Never mind the ballots

Iwas nervous about taking the family to mainland Europe for the half-term hols. What if Lord Black, Rupert Murdoch or Lord Rothermere heard that I was fraternising with the enemy? (Mainland Europeans, I mean, not the family.) They might call for me to be charged with high treason and thrown into the Tower.

As it turned out, we had a most relaxing time, unencumbered by the kind of anti-European hysteria that spits in our faces from the pages of some of our national newspapers.

France, Belgium and Holland, through which we meandered, all embraced the euro last year, of course, and while the citizens of those countries will express mild irritation that the changeover generally edged prices upwards, they aren’t still foaming at the mouth about it.

Nor did they appear terribly excited about the latest draft of the European Union constitution. As we were tucked in a corner of northern Belgium that the British newspapers had temporarily failed to penetrate, I was forced to glean what I could about the four parts of the treaty from the Dutch language De Telegraaf, published in Amsterdam, and the Brussels-based Le Soir, published in French. Neither considered the story worthy of their early news pages, although the details were reported fully and – as far as my tenuous grasp on either language could ascertain – accurately.

Also, as far as I could discover, there is no whining about loss of sovereignty, nor complaints that the Union is turning into a federal super-state controlled from Brussels. You might argue that Belgians are unlikely to protest about the latter, what with Brussels being their capital city, but the truth is that the majority of European newspapers either cannot fathom, or view with disdain, the British media’s paroxysms against full commitment to the Union.

Just prior to us bolting through the Channel Tunnel, there had been frenzied activity on the anti-EU front. Lord Black, a sophisticated political thinker on most issues, went on Radio 4 to attack pro-constitutionalists as wanting to establish a “ramshackle structure of alternative influence” to the United States. The Telegraph Group would become “extremely active” in demanding a referendum on acceptance of the (as yet unratified) constitution, he said.

This was mild stuff, however, compared to the thrashing delivered by the Murdoch papers and Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail. “Save Our Country,” demanded The Sun, when attacking the planned treaty as “the biggest betrayal in our history.” In The Times, Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the paper, weighed in with, “…the choice is British self-government or European government in many areas,” followed by a list that appeared to omit only what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms.

The Mail, meanwhile, was continuing to talk up its own national referendum on whether or not there should be a referendum. On Thursday next, 12 June, “the people” – meaning readers of the Mail – will vote in ballot boxes that “shopkeepers, dentists, vicars, publicans” have requested to be made available at their places of work. No doubt there will be a ballot box or 12 prominently situated at Associated’s Kensington HQ, too, so that journalists can cast their votes without being forced to go to the pub. No wonder Tony Blair should be scathing about media Euro-myths – that “we’ll lose the proceeds of North Sea oil, we’ll lose our seat on the Security Council, we’ll lose two million jobs, we’ll be forced to drive on the right…” And no wonder many European journalists think we’ve gone potty.

I seriously considered nipping back to mainland Europe to avoid next Thursday’s referendum on a referendum, but the Mail has headed me off at the Chunnel. They’ve arranged it so that potential escapees can have a postal vote.

Some of the British papers eventually caught up with me in sleepy rural Belgium. On the morning of their reappearance, the supermarket rack contained half-a-dozen copies of The Times and so many Daily Expresses that it’s a wonder the entire display didn’t keel over and end up in the freezer cabinet.

So no matter how the Express is doing in this country, it’s obviously very big in Lommel.

Much has been written about the modern culture that demands those employed in many industries should work extremely long hours, grab a sandwich lunch at their desks and take holidays only when the boss isn’t looking or has gone away on his or her own. That’s the way to succeed – or, more crucially, survive – these days in most media companies, especially those involved in the blood-spilling competitive world of the national press.

Those poor nervous souls currently suffering under the yoke probably think it has always been thus. But conducting research for a centenary history of the Daily Mirror, I discovered this passage in the Mirror Group’s submission to the 1977 Royal Commission on the Press:

“The responsibilities of editors have grown and call for a healthy dedication. In former days the job was given an unhealthy dedication. Home and family may today have a place in an editor’s priorities. And even his chief assistants can now be persuaded to work an occasional four-day week and take an occasional early night. It must be good for the health of journalism for senior executives to spend more time in the real world instead of operating from morn until midnight day after day inside a newspaper office.”

Unfortunately, few senior executives working in the press today will read and digest this. They will be too busy gazing at a computer screen until it’s time to go home, stick their heads around the kids’ bedroom door and then fall asleep watching a 24-hour news channel on TV.

A new London stage production of Howard Hawks’ 1940 movie His Girl Friday – a gender-switch version of Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page, with a woman playing ace reporter Hildy Johnson – spurred Alfred Hickling to note in The Guardian recently that journalists invariably get a bad press in films and plays.

I made exactly the same observation in the British Journalism Review a year ago, when The Front Page was revived at the Chichester Festival Theatre. I also pointed out that the play, which paints newspaper journalists as unscrupulous, conniving losers in life who would steal their own mothers’ family photograph albums for a byline, is probably the greatest recruitment advertisement in the history of the game.

Ben Hecht recalled that he and his fellow ex-Chicago newspaperman co-author were writing “of people we loved and employment that had been like no other was ever to be.” Indeed, the plot is a love story – the destructive love journalists can feel for their trade and for which they will risk alienating even their families.

Whoever wrote that Mirror note for the Royal Commission obviously wasn’t familiar with The Front Page. Go see Zoe Wanamaker and Alex Jennings at the National if you need convincing – and if you can tear yourself away from your desk.

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Janice Turner

by Bill Hagerty

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