The Economist: We didn’t win the Brexit argument but eventually could

John Peet [Flickr/ UK in Italy]

Readers of The Economist probably voted quite strongly to remain in the European Union and so lost the argument over Brexit, says John Peet. But as people start to worry about the economic consequences of Brexit, public opinion could shift towards a solution that minimises the damage, he argues.

John Peet is Political Editor at The Economist and a former Brussels correspondent. In an interview with EURACTIV’s founder Christophe Leclercq for the #Media4EU series, he criticised national media for their poor understanding of the EU, and suggested that politicians focus on improving the Eurozone.

The rise of social media is sometimes put in parallel with the rise of populism, which some people cite as an explanation for the recent Brexit vote, the surge in Trump’ support and for Eurosceptic movements on the continent. What is your view?

I think the rise of populism in many countries in Europe and indeed the UK is partly down to people’s dissatisfaction with their economic position and a feeling that globalisation has not produced rewards for everybody.

This perception is greater in certain sectors, particularly among people who used to have quite well-paid manufacturing jobs. Globalisation has actually been bad for them. In Europe the ‘left-behind’, the people who’ve lost out, often use the EU and in some countries the Euro as a scapegoat for other things that make them feel dissatisfied with their lives.

This is causing a serious problem for the European project in many ways.

What’s your analysis of the role of the media and social media in all this?

Social media is very much speeding up the spread of news. Everybody knows a lot more and more precisely what’s happened at any one time and I think that means that a lot of the information they get is less clearly analysed than in traditional media, which usually sets it in a more general context.

Moreover, especially in America but to some extent in Europe too, social media plays on people’s prejudices. In the US we see this particularly with Fox News and its spin-offs, but also in Britain social media had a polarising effect during the Brexit debate. The people who believed in Brexit tended to read sources of information they agreed with on social media and on mainstream media, while for those who voted remain it was the other way around. I think this making compromise and consensus harder to reach.

On top of that, the spread of social media is part of the reason why the traditional are weaker financially and in terms of their penetration of readership than before. I think that is making the traditional media’s situation harder because they’re trying to do a similar job to what they did in the past with fewer resources.

The Economist defended the Remain side in the Brexit debate but you have not won the argument. Is there a chance that your reasons will slowly sink in and that the public opinion in the UK could change?

Public opinion in the UK could move, as it sometimes does in other countries. In June a substantial majority – yet not overwhelming – voted to leave.

I think it would be fair to say that the people who voted to leave were not necessarily the sort of people who read The Economist or the Financial Times. I think our readers probably voted quite strongly to remain in the European Union because they tend to be people in the finance industry, based in London and well educated, whereas the analysis suggests that people who voted most strongly for Brexit were typically people without degrees living in in old, traditionally manufacturing areas.

So no, we didn’t win the argument. However, I think as people start to worry about the economic consequences of Brexit, it is possible that public opinion will shift towards a solution that minimises the economic damage that could arise from Brexit.

I expect that Britain will leave the European Union but I think it may do so in a less damaging way than some people feared on June 24.

The structure of media ownership may have also played a role in the the way Brexit was covered. The FT for instance has been taken over by Nikkei and positioned itself as a global newspaper. While The Economist on the other hand has been reinforced in its trust-holding by an investment from the Agnelli family in Italy. Is this maintaining some kind of Europe hankering for the Economist?

The Economist’s strategy over the past three decades has been to try to be as global as we can. We obviously cover Europe and we have a network of correspondents around the continent, but we also cover very heavily the United States and indeed half our readership is now in America. We also have quite a strong presence in Asia.

So I think that our strategy is similar to the one of the Financial Times: strongly global with a presence in Europe, although I wouldn’t say that the old continent is our most important market.

Do you think this reinforcement of The Economist’s shareholding has no impact on its strategy?

No, I don’t. Fortunately, we continue to be profitable. I think there’s been only one or two years in the past 15 when we actually lost money, so we’re in a stronger position than most other media.

Like everybody else our advertising revenue has declined quite sharply but our circulation has held up and we do make so some money on the internet. I think what’s important to maintain The Economist’s independence isn’t really its ownership structure which is very heterogeneous. The crucial thing is really that we are sufficiently profitable to be able to sustain an independent editorial line.

The Europe editor of BuzzFeed UK, who was previously with The Guardian, told us the following in essence: with Brexit, it’s even more important that continental media cooperate because English-speaking media are in some cases not fact-based in their reporting on Europe. Do you share that view?

The English-speaking media is a very variable group. I like to think that ourselves, the FT, The Times and indeed some of the American media like the WSJ and The New York Times are very heavily fact-based and do quite a good job of keeping up with the European debate in general terms, yet not always in great detail.

There is of course another British-based media group that has a very strong line on Europe which tends to be quite hostile and indeed was one of the reasons why the British voters backed Brexit. I think it has always been prone to exaggeration, not quite lying but tending to put a bad gloss on what’s going on in Europe and I think that has damaged public opinion in this country.

I don’t know if it has weighted very heavily on continental Europe but of course British and American media do have a disproportionate impact in Brussels compared to French or German media because so many people read English. This is not always quite good.

You and your colleague Anton La Guardia have recently published the book ‘Unhappy Union’. Does the title say it all? Are you becoming more detached than when you were a Brussels correspondent?

