A search beneath the rubble

As Iraq showed, the Continental press prefers a few bits of truth to personal invective

War is the ultimate test of character. True, it may not always build or improve our characters, but it never fails to reveal them. Tony Blair and Comical Ali will tell you as much. It separates the doves from the hawks, the doom-mongers from the blithely confident and, quite often, the electorate from the government. It is no different for the press. There is nothing like an international conflict - with the possible exception of the single currency - to expose the cultural gulfs between Europe's newspapers.

Think back to February, when the Sun declared war on Jacques Chirac by distributing its now infamous "Chirac est un ver" edition in Paris. Superimposing a politician's head on the body of a lowly worm may pass for fair comment on this side of the Channel, but neither the French press nor the French public was amused. The country's culture minister, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, branded the stunt "aggressive, very disagreeable [and] pretty vulgar", while Liberation, France's left-wing daily, laid into the Sun for its "cartoon-like" attitude.

No French paper would dream of indulging in so personal or vitriolic an attack on an elected official. Like the public it serves, the French press separates public duty from private life; when politicians are scrutinised by the gangs of academics and philosophers who stalk the comment pages, they are judged on their political achievements rather than their personal weaknesses.

The Iraqi issue also prompted some telling editorial developments in Germany. In the months before the war, the German papers had abandoned their unfathomable obsession with Boris Becker's sexual athletics in favour of a new sport: Schroder-baiting. When they weren't giving the chancellor a good kicking for his failure to steer the economy out of the doldrums, they were teasing him about dyeing his hair.

But just when it looked as though the German press was about to cross the line and embrace the aggressiveness and irreverence we do so well over here, Iraq intervened to perform a psychological make-over on Herr Schroder. Suddenly here was an energetic and conscientious critic of American unilateralism. It must be pointed out, however, that as soon as the US and UK had secured victory, the German press renewed its attack, politely informing the chancellor that principles alone are not enough to stave off economic ruin and that alienating the most powerful nation on earth is rarely a good idea.

In Italy, where 85 per cent of the population opposed the war, the left-wing press asked whether Silvio Berlusconi's decision to back Bush was proof that the famously media-savvy prime minister was finally losing his touch. The conservative Corriere della Sera also scented a popular sea change, interpreting the opinion polls as "a vote of no confidence" in il Cavaliere. Help, as ever, was at hand from those publications owned by Berlusconi: they defended the war, the invaders and the premier.

The war proved that Madrid's fourth estate is not the domain of the meek. When it is enraged, no one, from Eta terrorists to the prime minister, is beyond its reach or censure, as the deaths of two Spanish journalists in Iraq proved. The killings provoked a furious backlash against the Spanish and American governments, and led ABC, Spain's biggest-selling daily, to splash with the simple headline "A black day for Spanish journalism".

ABC's anger at the deaths reverberated throughout the Spanish press. The most brutal condemnation of all came from El Mundo, home to one of the dead men. Having swiftly renounced its initial support for the government's position, it took both Jose MarIa Aznar and George Bush to task. "While those who govern pursue vast objectives such as power, glory, order and security," wrote El Mundo's editor-in-chief, Pedro RamIrez, "we just look for a few bits of truth buried beneath the rubble."

An uneasy peace may have broken out in Baghdad, but a war is still being fought in the comment pages of the European press. The Continent's newspapers, like its people, are assigning blame and, occasionally, awarding praise to their leaders. In Germany and France, they are asking whether they were too harsh or too lenient in their judgements. In Italy, they are debating the best uses of a sharpened public scepticism towards their elected officials. And in Spain, they are deeply, and bitterly, angry. For such a short war, Iraq promises to have a long and lasting effect on the European press.

Sam Jones writes for the Editor section of the Guardian