Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Does he really mean what I think he means?

Press censorship should be on the agenda. So writes – or appears to write - Mr Charles Grant, former Economist journalist, biographer of Jacques Delors and currently a director of the Europhile think-tank, the Centre for European Reform (CER).

His view can be found in the current CER Bulletin (Issue 37), under the innocent title of "the peculiarities of the British", in which he offers ideas as to why the British are so different from other European countries in disliking the EU.

Grant has four explanations. Three can be dispensed with fairly quickly: history, and especially Britain's relatively glorious role in World War Two; geography, which placed Britain on the edge of Europe and open to the oceans; and economics ­ the UK has out-performed much of the continent over the past ten years.

But these are mere cover for Grant’s other explanation: Britain has a unique popular press – it is mainly Eurosceptic, speaking to three-quarters of the 30 million people who read a daily newspaper. And even those that are not still print much that criticises the EU. He even suggests that the BBC (not exactly a newspaper) is infected with Euroscepticism - something which will bring a hollow laugh to many.

What is more, according to Grant, in the Eurosceptic newspaper groups, journalists are expected to write stories that knock the Union. Articles which attempt to present a balanced account of an EU issue are unlikely to be published. The Times and the Telegraph, two serious newspapers, almost never print an opinion piece that presents the EU in a favourable light.

"In no other European country", writes Grant, "is it acceptable for leading journalists to report tendentiously on, or even lie about, the EU". Journalists "get away" with "factual inaccuracies because they are accountable to no one but their bosses and they face no sanction". "The British system of press regulation is toothless and does virtually nothing to encourage truth-telling or balance", he asserts.

In other words, contrary to the situation in some of our EU partners – where the main newspapers are either state owned or controlled - we have a free press.

Mr Grant does not like this. The Eurosceptic tide cannot be turned unless… He then suggests that Britain's political leaders should be prepared to explain the benefits of EU membership; business and trade union leaders should point to the huge economic cost of withdrawal.

But his main point - and what looks like the whole point of his article – is that Parliament must reform and strengthen the system of press regulation, so that journalists think twice before being cavalier with the truth.

We do of course have a word for "press regulation" – especially when it seeks to arbitrate on what is the "truth". It is called censorship. And this is precisely what Mr Grant seems to be suggesting.

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