One of the most interesting findings (to this burd anyhow) of a recent poll on independence was that fewer Scots now support membership of the EU. In 2008, 40% of people polled wanted the UK to continue to represent Scotland’s interests in the UK, after independence and a further 40% wanted to be a separate member of the EU – a clear majority then in favour of some way of continuing with EU membership and only 13% wanted to leave the EU altogether.
When the poll was repeated at the end of February, 39% wanted the UK to continue to represent an independent Scotland in the EU but support for “independence in Europe” had fallen to 29%. Meanwhile, support for leaving the EU altogether had risen to 21%.
The question is why? What could behind this shift away from one of the cornerstones of the SNP’s approach to independence?
No doubt, the reasons are multifarious and complex. But a press hostile to the EU and almost non-existent broadcast media coverage of what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg plays a role.
Take this splash from Monday’s Daily Express. It forms part of its recently launched campaign to persuade (“get”) Britain to leave (“out of”) the European Union. “From now on, our energies will be directed to furthering the cause of those who believe Britain is Better Off Out…. After far too many years as the victims of Brussels larceny, bullying, over-regulation and all-round interference, the time has come for the British people to win back their country and restore legitimacy and accountability to their political process.”
Oh boy. Thus, the headline on Monday screamed: “Now EU bans plastic bags”. Only it hasn’t. Compare and contrast the treatment of the same story in Der Spiegel, which produced the headline – Bagging It: EU Wants to Reduce Plastic Shopping Bag Use. A very different proposition, I’m sure you’ll agree, so which is right?
Well, the story is that the EU is exploring how to reduce the usage of thin, single usage plastic bags. A report has been prepared considering a range of options and – funnily enough – it has concluded that the option to ban their use altogether has already been discounted, partly because it would be a “blunt instrument” but essentially because it would conflict with international trade law and internal EU market rules.
Clearly the Express piece is nonsense and highlights the appalling misinformation that some press sources in the UK propagate about the EU to whomever is unfortunate enough to read their blatts. This is because of their own editorial peccadilloes which are often politically hostile to EU membership or at best, agnostic. The sort of scare stories which appear in too many newspapers, and have done for some years now, are one reason why support for the EU is falling in Scotland.
Another reason is the lack of coverage at all. Some might recall some recent wittering by me about a European report into the gender pay gap and the measures being proposed to tackle it. Yet, it received zilch coverage from the mainstream media. So I asked a European Parliament official about it.
Not for the lack of trying, was the response. To coincide with the publication of that report, a debate was hosted by Europe House in London. About 80 journalists were invited – social affairs correspondents, women’s pages editors, magazine editors – journalists you might have thought would be interested in the gender pay gap in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
Not a single one turned up. Hence, no coverage. All they had to do was stagger across London (most of them) and still they couldn’t find the time or inclination.
Increasingly – like many – the European Parliament is turning to social media to get its message out, especially in the UK. For that same debate, an #EUwomendebate Twitter hashtag was created and used in the run up to the event. Two Twitter walls were built inside the room of the debate and attendees received wifi passwords, encouraging participants to tweet using the hashtag. Approximately 250 tweets appeared on the wall during the debate, with several people joining the debate online. The result? 45,000 people reached through Twitter. Other social media, such as blogging and Facebook, were used as well.
According to the same official: “this should give us food for thought: the people speaking that day (just ahead of the consultation on quotas for company boards was announced by the European Commission) are the ones with some real power to change things for women but old media is not going to stir unless it’s a sex or money scandal. So if I want to inform women about what is being done for them in Europe (totally one-sidedly, you could argue) I have to go to women citizens journalists directly. Isn’t this a sad state of affairs?”
That consultation is now underway and there is a real chance that the European Parliament will vote for compulsory female quotas in the boardroom. Which would explain some of the blethers a few months ago from big business about how they are all working hard to improve women’s representation. It was clearly an attempt to head off the prospect of legislative compulsion. Too late, I hope. Scotland has nothing to crow about on this issue, as evidenced by the rather excellent detective work by Kenneth Roy at Scottish Review.
This is actually an exciting time for European matters, especially for those of us who care about gender equality. We should be lobbying our representatives in the European Parliament and responding to this consultation – whether or not we support the proposals for compulsion – but how can we when barely anyone who is PAID to cover this sort of news cannot be bothered to do their job and inform the public?
No doubt, once big business shifts from its torpor and pokes the media, we will get a rash of negative headlines and scare stories on this. It will be news then and yet another opportunity for the media to improve people’s view of what goes on in Europe will have been lost. As usual, we will be invited to see the worst side, especially if, like the Express, news outlets take licence with the verity.
And yet, given the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, it has never been more important for us to understand the workings of the European Union and to receive information about the good it does for Scotland and many people living here. Shame we cannot rely on the fourth estate to provide it.