Saturday, June 18, 2005

A media event

I go with Göran Persson on this, the somewhat less than charismatic Swedish prime minister. But what he said to the BBC in a live interview – which, predictably has not found its way into any of the agency reports, or today's newspapers – was quite revealing.

Doorstepped yesterday on his way into the Council building, he seemed genuinely annoyed, regretting that the focus was entirely on Blair and Chirac, saying that there was a great deal more going on than a simple battle between the two – "which had all been got up by the media."

In fact, the spat between the French president and the British prime minister, which invoked yesterday’s headlines in the Evening Standard: "Europe - Now It Is War With France", was a classic bit of media management by Chirac who, knowing that his and his colleagues' actual remarks in the closed sessions of the Council could not be witnessed by journalists, helpfully released his "speaking notes" to the bored hacks outside.

All of this, unfortunately, makes the media coverage this morning highly unreliable, focused as it is on the soap-opera rather than the substance, filtered entirely through the national prism which puts Blair at the centre of events and revels in painting "plucky Britain", isolated and battling against the odds against the massed foes from across the channel.

Thus do we get The Times offering the headline: "Blair backed into corner in bid to preserve rebate", with the breathless legend that "Blair caused fury among European leaders last night by rejecting out of hand a compromise deal aimed at settling the acrimonious row over the £600 billion European Union budget."

Fury he did not cause, other than of a totally artificial kind as the compromise deal was not offered other than by way of ritual, and no one seriously expected him to accept it. It was already crystal clear to the "colleagues" before the Council even started, that Blair was not going to budge and the "deal" put by Juncker last night, on freezing the rebate, had already been rejected by Blair in person on Monday.

And, or so it transpires, when this offer was rejected, Juncker came back with another which was even worse than the first, thereby demonstrating that this was not a serious negotiation. As we pointed out in our earlier post , it was pure theatre.

It is wrong, however, it single out The Times, as The Telegraph headline is just as bad, proclaiming as it does, "EU crisis as Blair blocks rebate cut".

Crisis? There is no crisis. Göran Persson refers again, saying: "budget deal can wait another year". He is dead right. There is no urgency at all and the chances are that the "colleagues" will skip the British presidency and sort it out in the Spring Economic Council next year, when Austria is in the chair.

Nevertheless, The Guardian catches the disease as well, with the headline: "Rebate row wrecks EU summit", and while The Independent offers the fairly sober, "EU talks break up without rebate deal", it then goes on to say: "European budget talks collapsed in disarray last night, after an isolated Tony Blair rejected a last-ditch compromise plan designed to avert a new political crisis."

All it then takes is a few laboured references to the Battle of Waterloo, as in The Times, which just happened to be fought 190 years ago, a few miles outside Brussels, and the picture is complete – and utterly misleading.

The leaders are not much better, but I will look at those more closely later today and thus will conclude by saying that the picture painted in the blats is entirely a media event, not in any way borne out by reality. For the media, this has not been their finest hour.

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