An ongoing war of words between right-wing tabloids and the British government reached the intensity of an all-out pub brawl this week, after Tony Blair's chief negotiator for Europe, Peter Hain, accused the rabble-rousing press of peddling Euro-skeptic "lies" and "baloney." The Daily Mail countered with a front page emblazoned with Hain's mug next to the words "Minister of Arrogance." Along with the Daily Mail, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunhas taken a lead role in the push for a plebiscite on the European Union constitution. The newspapers, joined by the Daily Telegraph, are deeply skeptical—to put it mildly—of the new constitution being hammered out in Brussels. Euro-skeptics fear the new document will undermine Britain's sovereignty and lead to a federalized "super-state." The papers have demanded "a vote to save your country," calling Blair's plans to put Britain's name on the constitution drafted by former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing "the biggest betrayal in our history." (For more on the EU constitution, see this BBC backgrounder.)
The tabloids show no sign of easing up. Today the Sun accused Hain of downplaying British economic success compared with Continental Europe's with its headline, "Pain Hain talks us down." The paper quoted Hain (whom it called "the permatanned minister") observing, "We sometimes overestimate how successful the UK economy really is compared with Germany and France." The Sun quickly pointed out that France and Germany are in an economic slump.
The press appears to relish the attention it receives from elected officials. "Mr. Hain … blasted the Sun's campaign for a referendum on moves to a European superstate," the paper wrote with evident glee. "He called it 'childish yaboo treatment of a serious debate about British interests.' " The paper meanwhile published results of a readers' poll showing 92-percent opposition to Blair's plans to "sign away 1,000 years of British sovereignty by signing up to a European Union Constitution."
Glasgow's Sunday Herald accused the London newspapers of "using openly xenophobic imagery to further their anti-European arguments." The Scottish newspaper questioned why Murdoch, a U.S. citizen of Australian origin, should "presume to dictate to us in such an hysterical manner."
The tabloids' campaign went into full throttle earlier this month, when, on May 5, the Daily Mail called the constitution a "blueprint for tyranny." Not to be outdone, the Sun, Britain's largest-circulation daily, got in on the act last week, unfavorably comparing Tony Blair to British historical heavyweights Queen Elizabeth I, Adm. Horatio Nelson, and Winston Churchill: "1588: We saw off the Spanish. 1805: We saw off the French. 1940: We saw off the Germans. 2003: Blair surrenders Britain to Europe." Readers who felt the proper place for the prime minister is in the Tower of London were, as they say, chuffed to bits (that is, rather pleased).
Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith is heading calls for a referendum on Britain signing the European constitution, a campaign the tabloids took up with enthusiasm. Telegraph owner Conrad Black told a BBC radio program Monday that his paper would continue to lobby vigorously for a plebiscite, and the Daily Mail announced plans to stage its own June 12 referendum with the help of a professional polling agency. The minister was not impressed: "Those campaigning for a referendum might as well put away their placards and stop wasting their money, because we are not going to do it," Hain said on Sunday. The Telegraph then took its own swipe at Hain. "Mr. Hain, managing at once to defy and to patronize the electorate he represents, shows a brass neck," the paper wrote.
Hain called the constitution a mere "tidying up exercise" consolidating the numerous treaties that define the European Union into a single document—and thus unworthy of a national referendum. But the Telegraph begged to differ. "Our anxieties are not about some handful of ill-phrased sub-clauses that can be struck out by a bureaucrat's pen, but about the governing principles that underwrite the whole thing," the paper wrote.
On Wednesday, the Times published an interview with Denis McShane, Blair's minister for Europe, in which he accused "europhobes" of "seeking to open a second front" against Europe, following what looks to be victory in their battle against staging a referendum this year on joining the euro. (The debates over the EU constitution and the euro are nominally separate, although they are in fact deeply intertwined. Unlike the tabloids, the government favors a referendum on the euro but opposes a vote on the EU constitution.)
"The biggest problem is our national press. In Britain hostility to the EU is established orthodoxy and I don't know how you overcome that. When the media dislikes something so much, it is difficult to change that mentality. A hate campaign against Europe is being led by some of the same newspapers who wanted to leave Poland in the lurch before the last war. The Daily Mail is returning to its isolationist vomit of the 1930s," McShane told the Times.