‘They don’t understand us’: UK journalists’ challenges of reporting the EU

In the coming weeks and months journalists will be accused of fuelling the toxic tone of the referendum campaigns and ultimately for being at least partly responsible the impending Brexit. However, this is too simplistic. We need to take into account the organisational structures they are embedded in, the newsroom routines and practices they have been socialised into and their personal relationship with EU officials and sources. These discursive practices (Fairclough, 2010) have a strong impact on EU reporting in UK media and can explain some of the patterns we have seen in 2016. In order to understand media representations in the final news product and their interrelation with dominant discourses in society, social practices of production need to be considered since they provide important insights into journalistic decision-making.

In my recently conducted interviews with UK journalists and EU officials several issues have been raised which impact on EU and EU referendum coverage.

UK journalists strongly advocate a British tradition of adversarial journalism, EU officials mistake their tradition of journalism as ‘EU bashing’ and are less likely to provide them with useful, up-to-date information.

Limited staffing and resources are paired with time and space constraints. Journalists pointed out the complex nature of the EU which does not lend itself to engaging reporting, particularly when there is little time for explanation. In order to keep the audience interested, they have to tell a human story, more emotional than factual, to avoid viewers switching off. They have to address their audiences’ preferences which leads to a focus on the domestic realm and topics they are most interested in, such as EU migration. Addressing audience preferences requires journalists to avoid offending their audiences by too firmly advocating a Remain or Leave vote. Media organisations are businesses which need to secure their share in the market which will always result in tensions between the commercial and public purpose of news. Also the BBC, although not directly dependent on viewer numbers, has to fulfil its duties of providing information from both sides, acutely aware of accusations of pro-EU bias.

Furthermore the relationship between EU officials and UK journalists has been mentioned as an obstacle to reporting in particular. In interviews, EU officials clearly pronounced their frustration with the UK based news organisations while the interviewed UK journalists felt similar about EU officials. EU officials were frustrated about the ‘EU-bashing’ of UK journalists and their lack of engagement with the processes while some UK journalists feel at a disadvantage compared to their colleagues from other member states.

One explanation for the strained relations has been mentioned repeatedly by UK journalists. They strongly advocate a British tradition of adversarial journalism. Although they see their role as informers they also emphasised their duty to scrutinise the EU, a duty which they feel is in conflict with a more consensual EU system. Consequently, according to UK journalists, EU officials mistake their tradition of journalism as ‘EU bashing’ and are less likely to provide them with useful, up-to-date information.

EU officials evaluated the situation differently. They stated that they were trying to inform UK news workers by providing them with the same services as anyone else. However, they did feel that their information was regularly distorted, often deliberately so, describing UK journalism as ‘EU-bashing’. Although they emphasised journalism’s duty to scrutinize the powerful, they also stressed its responsibility to create supranational debate and bring the EU closer to citizens – a responsibility UK journalists opposed. They felt this was the EU’s own responsibility.

One example of how those differences impact collaboration between organisations and EU officials is the Financial Times. The FT is regarded by UK journalists as the EU’s ‘pet’ which is has privileged access to information. Without hesitation, one EU official admitted he rather works with the FT than with some other UK news organisations, since they have established good contacts and represent the EU ‘more fairly’.

These differences in understanding the role of journalism but also understanding each other has implications for reporting the EU and reporting during the referendum campaign. It is too simplistic to blame the development on journalists alone. It needs to be understood within the context of practices of production, which in turn are not detached from the society they are embedded in. A more nuanced picture is needed in order to understand EU coverage in UK media. This brief discussion only takes into account some of the aspects which need to be considered. Increased frustration on both sides in combination with a lack of resources for journalists and market pressures requiring news organisations to address audience preferences concerning the EU, may have formed an obstacle to ‘fair’ reporting of the EU. The domestic realm has been given priority over the European realm and framing of the EU has been generally negative (e.g. Anderson & Weymouth, 1999Hawkins, 2012). Since UK citizens have very little direct exposure to the EU, these persistent patterns have reinforced distrust and Euroscepticism over years.