Platform: Time to pick up the EU football and run with it - The thought of a referendum on Europe is worrying as most coverage is unbalanced and superficial, says David Vigar

Here are some issues that make news - the environment, art, Europe, the Internet and wearing fur. Which of these would you advise your client to go furthest to avoid as a subject for a PR campaign?

Here are some issues that make news - the environment, art, Europe,

the Internet and wearing fur. Which of these would you advise your

client to go furthest to avoid as a subject for a PR campaign?



Cynics who say Europe narrowly beats fur for untouchability should look

hard at what has happened in the last fortnight.



First, 23 captains of industry attacked ’extreme Euro-scepticism’. Then,

companies like BP, BAT, Vauxhall and Guinness were willingly identified

as backers of the European Movement’s Europe 97 campaign, featuring ’97

reasons to be in Europe’. Those reasons include facts, figures and

quotes from Richard Branson, Sir Iain Vallance, Niall FitzGerald and a

range of small and medium size firms.



Why? Europe is rough, controversial territory. If these people want to

invest in their reputations, they could sponsor a sculpture exhibition

or a survey of e-mail users.



The reason is simple: Europe matters to their companies. They also know

most people don’t have a clue about it, and with a referendum in

prospect, ignorance is a dangerous thing.



The up side is that there is a good story to tell. While doom merchants

have spent decades murmuring about conspiracies and superstates, the

real EU has got on with providing firms with the biggest home market in

the world, dismantling trade barriers, slashing paperwork and creating

jobs.



But research shows this has passed the public by. Only seven per cent

can identify the single market from a brief description. Only 14 per

cent claim good knowledge of EU issues. Still, two in three are prepared

to support closer links between EU countries if convinced they are in

Britain’s interest.



This is why the Europe 97 campaign is built on fact, with a tabloid

newspaper supported by advertising, information packs, regional activity

and high-profile endorsement -like a statement of support from 97 MPs of

all main parties.



The cross-party aspect also poses a challenge - because a debate

straddling party lines has limited appeal to the Westminster media. One

correspondent said: ’It’s the Reds versus the Blues - nothing else

matters’. Issues like Europe only have political news value inasmuch as

they play into the inter-party or, more often, intra-party arguments.

Hence Europe remains a football, always being kicked around but rarely

examined for its own sake. No wonder three-quarters of people in a

European Commission survey said coverage of Europe was unbalanced and

superficial.



Too many editors are failing to stage a proper debate on Britain and the

EU because it interferes with the neat Red versus Blue contest. Those

who set news agendas need to think hard and fast about how the Europe

debate in Britain is covered - in fact, whether it is covered at

all.



Otherwise the referendum might as well be the toss of a coin.



Given the strength of feeling in business, both pro and anti Europe,

perhaps part of the answer is to see Europe as more of an economic

issue, and less a political one.



Sir Bernard Ingham, who takes a gloomier view on Europe than the

European Movement, was nonetheless dead right to say last week that many

politicians are running away from the issue and that PR’s duty is to arm

people with the facts. What might surprise some in PR is how readily

their clients will agree.



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