27 March 2021
How we lost the narrative
It was back in the late 1980s when I worked on the staff of the Times newspaper in London that I heard the word eurosceptic for the first time. It was during the days of confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson, her finance minister, over whether or not the UK should join the exchange-rate mechanism. Three years later, a colleague and friend of mine casually remarked, to my profound shock, that the eurosceptics were winning the argument. At some point in between, I recall another colleague, one of the rising young stars of the paper, writing a review of a French movie he detested. This was the first time I heard the word eurotrash. The word eurocrat had been invented many years earlier. Also interesting that UK newspapers, pro and anti-EU alike, habitually refer to the EU as a bloc - as in Eastern Bloc.
Words creates stories. And stories give rise to narratives, which are stories that we keep telling each other time and again. The eurosceptics controlled the narrative through the media, on which the EU has become perversely over-reliant. French was the lingua franca of the European Economic Community when it had only six members. But the larger the EU became, the more English was spoken. Euroscepticism became its most dominant dialect.
Various attempts to create a common multi-lingual media space have failed. I was once involved in a UK/German newspaper venture. It failed for exactly the same reason as the UK’s EU membership failed. True integration was not really something the UK ever wanted.
I have drawn the conclusion that the EU will ultimately need to create its own media space, and not have words and narratives forced upon it by outsiders. The UK is now out. British journalists are now foreign correspondents. And yet, English is still the common language. But just as London cannot remain the EU’s main financial centre after Brexit, the EU cannot rely on the UK for its media space forever.
The UK media are still as obsessed with Europe. The eurosceptic tabloids are still predicting the imminent fall of the EU almost daily. Among the more serious crowd, I noted an interest in the conference on the future of Europe. The views expressed are mostly negative. In the European media, by contrast, there is hardly any discussion at all. I don’t think it is in the EU’s best interest to let the UK lead on this - and predictably lead into a eurosceptic direction.
I see three trends that will make it easier for the EU to wean itself off the UK and US media.
The first is the rise of social media networks. Twitter is not a media company, but it challenges the newspaper’s network oligopoly by providing an alternative gateway to news and commentary. European debates on Twitter are still heavily dominated by UK and US journalists and think-tankers. But there are a lot more Europeans compared to five years ago. The discussions often take place in English - but at least they are not moderated or censored by English-language editors. It is difficult for ordinary mortals to get a letter or article published in an English-language newspaper. It is easier to attract the attention of the wider Twitter community. It is a more democratic marketplace for ideas.
The second development, which is further out, is the improved usability of translation software to bypass English as the lowest common denominator language in written communication. When we started Eurointelligence in 2007, the only half-decent translation software available was algorithmic. These packages were barely usable and often produced absurd translations. My favourite example is that the translation of the name of a Spanish central banker, Jose Luis Malo De Molina. Our software translated his name as the as the evil one. Worse still, translations from several European languages were gibberish.
The rise of statistical translation made it possible to translate a Finnish article into Spanish, and understand the gist of it. It still does not make for enjoyable reading, but at least it’s good enough for many professional purposes. It may be too early to build media companies based on translation technology, but it makes a difference that such technology exists and that it keeps improving.
And finally, realise that a common media space needs to be built up from the bottom up, not from the top down. Euronews was an example of the top-down approach. Arte, the French-German cultural channel, is an example of the latter. Arte is no doubt elite television, but then again, so are English-language newspapers, from the perspective of a continental European reader.
I understand the reasons why EU institutions relied on a small number of English-language media while the UK was a member. I was part of that group myself for many years. Now that the UK is out, it is time to reflect on communication as well, the channels through which it flows, and the tools and technologies needed to make it work in the EU’s best interest.
And remember how Brexit came about. It started with words and stories. The EU needs its own.
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