Why much more effort must be made to explain the EU
JOURNALISTS are taught not to assume readers' knowledge.
Always picture someone reading about the subject for the first time – that's what's drummed into you, with the help of red ink and the odd raised voice.
It all seems to be forgotten when it comes to writing about the European Union though, and I'm as guilty as anyone else.
When David Cameron announced his plans for a referendum on the UK's EU membership I was faced with the same conundrum every other journalist must be. What to include?
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And, with limited space and time, I had to go against instinct and write as if the reader was practically an MEP. I included no background to how the UK's relationship with the EU works and made no attempt to explain its pros and cons.
In 450 words (more space than most regional papers provide for a lead article), I explained what the PM said and what people in both the "in" and "out" camps thought of the announcement.
The story was typical of most pieces of journalism on the EU. To find an example of in-depth writing or documentary broadcasting on the subject you have to seek them out. Even then there is a problem as some aspects are easier to quantify than others.
I can say, for example, that the UK was the third biggest net contributor to the EU budget in 2011, with 4.7 billion euros.
But it's more difficult to put figures on other aspects of the in/out arguments.
What is the value of the UK having more influence on European economic policy? Or what would happen financially if we left the EU and took up a free trade agreement with Europe, like Switzerland or Norway?
Any attempt to present a simple figure on how much the UK would make or lose by staying or leaving probably shouldn't be trusted.
At present, the referendum will only happen, most likely in 2017, if the Tories win the 2015 general election – and that's far from certain if poll results are anything to go by. But if it does come, those who don't plan to vote along party lines will need to hear logical, provable, and, above all, coherent arguments.
There must be somewhere voters can go to get a balanced view of what the politicians are saying.
That won't be, for the most part, the role of most national papers. The Daily Express, for example, has long campaigned to get the UK out of Europe.
No, I reckon it will be down to local news sources and trusted national media, like the BBC, to do this.
As the day gets nearer, they – and I – ought to either include background facts, or at least show where they can be found, whenever they write or speak on the subject.
More importantly, Whitehall must make every effort to explain what is happening. A well-advertised website will be needed but perhaps it should go further – modest funding for short television and online documentaries, for example. Universities and colleges could be encouraged to host one-off lectures on the subject.
If the public isn't interested or educated then the result won't show what they really want at all.
And then the question of Europe may as well be settled by a vote in the Commons.