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Generating a bankrupt media tale

February 18th, 2014

One story last weekend provided an object lesson for aspiring tabloid reporters in how to take a smidgeon – if that – of truth and whip it up into a highly misleading anti-EU story.

Three papers ran stories apparently aimed at leading readers to believe that “Brussels” is intending to issue some kind of decree banning the use of the word “bankrupt”.

The Mail on Sunday wailed about “EU language police” the Sun on Sunday screamed “Owe, no”- which at least is funny – and denounced “Meddling EU chiefs” while the Daily Express went with the old classic “Barmy Brussels bureaucrats”.

Even if it wanted to, the EU could not make any government, business or individual stop using the word “bankrupt”. The EU has only the powers delegated to it by Member States in the EU Treaties and those – obviously -do not include “erasing ‘bankruptcy’ from the English language” (Mail).

So how did these reports come about?

An anonymous source tipped off the Mail and the Sun – the Express reheated the story later – about a single sentence in a 140-page study on protecting financial services consumers, produced by British economic consultancy London Economics at the request of the European Parliament’s internal market committee of MEPs.

The sentence concerned read: “the use of stigmatising labels should be ended, and the pejorative term ‘bankruptcy’ should be replaced with the more neutral ‘debt adjustment’.”

There was no reference anywhere to banning anything by law and this sentence occurred in a section of the study referring to those who have hit financial difficulties as a result of mis-selling by banks rather than as a result of their own recklessness.

Of course, newspapers have every right to criticise the conclusions of the study.

But it is not acceptable for reports to name a specific senior European Parliament official as the author, when he was not.

And it is not fair on readers to deliberately give the impression that a view expressed by London Economics –without endorsement by the European Parliament or the European Commission – somehow constitutes an EU proposal.

The Sun talked about “meddling EU chiefs” wanting to “ban the word bankrupt” and about a “Brussels blueprint” and “plan”.

Meanwhile the Mail transformed the one sentence by London Economics into “a drive by Brussels” and quoted a Conservative MP fulminating about “a madcap scheme by Brussels”.

A different MP stepped forward to fume for the Express about “a ridiculous diktat from these Eurocrats”.

Would newspapers ever describe a single sentence in a study produced for – not even by – a committee of the House of Commons as the position of the House collectively, let alone as government or party policy? Probably not.

The Mail added that “it is not the first time the EU has issued a controversial linguistic diktat. Recently it banned its politicians from using the terms ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ because they were not considered politically correct.”

First, describing one sentence in a report by consultants as a “diktat” issued by the EU is not so much stretching a point as snapping it .  Second, the EU – obviously –  cannot ban politicians from addressing people as “Mrs” or indeed from asking to be so addressed themselves – some women Commissioners and MEPs refer to themselves as “Mrs”.(1) The German Chancellor is often referred to in English as Mrs Merkel.

No doubt the journalists would protest that they included in their stories a quote from the European Parliament. saying that the London Economics study did not constitute official policy.

Indeed the Sun and the Mail did so…….in the very last paragraph.

Sticking a denial right at the end does not provide some sort of catch-all excuse for running inaccurate – and daft – articles, topped by lurid headlines, describing non-existent proposals to do things the EU would have no power to do anyway.


(1) The European Parliament’s general secretariat did issue back in 2009 purely internal guidelines in which it was emphasised that a woman’s own wishes on the title to be used should be respected. The aim was not to ban anything but to ensure that no-one was referred to in a way they found incorrect or offensive and to cater for differences in linguistic traditions. For example, in many European languages – such as French, Spanish and Italian – the translation of the English Mrs (Madame, Señora, Signora) is also used to refer to unmarried adult women.

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