Throughout the Brexit negotiations, a painful discrepancy will exist between the care and attention which the British media lavish on developments at Westminster, including any mistakes made by the main players, and the press’s lack of any real interest in what is going on in the rest of the European Union.
Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the Commons, complained a few days ago: “It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic. The country took a decision, this government is determined to deliver on that decision.”
One can see what she means. George Canning, a future Prime Minister, had already identified in the 1790s the kind of person who supposes what is happening abroad, in this case the French Revolution, must be morally superior to what is happening at home:
“A steady patriot of the world alone,
The friend of every country – but his own.”
But in another sense, ignored by Leadsom, the British press is far too patriotic. Even in these straitened times, it maintains an impressive corps of correspondents at Westminster, ready to detect so much as a hint of a leadership challenge to Theresa May.
Recent prime ministers, notably Tony Blair, have sought to appease the parliamentary lobby’s hunger for news by supplying it with a stream of not very exciting stories. For a long period, David Cameron seemed to deliver, every Monday morning, to an audience of about five people, a speech which fell into this category.
Mrs May tried a different approach. She and her two chiefs of staff told the lobby nothing. Instead of appeasing the beast, they set out to starve it.
This approach was so rigorous that no one in the lobby received a tip-off that she was about to call a general election. Eminent journalists were left in such ignorance that they thought her surprise announcement in Downing Street might be to do with her health.
She instead declared that she intended to seek a greatly increased majority, so she could deliver the blessings of strong and stable government, and negotiate Brexit from a position of impregnable strength.
Conventional opinion was that her gambit would succeed. In my opinion, she was heading for an enormous majority.
Instead she ended up with fewer seats than when she started. From the exit poll at 10 p.m. on the evening of 8th June, the story for the lobby was that the Prime Minister was mortally wounded.
“The sooner Theresa May goes the better,” as Matthew Parris put it in The Times on 17th June. Yesterday, admittedly, the same newspaper carried a piece by Clare Foges, once Mr Cameron’s speech-writer, under the headline “This diligent PM deserves a second chance”.
But the lobby has scented blood, and the market is for stories which show things going wrong. There is no point in Mrs Leadsom complaining about this. It is what the lobby does best.
Foreign coverage is not, however, something which most of the British media do at all well. The rise of Donald Trump has attracted a lot of attention, for it is a great story, and journalists on both the Left and the Right enjoy writing about the United States.
The Guardian, as part of its digital strategy, has taken on vast numbers of staff in the United States, won a Pulitzer Prize for its Edward Snowden revelations, and also keeps us up to date on stories such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In Europe, with rare exceptions, it is a different story. Any serious newspaper once had a network of full-time correspondents in the major European capitals, helped by stringers in more out of the way spots.
The full-time correspondents lived what in some ways was a rather privileged life. Their houses, cars and offices were paid for, so if they had children were school fees, and so were the heavy costs of entertaining contacts. The offices were run by local staff who were highly intelligent, had been around for a long time and could help with the tricky task of working out what was actually going on.
I do not wish to pretend, for the sake of contrast, that there was ever a time when foreign coverage was perfect. It depended as much on what happened in London as on what copy was filed from Paris or Berlin. Many a correspondent was driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown by failing for three or four days to get a word in the paper, even of some story which broke new ground.
And during the Brexit negotiations, it will be more than usually difficult to determine what the story actually is. The actors will often cover their tracks with thick layers of pious verbiage or complicated bluff.
Differences within the Brussels institutions, and between Brussels and the national governments, will need to be exposed, and it will be necessary to distinguish between significant new developments, and headline-grabbing exercises by Guy Verhofstadt – not that any correspondent can be entirely indifferent to headline-grabbing exercises, which may indeed have an effect on the atmosphere.
In order to get to know these people, and read their intentions, it is necessary to be able to speak, for at least some of the time, not just in French or German, but in the clotted, abstract, evasive terms which they so often employ when speaking to each other.
But one has to avoid going native, or it will be impossible to render this stuff comprehensible, let alone entertaining, to readers of The Beast.
In recent times, only one Brussels correspondent has made his name by cutting through the pious guff and telling his readers what was actually going on, namely that the European Commission was grabbing more power for itself at the expense of the nation states.
He hugely annoyed his rivals, who had allowed themselves to become trapped in a more reverent attitude to European institutions, and were understandably annoyed by his willingness to treat journalism as a creative art, in which in order to convey larger truths, and catch his readers’ attention, he did not scruple to embroider his material. He is now the British Foreign Secretary.
The point about working out what is actually going on is that it is a lot easier once you have been there for some time, and have got to know some of the actual players, than if you are parachuted in for a day or two during a crisis or a summit, or are merely poring over agency copy on a screen in London.
And very few British publications are able and willing to make the investment of time and money which proper European coverage demands, while also possessing the gifts needed to bring any discoveries they may make to the wider public.
I hope I shall be proved wrong about this, but I fear that nine-tenths of the reports of what Berlin, Brussels or Paris is doing about Brexit will be entirely worthless.
One could of course say that nine-tenths of what is written about the Westminster side of things is worthless too. But there one can at least allow more easily for error, and perhaps use it as a sort of contra-indicator.
Our press is concentrated in one place, and is busily taking revenge on Mrs May by scrutinising her every move and declaring it a sign of weakness. Brussels faces neither such scrutiny nor such scepticism, at least from the British media.
The Prime Minister’s survival will depend on her ability to survive this treatment without complaint, and even with a smile, until for some reason the story changes.