlines, inconvenient statistics that cast doubt upon them were buried. If you think that sounds a lot like much of the American media’s treatment of the global warming debate, you’re correct.
The BBC was not the only prominent media institution to play these tricks. The Financial Times is widely perceived as authoritative, serious, informed, the voice of British business, the house journal of the City. It is meant to be something more than a mere newspaper. Oborne and Weaver demonstrate how, when it came to the euro, it was very much less. Not all its writers played along, but too often the Financial Times resorted to a camouflaged advocacy journalism that may even, ironically, have contributed to the Eurozone’s present mess. How many bankers will have read the paper’s ecstatic accounts of the euro’s progress and felt just that much better about lending to Greece, Ireland, or Portugal? What could go wrong? On May 26, 2008, the FT ran a leading article with a headline that included these words: “Europe’s currency union has been a remarkable success.” Remarkable indeed. Less than two years later the first Greek bailout was under way.
With such purportedly fair-minded grandees lending weight to the cause of the euro, and the Tories burdened by the irrational popular loathing that had swept them out of office, the vitriol of more openly partisan journalists came to be treated by many as something approaching gospel. In its viciousness their work anticipated the high-minded nastiness seen in the coverage of the Tea Party a decade or so later. Weaver and Oborne have plenty of examples showing just how low reputedly respectable detractors of “euroskeptic pus” could stoop. The euroskeptics were a “menagerie of has-beens, never-have-beens, and loony tunes.” They were “a sect” of “intellectual violence . . . [stoking] the phobic fire.” They were keen on “Hun-bashing,” yet had something to do with the Latvian SS. They were liars, they were hatemongers. They were a “paradigm of menace and defeat,” “extremist,” “dogmatic,” and “hysterical.” Surely someone somewhere must have said that they were “bitter.” They were “maniacs.” Their opponents were “sane,” a loaded adjective frequently abused in American polemics too.