Bill Emmott served as Chief Editor of The Economist from 1993-2006, during which time the paper became the essential global voice of economic liberalism, and the clear winner in the battle of the news weeklies. He is also the author of a number of books on Japan and Italy, as well as the co-author (with director Annalisa Piras) of ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, a documentary about the latter country.
Most recently, he and Ms. Piras made ‘The Great European Disaster Movie’, an impassioned plea to the people of Europe to stay the course with the EU.
Tomorrow, the UK will vote in an election that may well have a huge impact on whether ‘Brexit’ eventually becomes a reality. The issue has never been more timely, and as one of the UK’s leading proponents of the European project, Mr. Emmott’s views on the subject are well worth paying attention to.
Why do so many people in the UK and other European countries hate the EU?
I think the first problem is that the opponents of the EU aren’t really angry with the EU, but rather that the EU is a convenient target for their criticism. The failure is that of national politicians to deal with problems that people are worried about.
UKIP support is very much driven by immigration, most of which has nothing to do with the EU – or at least, more than half of which has nothing to do with the EU. But politicians fail to persuade people of either the merits of immigration, or that they have an effective strategy for putting some sort of control on immigration. That leads people to blame an obvious target such as the EU, a seemingly distant body whose rules are hard for ordinary people to understand, and hard to change because they are done by agreement by 28 countries rather than just parliament.
I think the second part of the problem is the failure of the EU to do ‘what it says on the tin’. A lot of the problems in the economy – people’s worries about the lack of jobs and lack of prospects for the future can be attributed to the failure of the EU to build a proper single market, to liberalise the services industry and allow the benefits of the EU to manifest themselves. The EU is a sort of half-formed creature, and therefore is bound to disappoint.
But I do feel that when I hear these pro-EU arguments, its often ‘its good for GDP’, ‘immigration is good for you economically’ – but the reality is that a lot of people don’t care about that. They’re interested in preserving what they see as their nation, their culture, and become even angrier because they feel that there’s this elite group telling them that they are prejudiced for even thinking like that. Isn’t there a PR mistake here?
To base a case for the EU purely on economics is a PR mistake. I do think the case for the EU has to be more than that. It has to be more emotional, it has to be about protecting you against threats of all kinds – cultural, economic, political, disease-related, than you would be on your own. The sense of ‘better together’ is probably the best PR line the EU can have, but it isn’t often deployed effectively.
One of the best economic stories for the EU is the degree to which the EU has been better at making mobile phone companies treat you reasonably when you travel abroad, that it has reduced the cost of air travel in Europe, and that it has taken on Microsoft when it was becoming a dangerous monopolist.
The best PR story is that the EU is your friend against other powerful people who want to exploit you, whether they are big companies, or Russia, or the Islamic State – I think the EU isn’t very good at putting that point across.
And how do we sell the idea of the EU to people like the young worker, Tich, in your film? There’s this sense these days that a lot of working class people think ‘well, the EU might increase GDP, but it screws somebody like me, because now I’m competing with people from Poland who might work for a lower wage…’
The way you respond is by identifying and creating opportunities. The 80s TV comedy series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was a story about opportunities for people like Tich to go and get jobs in Germany – thanks to the EU – at a time when British unemployment was very high, and the whole Thatcher shock was driving people out of jobs. So to some degree it’s a matter of timing, because the jobs are going the other way and people are coming to Britain to work. The EU needs to be sold as a solution to the problems of people like Tich. But we need to do better in terms of creating those chances – creating the strong economy that means that people like Tich don’t need to have so many fears.
And of course there are 400,000 British people retired in Spain, so it does cut both ways. And speaking of the older generation, you make this point in your film that it is the older ones who tend to hate the EU and EU-related immigration the most, and yet they’re the ones who benefit from it most, as their pensions are partly being paid by immigrant labour.
Right, but I don’t think one should be naïve about this. The cultural worry about immigration is a strong one. I don’t think it’s particularly a worry about EU immigration.
One of the most honest things a politician has said was when Nigel Farage said he didn’t particularly care about whether immigration would boost Britain’s GDP, but rather, what he wanted was a particular type of Britain that he favoured. In other words, it was a cultural observation, and its hard to argue against that. You can’t argue against it in economic terms.
