Sunday, November 28, 2004

It's how you tell 'em

The same issue, viewed from opposite sides of the great divide, today provides a graphic insight into the way any issue can take on a completely different perspective, depending on who reports it, and how.

The issue is the EU's proposed "Reach" directive (the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) and it is covered today in the Independent and in Christopher Booker's column in The Sunday Telegraph.

The Independent report is priceless, managing to combine the story with anti-American propagandising and an attack on "big business", all the time projecting subtle pro-EU propaganda, projecting the Union as this loving caring organisation that is trying to save the world from evil capitalists who are trying to poison us.

That much, with some skill, comes over even in the headline which, to say the very least, is loaded. "Powell in chemical reaction as US resists EU pollution drive", proclaims the newspaper and already the stage is set.

Note here, the description of what is generally agreed as a cumbersome directive, so laden with bureaucracy that it verges on insanity. The Independent labels it as an "EU pollution drive", claiming the moral high ground – who could possibly be against "pollution" – and then painting the US as the baddies, by the artful use of the word "resists".

Past the headline, the text really lays it on. "Colin Powell, the outgoing US Secretary of State," it declares, "is leading determined lobbying against the European Union's plans to control potential chemical threats to human health and the environment."

Once again, the language is poisonous. The phrase "determined lobbying" invites dark images of the practitioners of the dark arts exercising their malign influence on Mr Powell. And we know it is dark and satanic because the Independent tells it is up against the saintly EU which is planning to control "potential threats to human health and the environment". Poor Mr Powell doesn’t stand a chance, and this is only first paragraph of the story.

What Powell is worried about, of course, it that the directive will require the cumbersome and expensive registration of some 30,000 chemical preparations, affecting virtually all American exports to the EU, worth more than $150bn (£79bn) in 2003. Too damn right he is lobbying. He would not be doing his job if he wasn't.

But just in case you might begin to have some sneaking sympathy for the US, as the Independent reveals the extent of US worries, up it comes, citing its favourite bunny huggers, Greenpeace, who invoke the greatest Satan of them all, "the Bush administration". It is attacking Reach "vehemently, in one of the most aggressive foreign lobby efforts ever to influence a proposed piece of EU legislation."

Game set and match to the Independent or, more like, a heavily biased readership that has now had its prejudices well and truly confirmed. Informed as well, you ask? Forget it.

Now to the opposite end of the spectrum with Booker's piece, entitled "EU diktat on chemicals will give tanners a drubbing".

Booker starts off describing how, last week, EU trade ministers and European commissioners gathered in Brussels for a two-day "Competitiveness Council".

Their theme was one of the EU's longer-running farces, known as the "Lisbon agenda": a solemn pledge by EU governments in 2000 that by 2010 the EU would be transformed into "the most competitive, dynamic and knowledge-based economy in the world". Since then the EU, already the most uncompetitive economic bloc in the developed world, has slid even further down the league table.

So far, a mixture of fact and opinion – strong on fact and the opinion well-founded. Few would disagree that the Lisbon process is a farce.

Then we have more fact: "The chief reason for this, it is generally agreed," Booker writes, "is the ever-growing mountain of regulations, the one area in which EU productivity is second to none." With light irony he then notes the "measure of the determination brought to bear on this problem", with the EU's laughable attempt at "deregulation", by contemplating amending a mere 15 of the 101,811 directives and regulations issued by Brussels between 1973 and 2002.

And now to the meat. With a mere 15 for the chop, the EU continues to churn out new directives and regulations at a rate of 3,500 a year - one of which, also on last week's agenda, is the Reach directive. Even the EU commission has accepted that its initial cost to the EU economy would be £22 billion and one of the sectors that is particularly affected, because chemicals account for a sixth of its costs, is the European leather industry.

In the EU, this uses about 6,000 chemical substances to process, soften and colour the 400,000 tonnes of leather a year that go into furniture, footwear, clothing and fashion accessories.

Booker then recounts how industry representatives at a conference heard that, on small volume production, the costs of registration could add 200 per cent to chemical production costs. For Europe's 2,800 tanneries, Reach could add up to 6 per cent to the price of finished leather, which for many, in a tight market, is more than their existing profit margin.

The most devastating effect would be on Europe's smaller leather producers and manufacturers using leather dependent on subtle combinations of chemicals. Even if a substance is in common use, it would still have to be tested and authorised again each time it is used in a new combination, making most of them wholly uneconomical.

The consequences would be a drastic reduction in choice and a significant proportion of Europe's leather production, along with many thousands of jobs, exported outside the EU, not least to China, which is already the world's largest leather exporter. This, Booker concludes, this time invoking a wicked irony, is a "most valuable contribution to that dream of making the EU, within six years, "the most competitive, dynamic, knowledge-based economy in the world".

You could scarcely credit that Booker was writing about the same Reach directive that so exercised the Independent. How could they be so different? I suppose it's how you tell 'em.

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