Tabloids : symptom or cause of the British public’s EU ignorance

Article published on May 21, 2003
community published
Article published on May 21, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Is the British public’s preference for easy-reading and ‘euro-hysterical’ tabloids over the more analytical broadsheets an obstacle to a proper democratic debate about Europe?

The British print media can be broadly divided into the ‘tabloid’ and ‘broadsheet’ newspapers. Pick up a tabloid (eg the Sun) and a broadsheet (eg the Independent) and you will immediately notice that the page sizes of the former are half the size of the latter. Very broadly speaking, the tabloids are perceived as being targeted at the less educated, less well-off reader with the broadsheets targeted at the more intellectual and better-off reader. Tabloids are also particularly convenient for people short of time and can be a relaxing antidote to the stresses of a hard day at work. They can be scanned far more quickly than the broadsheets because they are generally less analytical in their news coverage, use less complex terminology and grammar, carry more light entertainment news/gossip and more pictures. They also have the added attraction of being considerably cheaper! Little wonder then that the tabloids draw a much larger readership than their more ‘serious’ (in terms of content and presentation) competitors .

The ‘gutter press’ and the more ‘serious’ tabloids

Some tabloid behaviour fully justifies popular references to the ‘gutter press’. Their ‘sins’ include:

Sensationalising and distorting stories (which have led to a number of court cases)

Celebrity and showbiz tittle-tattle plus scantily-clad women

The dubious methods used to uncover ‘the truth’ (such as their habit of paying vast sums of money to contributors, known as ‘cheque book’ journalism)

Intrusions into the privacy of individuals.

Some would argue that this is all good, harmless fun and that this is what the British public want to read about. After all, why else are there so many tabloid newspapers with such high circulation figures)? But then again few would argue that the tabloids are frequently guilty of crossing the boundaries of acceptable and responsible behaviour. At the ‘gutter’ end of the spectrum the Daily Sport focuses on showbiz gossip and sex to the virtual exclusion of any ‘serious’ domestic, world or European/EU news. The Daily Star is a little less sex-obsessed and carries more ‘serious’ news but still little if any European/EU news. At the other, more ‘sophisticated’ end of the tabloid spectrum, there are four newspapers vying for readers with a carefully balanced cocktail of news, celebrity gossip, health and money-saving tips, sex and sport – from the Daily Mirror (which appears to be trying to become more ‘serious’) to the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. The huge circulation enjoyed by the Sun (3.5m) suggests that they have found an appealing balance between information and entertainment using an attractively conversational style (note their use of short, well-known expressions and avoidance of long and more abstract words) liberally sprinkled with puns.

‘Cheap’ anti-French jibes

Although some would say that the Sun’s recent jocular front page comparison between Saddam Hussein and Jacques Chirac is harmless fun, my view is that it is beyond the pale. A two-page spread of what the Sun termed ‘war-wobblers’ (ie politicians such as Robin Cook, Clare Short and Gerhard Schroeder plus the footballer, Robert Pires, who made anti-war statements) on a cut-out darts board with Jacques Chirac in the bullseye position is in similarly poor taste. The same day’s editorial then lectures the reader on the hypocrisy of the French, and pokes fun at the French Foreign Minister (Dominique de Villepin), who is referred to as ‘Vile Pin’! Further examples are the term ‘Le Worm’ which the Sun leads us to believe is a common term for Chirac and ‘the axis of weasel’ (Franco-German axis in the EU). Perhaps these terms are so ridiculous that they will merely cause the reader to laugh and not to take them in the least bit seriously. But, if tabloid diet of EU news is as biased and sketchy as I believe it is, then perhaps many readers may may actually be more influenced than we might think…

Scarcity of print media debate on Europe

Discussion of European/EU issues also fares relatively poorly in the broadsheets, with the notable exception of the Financial Times. Although the Independent carries a page devoted to European news every day and the Times, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph also carry European news, I would argue that there is still considerably less coverage than in El Pais or Le Monde for example. Rather than try to compete with the analysis of the broadsheets (on what are often extremely complex and ‘boring’ issues), the tabloid press have chosen to over-simplify European debates , to caricature and magnify disagreements to such an extent that the reader has a very unbalanced and distorted view of what is really happening. Where the tabloids do talk about Europe is usually when there are problems to highlight and not when there is (arguably) more positive news. By way of example, note their relatively full coverage of the BSE crisis, the asylum centre at Sangatte, the European Rapid Reaction Force (dubbed the ‘Euro army’ by the tabloids) as against their relative lack of coverage of the enlargement process.