And it’s a very honest position. I think one has to deal with that by persuading people that it is actually culturally enriching, rather than disturbing…
Farage seems to ‘get’ something that other politicians don’t, though, doesn’t he, in terms of culture and ‘old England-ism’, for want of a better phrase. If you talk to a lot of people, so-called mainstream politicians seem to completely miss the point, not just on immigration but in many other areas. Couldn’t one frame the rise of UKIP as part of an overall dissatisfaction with mainstream politics rather than just…
You can certainly frame it as dissatisfaction with mainstream public policy. The public doesn’t feel that mainstream political parties have workable solutions to the future of the health service, or making education demonstrably better for children, or deal with crime – even though crime rates are actually falling. I think that there’s a connection to the economic recession, and the failure to regulate the banks. There’s a feeling that mainstream politicians don’t have answers.
But the cleverness of Farage is optimism, his sunny demeanour, his constant smile, and his ability to convince people that things could be better. He’s exploiting popular anger, but actually doing so in a way that makes people cheerful! That combination is quite hard to deal with.
But let’s not get too hung up on Nigel Farage. The much more important anti-EU politician in Europe is Marine Le Pen in France, who has a much stronger position in the opinion polls than Nigel Farage does.
And is a lot more extreme…
Indeed. Her position is a lot more extreme, and why? Because the French economy has brought less hope, and there’s a greater sense of loss of prospects for a generation or two in France. There’s also a fear of terrorism over the Charlie Hebdo affair and so forth, and this has worsened feelings about immigration.
Marine Le Pen (Source: Marine Lan-Nguyen, 2010)
You present this dystopian vision in ‘The Great European Disaster Movie’ where the EU fragments, and IS reaches Vienna, and so on. And part of that vision is Marine Le Pen becoming President of France. Realistically though, how far do you think she can go? Are you genuinely worried about her becoming President? Is it possible?
I think what’s genuinely worrying is that it is possible [that Marine Le Pen could become French President]
It isn’t likely under current circumstances, but it is possible. To get there, you’d need events between now and the election in 2017 that further discredited the mainstream parties in France; maybe an economic crisis worsened by Greek exit from the Euro, and a discrediting of in particular Nicolas Sarkozy, who is otherwise the leading candidate to become President in 2017. So if you’ve got both right and left discredited, there’s the chance for the far right to come through.
It’s scary that it is even seriously conceivable. By ignoring these possibilities and failing to correct any of the economic and political problems of Europe, Europe is taking a very serious risk that could lead to the disintegration of the whole (EU) project that could send Europe in a very bad direction.
Is racism in Europe becoming more of a problem?
I think that prejudice between religions is becoming more of a problem. The biggest problem now is the divide between Islam and secularism, as well as Islam and other religions. Of course that has racial aspects to it, and I do think that is deepening in Europe, because of what is going on in the Middle East, and with the Islamic State and the clear evidence of tens of thousands of European citizens going to fight or work for IS in Iraq and Syria, from Belgium, France, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands. That is worsening the sense of suspicion and prejudice between communities.
Is this not the time then to try and reunite Europe around enlightenment values, secularism, democracy- can that be a way forward?
Definitely, all this makes it more important to stress the values that have made Europe strong. That definitely includes secularism, interpreted as tolerance and the ability to work as a whole community rather than in a sectarian way; certainly democracy; and, the sort of solidarity that Europe showed in its formation and development during the 60s and 70s in the face of the Cold War and threats all around its borders. This is something that needs to be rekindled.
There’s a strong message in your documentary that we need to save the welfare state, take care of refugees, counter inequality, and even provide free milk in schools (the young girl on the aeroplane is shocked that such a nice thing used to happen back in the 2010s). That sounds quite Social Democratic… and there are also a few references to the need to rein in the finance industry, and the tax evasion that it so often facilitates. Would the average Economist reader think, ‘wow, Bill Emmott has turned into a bit of a lefty, hasn’t he?’
Haha… I don’t think so – I think the welfare state, in Europe as in America, has been an important contributor to trust and social cohesion that has allowed our societies and economies to evolve and prosper over the past half-century. It acts as a glue that helps us to get through problems and the vagaries of the economic cycle.
