Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom is hardly a new concept. Ever since the UK joined the European Communities in 1973, British people have been particularly sceptical about the way cooperation with continental Europe impacts their country’s internal affairs. The UK has traditionally been characterised by a remarkable capacity to be unhappy fully inside the European Union, while also being unhappy to be completely outside. An instrument often used to convey this Eurosceptic sentiment is the country’s press. A large part of the British press has traditionally been in the habit of employing inflammatory rhetoric when reporting EU affairs.
One could argue that the main culprit when it comes to biased reporting of EU affairs in the UK is the country’s tabloid press. Newspapers such as The Sun or The Daily Express voice their opinions on the EU in a rather sensational way, often with comical results. A classic example is The Sun’s message to French President of the European Commission Jasques Delors in 1990. In response to Delors’ perceived attempt to impose European federalism on the UK, The Sun published a headline declaiming “Up yours, Delors”. Other examples of anti-EU mentality include the Daily Express’ crusade to get the UK out of the European Union and the Daily Mail’s reporting of alleged Brussels plots to abolish Britain’s sovereignty or to force Britons to use the same toilet flush as continental Europeans.
During a BBC radio broadcast in February 2013, Labour politician Lord Mandelson referred to newspapers that use such tactics as “propaganda rags”. In Mandelson’s view, their reporting lacks balance and even-handedness and their approach is straightforward Europhobia. It is noteworthy, however, that such attitudes are not unique to British tabloids. Respected broadsheet newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph or The Times often report EU affairs in a way that raises a lot of questions regarding their objectivity. One such example is The Telegraph’s report on an alleged secret plan by Germany to derail a potential British referendum on EU membership.
What has made such a large part of the British press so fiercely Eurosceptic is a hotly debated subject. Many blame the unfavourable image of the European Union in the British press on the overall anti-European sentiment, traditionally prevalent in the United Kingdom. Others attribute the biased reporting of EU affairs to the lack of British media representation outside Britain. John Palmer argues that the tabloid British press has virtually no representation in most European capitals and especially in Brussels. As a result, British tabloids often resort to the practice of writing and interpreting stories in London about events in Europe. Another issue frequently mentioned is a technical one, namely that many British journalists are hindered by their lack of language skills. Often unable to speak any language other than English, they have to rely exclusively on British sources, which, in turn, can have a negative impact on objectivity.
A factor that is often overlooked is the presence of financial motives behind the way many British newspapers choose to portray the European Union. It is noteworthy that both The Times and its tabloid cousin The Sun are owned by a publishing company that operates under the name NewsUK. One of the key people behind this enterprise is media tycoon and openly Eurosceptic, Rupert Murdoch. There have been allegations that the inflammatory anti-EU rhetoric in the above-mentioned newspapers stems from Murdoch’s strong aversion to a number of EU policies, including anti-monopoly laws, restraints on satellite broadcasting and a plan to clean up tax havens Europe-wide. It is also argued that other newspaper proprietors, such as the Barclay brothers of the Daily Telegraph, Richard Desmond of the Daily Express, and Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail, have similar interests in advocating British withdrawal from the EU.
At present, an increase in anti-EU sentiment can be felt all across the European continent. As data from Eurobarometer shows, trust in the European Union has plunged to a record low, even in countries that have traditionally been pro EU, such as France or Italy. One could argue that the rise of Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom has not been as dramatic as in other EU member states. This is because in the UK, support of EU membership has traditionally been lukewarm and trust in European institutions has never been particularly high.
However, for the first time in British history, a serving British prime minister has promised an in out referendum on EU membership, which could result in the UK taking powers back from Brussels, or even exiting the European Union altogether. Taking this into account, along with the fact that the EU is currently going through one of the most turbulent periods in its history, the need for objective reporting of EU affairs in the United Kingdom is now more urgent than ever before.