‘Europe-bashing’ is a commercially rational decision

Some say that the tabloid press in particular has a tendency to appeal to base feelings and prejudice in order to gain market share. Never is this more true when it comes to their coverage of European/EU issues. The reasons for this are complex but I would broadly subscribe to Anderson and Weymouth’s view that one of the major driving forces behind the fragmented, low level of coverage is commercial pressure. An internationally acclaimed contemporary historian and expert on European affairs since 1945, Timothy Garton-Ash is also critical of the British press . The evidence that tabloids cash in on British euroscepticism is compelling. Take the tricky concept of federalism, which can take on a whole range of different shades of meaning. In British political circles it is referred to as the ‘F’ word because it is political ‘dynamite’. Tabloids fuel this particularly British animosity towards words like ‘federalism’ by making no attempt to explain the complexities of the underlying political decision-making process within the EU and generally talking about the ‘EU superstate’ and the dangers of ‘surrendering’ national sovereignty (without also mentioning the benefits that ‘pooling’ sovereignty might entail).

The tabloids as an obstacle to ‘healthy’ European debate but…

It is difficult not to conclude that the tabloids (especially the Sun) continue to play on antagonisms between the most economically powerful EU member states (traditional Franco-British rivalry and anti-German hysteria) largely because it sells copy. They can afford to do this because the little the majority of Sun readers know about their European partners comes from holidays abroad and European football coverage. At a time of such major EU developments as the enlargement process and the Convention on the Future of Europe, coverage of European issues is glaringly conspicuous by its absence. With the debate on Britain’s future place in the eurozone also on the horizon, there has never been a more important time for the British public to be properly informed about Europe . A full and ongoing public debate must be vigorously promoted for the public to be in a position to make informed decisions (in a referendum on the euro for example). Now clearly the tabloids have some influence on that debate. David Seymour goes further, claiming that the Sun and the Daily Mail “will be the battleground of the referendum” on the basis that many of their readers have not made up their minds about the euro (Winning The Euro Referendum, 2001: p98). The Sun’s anti-euro owner Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail’s approach to the debate on the European Convention (see “BLUEPRINT FOR TYRANNY” headline in footnote) leads inexorably to the conclusion that, if present form is anything to go by, the debate will be far from balanced.

…the British don’t believe everything they read in the papers

If Seymour is right about their influence, then it is extremely worrying that so important a decision (on the euro) is likely to be taken against a backdrop of ignorance and lack of interest . But fortunately people also have regular access to other sources of information. Eurobarometer findings (the Eurobarometer standard report 2002 EB58.1 National Report – UK) revealed that 49% of the British use TV and 40% use daily newspapers as their source of information on the EU. And based on the premise that TV and radio tend to be more reliable and balanced sources of information, there are grounds for believing that the British are too discerning an audience to be unduly influenced by the tabloids . For the sake of a vibrant and healthy democracy, let’s just hope that balanced, stimulating and informative news coverage across the media outweighs the gross oversimplifications, misplaced humour and hysterical rhetoric of some sections of the British press.

1 - The combined circulations of the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Daily Star for March 2003 come to 9,580,000 as against a paltry 2,020,000 for the Financial Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Independent and the Times.

2 - See Daily Mail front page headline (May 8th, 2003), “A BLUEPRINT FOR TYRANNY” referring to the debate on the European Constitution

3 - “Britain has one of the most commercially successful press sectors in Europe. Its success is due in part to the financial advantages that flow from economies of scale which, in this case, translate themselves into high levels of concentration of ownership and in part to the distinctly commercial objectives of the sector which affects both the content and style of newspaper journalism. In terms of Euroscepticism there are two main consequences which flow from this situation. The first is that, due to the concentration of ownership, and the dominance of the right in this media sector, Eurosceptic voices are in the majority. The second is that the inexorable commercial drive of the press sector to sustain itself at all costs has influenced the quality of the discourse. The discourse of some titles has become highly conversationalised, emotive and often extremely xenophobic.” (Anderson and Weymouth, Insulting the British public? : The British press and the European Union.1999: pp.60-61)

4 - “Although British radio coverage of the EU/Europe was rather good, British newspaper reporting was marked by ‘ignorance and fantasy’. ‘There is a level of routine distortion, even in the broadsheets, that is rarely matched in the rest of Europe.’” (the Guardian: Jan 25, 2002 – reporting on a Guardian conference on press bias)

5 - 75% of those asked ‘How much information do you feel you have received about the arguments for and against Britain’s membership of the European Union’ said “not enough” (MORI poll fieldwork between 15-21 March 2001 –

6 - In a Eurobarometer poll (Eurobarometer standard report 2002 EB58.1 National Report – UK) on the level of knowledge of the policies and institutions of the EU, the UK came bottom with 52% saying they had little or no knowledge. In the same poll, it emerged that 34% of British people never look for information on the EU (the highest percentage). The EU average for this category was 19%.

7 - In a Eurobarometer poll (51.0), 24% of the British public said they tended to trust (as institutions) the press, 66% tended to trust radio and 71% tended to trust the TV