I’m in favour – as The Economist too has also been in favour – of the welfare state. What we have always been against is a rigid welfare state, one that protects particular interest groups, and prevents social and economic development. It’s really a debate between types of welfare state.
What we are saying in the film is, particularly because of demographics and the aging society in Europe and also the economic situation, that European countries need to rethink their welfare states, rethink how to spend more effectively. They need to work out how to direct it at the people in the most need, and how to collect the taxes that are needed to finance the welfare state.
This doesn’t mean I’m in favour of raising taxes, but I think one of the problems of certain European countries is the inability to enforce their own tax regimes. Sometimes, that is because tax rates are too high, its true. One wouldn’t talk about the big problem of tax evasion in America in the same way, because their tax rates aren’t as high as those in some European countries.
We do contribute to our own problem of tax evasion. In America, the politics of tax evasion tend to focus on corporate tax avoidance, but in Europe, it tends to focus more on individuals.
So how would you reform the EU? You are quite clear that the EU is making certain mistakes, and needs to be reformed… so what are you looking for?
We’re looking for change that is led at the national level. It’s not about changing EU institutions, but changing the policies of the member countries to make them gel together better. And top of that list would be a ‘new Marshall Plan’, or ‘Merkel Plan’…
A slightly ironic name…
Yes. We’re looking for a grand bargain, a much enhanced program of public investment, fiscal stimulus led by the creditor nations of Europe, and as part of the bargain, real liberalizing reforms led by a new single market programme, particularly in services reform, but also with other elements. Countries of Europe are illiberal principally because of national policies. And finally – and this is the bit that Germany would find difficult to stomach – replacing sovereign debts in the highly indebted countries of Southern Europe with collectively underwritten instruments known as Eurobonds. It should be a mixture of debt relief, liberalizing reform, and public investment. That is actually what the Marshall Plan also consisted of.
A longer term programme should be introduced for energy market reform that modernized and developed Europe’s energy grid into one unified system rather than one of 28 separate countries, that provided efficiency and flexibility. This would help convince people that Europe was working well and was a good deal for them, as well as strengthening the EU in its negotiations with Russia, and reducing its dependence on gas from Libya, and all sorts of other dodgy places.
I think institutional reform is less important. It’s about the kind of policies countries themselves operate.
Have we gone far enough with political union?
I’m agnostic about political union. I think that it really depends on public opinion, and on the public being convinced that it is in their interest. And I don’t think we’re at that juncture right now. Fixing the economy, and doing that from national government level (but in co-ordination) is the right way forward, and we can think about political union later.
The UKIP councillor in your documentary mentioned the Daily Mail; this is the paper that above all others loves the kind of stories you decry in your documentary – stories like the supposed banning of ‘butter curls’ (as opposed to wrapped butter) or the regulation of the curvature of bananas. Is the Daily Mail irresponsible? Is it deceiving us, in order to try and get us to make the dangerous choice of leaving the EU?
I think they are sensationalist, and often irresponsible (though not always). They demonise foreigners of all kinds, and the EU is a particularly convenient source of foreigner.
The ‘butter curls’ story is an instructive one – it isn’t a Daily Mail story, but it is the sort of story they might write. It is totally false, there is no EU regulation forcing that hotelier to serve wrapped butter instead of butter curls, but a local health inspector appears to have used the EU as an excuse to meddle in what she is doing. I think that habit, and the sense that this is believable, is fostered by papers like the Daily Mail, which do sometimes write things that are actually untrue; other times, they take notions that are just proposals or ideas floating around in the EU, and treat them as law, in a way that doesn’t happen with ideas floating around Whitehall. That’s a big part of the problem.
Just as the Daily Mail loves to foster the notion that immigrants are welfare scroungers who are ruining the NHS, it is also very easy, tubthumping journalism to blame the EU for all sorts of problems. It’s not a form of journalism I respect or admire, but there’s nothing new about it, this kind of ‘yellow press’. You can find it in all countries.
Moving on a little, what problems exist in the news media these days? And what can be done?