I think my views also coincide with The Economist’s general approach: we’ve always been supporters of the EU in principle, yet we had serious doubts about the wisdom of the introduction of the European Single Currency. Since the creation of the Euro we have been worried about what would happen if there were any crisis.

Lastly, I’d add that the European Union in general is going through a very difficult period, not just economically but for other issues too, like for example the migration crisis and indeed coping with Britain’s decision to leave.

It looks like a project that has lost its way and that needs to do a great deal more to re-invigorate itself economically and to persuade Europeans of its value. We still think the EU project is very important and largely beneficial, but I think it is in as bad a shape as I can remember.

In March there will be a celebration of the anniversary of the EU in Rome together with efforts to re-launch the project. There is still a question mark as to whether the UK will be fully invited to this meeting. Let’s imagine that you have the chance to give your views to the European Council. What would be your main recommendation?

The most important priority for Europe needs to be making sure that the Euro and its governance are delivering success to all its members, particularly the countries of the southern Mediterranean that seem to still be afflicted by serious economic problems.

The Eurozone is in better shape today than it was two years ago, but unemployment and particularly youth unemployment are still too high while growth and productivity stay low.

The second priority is to find a way of dealing with the general dissatisfaction that is associated with the rise of populist pressure hostile to the EU in countries like the Netherlands, Germany France and Italy.

The truth is that ordinary people feel that the EU is not delivering benefits to them. So a bigger effort needs to be made to persuade them of thought that existed 10 or 20 years ago, meaning that overall the European Union was a good thing that made European people’s lives better. This would include many different issues, like the importance of the EU in foreign policy terms in relation to Russia or creating a coherent policy to deal with refugees and migration.

On this basis, what do you think should be the role of the media, if any? Obviously it’s independent from the EU institutions and governments, but maybe it has a special role to play. 

Well I do think that the media need to make a major effort to actually explain Europe and the Euro, how they work and what they do, what is being done to combat the Euro crisis, etc.

Governments themselves should also commit to explaining why certain decisions have been taken in Brussels. Britain is a bit of an outlier in this debate, but I think it is not the only country where there is a tendency to blame the EU and the Euro for anything that is bad in Europe but to take credit for everything that is good at national level.

Too often they present the argument as going to Brussels to fight for national interests, as opposed to cooperating with everybody in the interest of Europe as a whole. I think this has done damage to the EU and to what people think of it.

You mentioned earlier how shrinking resources for the media lead to an impoverishment of coverage. Some people think it would be useful to have more media content exchanges across borders supported by translation and adaptation, so that people realise better what the nature of the debate is on the other side of the border. For example, the refugee crisis has been handled in very different ways in different countries. Is there scope in your mind for more media exchanges?

It would be nice if it could happen, but I’m afraid that cross-border media doesn’t really work in Europe any better than cross-border politics does.

There are some cross-border media organisations, includingEUobserver, yourselves at EURACTIV, and some publications like Der Spiegel in Germany, Kathimerini in Greece and El País in Spain which have a certain amount of translation.

But overall, it is still national politics and media that carry most of the weight. It would be nice if the journalists involved in national media just like the politicians involved in national politics made more effort to understand other countries.

But, again, that is sometimes a matter of resources and languages. In a sense, Brussels ought to be the place where this exchange happens but even in Brussels the reporting of most European summits, as you know, tends to be done on a national basis. It is about what Angela Merkel did what Matteo Renzi did, it is not about the summit as a whole and I think that’s just a weakness in the system that we have to live with.

Turning to regulatory aspects, the general perception is that the media sector has never been handled as a normal economic sector. There isn’t a real media strategy like there was one – for good or bad – for coal, steel, or the car industry. Should there be a European media strategy?

I’m not sure I would go for a real European media strategy. There have been attempts to set up a cross-border project, the European Parliament tried to involve the media to support its coverage. I don’t know if this really works and I think ordinary people who consume the media are naturally sceptical of information that comes even indirectly from governments or from the EU institutions as a way to improve their own image. In the end people prefer to feel that what they consume is produced by independent media.

There was indeed a wave of subsidised media projects like Presseurop, Euranet Plus and EuroparlTV, which was indeed launched by the European Parliament. And there is also Euronews of course. But their EU funding is now often being challenged, and people are talking more about innovation projects to accompany the evolution of national media. What do you think?

I think there might be some scope for assisting national media to sort of understand better how the European Union functions, but I think that does happen already. I am very suspicious that anything that looks like a subsidy or giving people free trips to the European Parliament is likely to succeed.

Do you have any recommendations for your colleagues working in the media over here on the continent?

I do. Particularly in Britain but of course in other countries as well, there is a big divide between people who have spent time in Brussels and understand the functioning of the EU and the European Central Bank and those who report on national politics.

I find it striking how journalists who are involved in reporting on national issues often know very little about the European Union. They don’t really know the difference between the various institutions.

I think journalists, editors and managers should make sure that their correspondents understand the EU better on political matters but also on business and finances. This is also true of ordinary backbench members of parliament.

There have been attempts to exchange journalists, to post people, to shadow Brussels correspondents etc. Is that a recommendation you could support, perhaps even with some assistance, as you say?

I don’t know about the assistance side of it but yes, I do think that some experience in Brussels is quite useful for journalists in general just to get a feel of how the place works. I think it is something that responsible media should already be doing, but less well than for example in the United States. In fact, everybody in America understands how Washington works, even if they don’t approve of it, because it’s so central to what happens in the whole country.