Newspapers’ EU election coverage misses the mark

No wonder Nigel’s smiling - it’s all about him! Chris Radburn/PA Wire

The European Parliament elections are just a few days away. And yet, the overwhelming focus of election coverage in UK newspapers has not been about European issues and policy debates, but on Nigel Farage’s UKIP and the question of a UK referendum on EU membership.

Coverage has also, unsurprisingly perhaps, been very strongly linked to the UK’s next general election in 2015, meaning that so much of the communication surrounding the European elections has been presented in national terms, it’s difficult to tell the difference anymore.

There has been little reporting on what a cast vote actually means, in democratic terms. These elections are the first to take place under the new Lisbon Treaty rules, and yet this new system, with its arguably enhanced transparency, is largely unknown to the British public.

Three weeks ago, an editorial in The Guardian lamented exactly this: the UK approach to the elections is “missing the point”. There is space for a bigger, broader debate about Europe, but this is not happening in UK newspapers.

An analysis of six of the most-read papers over the weekend of May 17-18 confirms, with a few exceptions, that the focus of the coverage is UKIP and what the EU election tells us about the outcome of the 2015 general election.

The broadsheets

The Guardian’s first mention of anything election-related that weekend came on page ten, where it featured an article on Yorkshire UKIP candidate Amjad Bashir and linked this to support for the party in the north versus the south of England. The opposite page had a shorter piece on Nigel Farage’s interview on LBC Radio. Guardian Weekend also featured a photo essay on people who aren’t voting.

Saturday’s Telegraph coverage, in both a front-page story and an interview, centred on Conservative communities secretary Eric Pickles and his claim that UKIP is “über-nationalist and xenophobic, but not racist”. Another short piece reported Farage’s claims that the ballots were confusing and may cost the party votes.

The Sunday Times featured on its front page a more general article about the status of the Labour Party. Then, as a part of its Election 2014 coverage, page 15 had three articles by political editor Tim Shipman. The first centred on Nigel Farage’s claim that the UK will lose its “first-world status” should it remain in the EU. The second was on Britain’s declining budget rebate from the EU and the third on George Osborne’s claim that voting for UKIP will damage the economy.

The tabloids

Perhaps most surprising in the Saturday Sun’s coverage was a strongly worded editorial on page eight which said that Farage’s comments related to Romanians versus Germans as neighbours “is racism, pure and simple”.

The Sunday Mirror’s focus was “exposing” UKIP. A short piece on page two said a Mirror poll predicted UKIP coming out on top on Thursday. The paper’s main coverage, on pages 10-11, predictably took a very critical position on the party and highlighted racist and/or inaccurate statements that have been made by UKIP candidates. To the Mirror’s credit, a shorter article on what the UK would look like under UKIP, based on the party’s policy positions, discussed some issues, such as employment, the NHS, and the environment (this was in a national context, however).

The same page also featured a piece by Ed Miliband explaining why people should support Labour. Finally, two of the paper’s editorials were election-related: one on how the current coalition and UKIP are tarnishing British public life, and the other, by John Prescott, commemorating former Labour leader John Smith and encouraging votes for the party.

Finally, the Mail on Sunday’s coverage was framed around the misgivings and poor poll results of the Labour party, with the Mail claiming Ed Miliband will never be prime minister. A second report on page 24 was on one of the weekend papers’ hot topics, Farage’s claims on Romanians versus Germans as neighbours. An opinion piece by James O'Brien, written after he interviewed Farage, said that the leader had “let his mask slip”, and encouraged critical thinking on supporting the party.

The verdict: can do better

So, what does this tell us? The concept of European elections is a relatively new one. It demands a public platform to debate political and democratic issues and institutional legitimacy. Part of this debate should be played out in the press.

But the elections game is an entirely different one in Britain, overtaken by UKIP and the question of a referendum, and not a platform for critical discussion on important issues facing the continent in the 21st century.