Compared with 5 or 10 years ago, the news media landscape is looking better. I think that back then, the belief was widespread that the news media was being gradually destroyed by digital, that the very fundamentals of the business model were being destroyed and nobody could find a new one to replace it. People like Google and Yahoo had ‘destroyed’ the news media. I think now, things look more optimistic, there are more businesses – both ‘new’ and ‘old’ – that have found business models, and are succeeding in replacing advertising revenue dependency with forms of subscription and circulation revenue. It isn’t easy though, it’s a hard transition, but I think it can be done. And of course, Byline will play a part in that.
Can crowdfunding be an answer to any of the problems of journalism?
I feel sure that crowdfunding will be part of the future of journalism. It is a logical extension of the subscription model.
These days, it seems that publications that have a distinct voice – such as The Economist – or those that serve a specific niche, can prosper. But will there still be a place for the big generalist newspaper, like the New York Times or The Times here in the UK? Are their days ultimately going to be numbered?
I think that the big generalist newspaper is going to find it very, very hard to survive
I think that the big generalist newspaper is going to find it very, very hard to survive, and I do think these papers are the big victims of the disintermediation of advertising revenue. This isn’t new – television also damaged the big general newspaper as well in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and forced papers to shift more towards entertainment in order to retain readers and advertising revenue. Now we’re seeing a new blast against the big general newspaper. Newspapers will have to work harder to convince readers of what value they’re really creating. All publications will have to work harder at convincing readers to pay.
Is journalistic independence in decline these days? Looking at the Peter Oborne case, do you think that when advertising revenue starts to dry up, the relative importance of each remaining advertiser increases to a point where they gain too much power over you?
Undoubtedly it does. In a time of economic stress for news media, the ability of the commercial side to smile benevolently when an advertiser is being exposed by an investigative report is obviously diminishing. The case of The Telegraph and HSBC is just the latest example of that. It’s not a new phenomenon, but as you say, as advertising dwindles, it becomes more acute.
That just makes it even more important to find ways to shift towards other forms of revenue and re-diversify the revenue base so you are less dependent.
For many publications, there is a need to clarify: ‘what is the promise we are making to readers?’ Is the promise that you’ll print all the news that’s fit to print, or is it the promise that you will print all the news your advertisers will let you print.
The world has tolerated advertiser-driven copy in the fashion press and the travel press. Readers expect it there, but I don’t believe it will be viable in the general news media. Freesheets and highly commoditized news media will do it, but I think if you’re trying to create a value proposition for readers, integrity should be a very valuable and important part of it.
Is social class an issue in journalism today? Many will say there are far fewer young working class people joining papers than before…
I don’t think so: if there is any such problem, it is not a feature of journalism but rather of university education. It has become harder to become a journalist without university education, but university education has not made enough progress in bringing such education to poorer people whose parents are not themselves educated.
Source: International Journalism Festival, 2010
The Economist turned into a global brand under your editorship, and became especially popular in the US, more or less relegating Time and Newsweek to the second division. How did this happen?
It was the culmination of a very long-term strategy which began with printing in the US in the late 1970s. We saw ourselves as analysing themes that could be of common interest to people all over the world, and as a result conducting a kind of global conversation – all the while connecting together people who valued what we did enough to pay for it (the US circulation was always profitable just on the basis of circulation, from the start), as well as being of interest to advertisers. This positioned The Economist well for the digital era.
And how does The Economist remain so profitable when everyone else seems to be losing their shirt?
I think it can be attributed to a very clear sense of purpose, in the sense of offering a clear value and purpose to readers all around the world. The other part of the secret has been offering a single global edition, which kept editorial costs down.
What would you do if you were a 22 year old wannabe journalist again?
It wouldn’t be fundamentally different. Just as then, I’d be trying to convince potential employers how well I can communicate, write, and broadcast, rather than anything to do with my CV or my credentials. It’s absolutely a profession where it is what you can do that counts, rather than what certificates you have. I’d be thinking, where can I be valuable? Where can I convince an employer to hire me? As an internationally-minded person, I’d think about going abroad – maybe to Korea, to Poland, or to somewhere in North Africa. So I don’t think it has changed, although the names of some of the potential employers has changed.
Main photo credit: Marina Zaninelli, 2013