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A conspiracy of silence?

Posted by Richard Thursday, February 10, 2005

No one sensible would disagree with Quentin Peel, the Financial Time’s columnist, that "the starter's gun has fired and the great European referendum marathon has begun."

Certainly, from this Blog's perspective, we have been able to cover only a fraction of the material produced today, and we have some catching-up to do. We are also aware, incidentally, that the volume of material on the Blog is getting difficult to manage and we are actively working on a web-site format which will make the information more accessible.

Returning to the substantive point, Peel actually starts his piece – actually in yesterday's FT – with the plea to "end conspiracy of silence over Europe". His call strikes a cord. Am I the only one who suspects the government hand in news management over yesterday’s second reading of the European Union Bill?

It was never going to be the case that the debate was going to make headline news but I know from direct experience that coverage was curtailed after two events: Blair's apology and declaration that those jailed for the 1974 Guildford and Woolwich bombings; and the release of the ERM papers by the treasury. Both were certain to capture strong media attention; neither was tied to today; and both events were under the control of the government.

Certainly, if the government wanted to minimise coverage of the debate, that is the way it would be expected to have worked, so it was rather convenient that these two stories emerged, right on cue – or am I being too cynical?

Anyhow, back to Peel – he looks at the Spanish referendum, due in ten days time and finds that, even though there is not much doubt about the outcome, the country has still been plastered with posters urging voters to turn out.

Anyone who cared to buy a Sunday newspaper last weekend, he writes, also got a free copy of the constitution. You can scarcely avoid the subject: it has been promoted by pop stars, distributed at football matches and debated by the participants in the Spanish television version of Big Brother.

But, notes Peel, contrast to Britain could hardly be greater. Although British voters are consistently revealed to be among the most ignorant in Europe about all matters to do with the EU, including the constitutional treaty, attempts to provide them with better information have been almost non-existent.

Peel thinks that there is a real possibility that the British will vote against the EU constitution, as much out of ignorance as hostility but, despite that, there is a conspiracy of silence between those backing the treaty and those against it.

His answer is to take a lesson from Ireland: to establish a national forum in which all the pros and cons of the EU constitution can be rationally and publicly debated by all sides. It should travel the country as a public forum, televised and broadcast on radio, reported by the press, bringing in not only advocates and opponents of the constitution but more measured expert witnesses as well.

It is a nice idea, as such, but it is very hard to think how truly impartial – or even sufficiently knowledgeable - experts would be found, and either side would be quick to accuse if bias was suspected.

Either way, says Peel, the challenge is to crack the conspiracy of silence. We cannot totally disagree with him there. But, if anyone is trying to keep it off the agenda, it is the government.

At the end of a long history of evading EU issues, it showed its mettle again yesterday, when it could have made a big issue of today's debate, and kept other business out of the media to give it a fairer chance of coverage. Either by accident or design, it did not, losing an opportunity to bring the debate to a wider audience.

If it's a conspiracy of silence you want, therefore, forget the "no" side. It is only too keen to get stuck in. And forget any ideas of a national forum, Mr Peel. Have a word with your chums in government.