In what we hacks like to describe as a little-reported incident, on 11 July this year, a van trundled up to the Nestle factory in York bearing gifts for the workers. They were handed specially printed copies of that day’s Sun, bearing on its outside page an attack on the company’s chief executive, Peter Blackburn.
“Is this the most dangerous man in York?” the paper screamed at his employees. “We know that [he] is a fully paid-up member of the fanatical Britain in Europe brigade. These starry-eyed diehards believe we should dump the pound today and hitch our economic wagon to Europe tomorrow – regardless of all the evidence – for ever. And now they are playing politics with YOU – the decent, honest, hard-working people of York.”
Blackburn had suggested that the high level of the pound was affecting investment decisions. For anyone who can recall the Wapping dispute of 1986, when Rupert Murdoch sacked all his printers overnight, the idea of his minions now inciting employees of another company to hold their boss in odium and contempt carries the merest smidgen of piquancy.
But this sort of thing has become the common currency of the whole European debate. We are becoming quite demented. It is as if the people who write letters in green ink about the arrival of Martians have somehow taken over the press. That man in the grubby mac, mumbling to himself on the Clapham omnibus, might just be a national newspaper editor. With the Nice summit approaching and with the plans for a European rapid reaction force back in the news, paranoia is now rampant.
There are certain principles to observe in writing EU stories. The first is that you may get details wrong, or at least blurred, with impunity. Nothing is too bad or too negative to be incredible.
If in doubt, blame Brussels, an otherwise harmless small European city that you have never visited. No one will criticise you if you describe the Convention on Human Rights or the Court of Human Rights as emanating from the EU – as the Sun and, sometimes, the Daily Telegraph do – rather than as being a part of the entirely separate 41-member Council of Europe, set up at the behest of your great hero Sir Winston Churchill.
The EU, being composed of institutions, is rather like the royal family. You can write whatever you like without checking, because no one ever complains. And how can you check up anyway? You don’t have their number, and don’t they all speak French? You may think I exaggerate, but Christopher Booker, the Sunday Telegraph‘s arch Europhobe, makes a virtue of never checking his stories with Brussels, or even knowing the commission’s telephone number.
Most of the sceptical papers do not have a correspondent in Brussels. The late Sir David English of the Daily Mail, seeing that the EU was the coming story, appointed a reporter there in the early 1990s, but his successor, Paul Dacre, ended the experiment, presumably not wanting anything that would tamper with his prejudices.
That paper, like the Sun, writes its stories almost exclusively from the lobby at Westminster, which is so much more convenient for the receipt of Conservative press releases. The lobby correspondents certainly stick out at European conferences, maundering about in a disconsolate herd waiting for Alastair Campbell’s next briefing, eyeing the foreigners suspiciously, viewing their food with disdain (except when it comes to collecting restaurant receipts for entertaining each other) and counting the moments to the earliest flight home. I doubt whether any of them has ever spoken to a minister, politician or even a journalist from another country.
Increasingly, Conservative Central Office hits the bull’s-eye with its stories, which are usually an extrapolation ad absurdum of a misreading of a suggestion. They are often culled from a perusal of the staggeringly serious and deeply obscure weekly the European Voice, which reports the minutiae of the most mundane committees.
You can spot such tales because they invariably have a quote from Francis Maude, the Conservative foreign affairs spokesman, lurking somewhere in them. Only occasionally does he slip up, as in stories run in August in the Sun, Mail, Times and Telegraph concerning alleged plans for a common European curriculum. “This is a Brussels shopping list designed to spread its power into our schools,” he said. It was actually a plan to improve the management of exchange visits and inter-school co-operation between member states. The Maastricht Treaty – signed on Britain’s behalf in 1992 by Douglas Hurd and a junior Treasury minister called F Maude – specifically excludes interference in national curricula, but encourages exchanges.
Even proposals that might be seen as positive or beneficial can easily be turned into something harmful or loopy. Attempts to limit the exploitation of child labour become a threat to ban Britain’s paper boys and girls; a suggestion from an advisory committee to improve hygiene and prevent the spread of salmonella and listeria becomes a Euro-threat to village fetes; and proposals to set minimum safety and environmental standards for European sanitary ware turn out to be an assault on the traditional British lavatory. You couldn’t make it up – but Richard Littlejohn did in his Sun column in May last year.
It is almost as if the EU exists only to foul us up. Surely it’s not too late for us to get out of the whole thing now? How can William Hague hold back? Unless, that is, he knows something we don’t.
Stephen Bates was European affairs editor of the Guardian from 1995-99