“Always look at both sides of the argument before you decide”, my father used to say in his wisdom when I was young. His life’s experience had taught him that: he had grown up as a young man who was categorised as an ‘enemy alien’ in 1939, yet who volunteered to join the British Army in World War Two.
He mixed with people from all walks of life and in several countries for the duration of the war, and then worked for 22 years as a teacher who was always keen to see the best in his pupils and to get the best from them… The heritage in terms of the values he passed on was so valuable. That particular maxim stuck with me.
It is why every day I read online news from Spain and often from other EU countries in order to be able to judge the UK news from different angles. As I mentioned in John le Carré: traitor or patriot?: “Whenever there is a major event, it is fascinating to compare the treatment of it in our media with how it is treated in the Spanish media.”
Unfortunately, a major side-effect of the inter-dependence of our Brexit Government and most of the popular press is that most British readers are presented with a very one-sided view in which the EU and its members are invariably depicted as villainous, inferior, unreasonable, dishonest or whatever.
However, comparing the ‘same’ news stories in the UK and foreign press provides a very revealing ‘other’ perspective in which it very often transpires that the false picture given by the UK media is nothing more than propaganda designed to sweep unpalatable facts under the proverbial carpet, and to bolster the popularity of the government, as engineered by certain ‘puppet-master’ press barons.
Like many others, I find it extremely embarrassing to see a news-stand in Spain displaying the front pages of popular/populist UK rags with their often lurid, xenophobia-inducing headlines. In contrast, one can observe the relatively impartial attitude of the Spanish press when reporting events in the UK, relating the events but leaving readers to form their own judgements, rather than braying jingoistic nonsense on their front pages; not ‘bigging up’ their country with negative comparisons to other countries. To give an idea, here are translated extracts from a few recent articles:
13 March: Europa Press
This Spanish press agency reported the events on Clapham Common that very night:
“Politicians from across the British (political) spectrum have criticised the intervention of the security forces during the vigil for Sarah Everard, the young woman [allegedly] murdered by a policeman, in which there were clashes between demonstrators and police.”
The report goes on to say how, in spite of the decision to call the event off, hundreds of people gathered in Clapham Common in the south of London, even including the Duchess of Cambridge: “incluso la Catalina de Cambridge, esposa del príncipe heredero británico, Guillermo.” There is no comment as to whether or not she broke the law by attending, but her attendance is at least mentioned.
Later, the article reports on the reactions of various politicians:
Keir Starmer described as “deeply disturbing” the images published of policemen using force to carry off women who wanted to pay homage to Sarah Everard. “They should have been able to do so in peace. I share their anger and unease at the way this was managed”. Ed Davey criticised the “dreadful” police intervention which caused “damage and injuries”. “There are millions of women angry and upset at the terrible murder of Sarah Everard. The millions of acts of aggression which women suffer every day is the motive for this vigil”. By contrast, the Conservative MP Steve Baker criticised the “terrible” scene by saying: “It’s about time the lockdown law was changed, Boris Johnson”.
23 March: El Mundo
El Mundo had the lurid headline: “Las calles calientes de Boris Johnson” (“The hot streets of Boris Johnson”). The ingredients of this were listed as “Brexit, a polemical police bill, the lockdown and the death of Sarah Everard are inflaming the situation in the United Kingdom”. The article goes on: “To almost completely confine more than 65 million people for more than half a year has its consequences. The atmosphere in the United Kingdom, where they are also having to combat the social and economic impact of Brexit, has heated up in the last few weeks.”
23 March: El País
On the same day, El Paíscarried an article called: “La ley de seguridad de Boris Johnson agita las calles del Reino Unido” (“Boris Johnson’s security bill is stirring up UK streets.”).
“More than 700 academics and 150 associations are attacking the proposed bill. Demonstrations like the one in Bristol are putting the Government on their guard. The protestors against the 2021 Police, Crime and Sentencing and Courts Bill proposed by the Government of Boris Johnson have chosen a short, sharp effective slogan ‘Kill The Bill’ (Mata la ley). Human rights associations, academics and lawyers have questioned “the alarming level of control the State is giving itself over the right of freedom of assembly and protest”, and are asking for substantial parts of the law to be deleted.”
Note that El País describes the breadth and depth of opposition to the proposed bill, whilst in the UK this hardly got a mention other than simply that the bill has been temporarily shelved.
24 March: Página12
This article in the Argentinian paper Página12 describes Johnson’s dilemma: “One year after the first lockdown Boris Johnson finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Most of his party, the outbreak of violent demonstrations, the fatigue of the population and the economy are tugging him towards the exit from lockdown announced last month. The European third wave, the increase of infections in some areas of the UK and the scenarios projected by the epidemiologists are pushing him in the opposite direction.”
Página12 goes on to describe how in 2020 Johnson played down the pandemic right from the start: “The result was tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. Today he uses more cautious rhetoric, emphasising the dangers but still with an optimistic message: ‘The continent is experiencing a third wave. In this country we shouldn’t think we are free of risk. Experience shows us that when the pandemic strikes our neighbours it eventually washes up on our shores. I expect that we’ll feel the effect in due course.’ ”
22 March: El Diario
El Diario featured an article by Andrew Rawnsley (El Diario collaborates with the Guardian, for which Andrew Rawnsley writes):
“Una guerra de vacunas solo puede acabar en tragedia para el Reino Unido y la UE”.
(“A vaccine war can only end in tragedy for the UK and the EU”.)
“Why are there fewer vaccines in the EU than in the UK? For the UK to gloat over the EU’s problems with vaccinations would be absurd and short-sighted. If the EU were to apply restrictions it would be prejudicing itself because the production of vaccines depends on complex and global supply chains.”
What follows is the suggestion that the British Government has been as secretive about the level of vaccine supplies as it would be about the whereabouts of its nuclear submarines. The article goes on to say that the Health Secretary had to admit that the vaccination of people under 50 would be delayed; that the British Government’s ambitious vaccination programme would be compromised owing to production problems causing irregular supply.
As regards the awful anti-EU press coverage in the UK on the subject of the vaccination programmes on both sides of the English Channel, a couple of Spanish newspapers, in one case accompanied by a score chart, which we have updated here, revealed: “El Reino Unido no ha exportado ni un vial a la Unión Europea, mientras que a la inversa se han vendido más de 10 millones de dosis.” “The UK has not exported a single vial to the EU, whilst more than 10 million doses have been sold in the other direction.”
UK vaccine exports = 0; EU vaccine exports = 45 million (including 10 million to the UK)
Ros Atkins’s BBC report a couple of days ago sheds light on the true nature of the situation, a refreshing change for the BBC to be highlighting something so unpalatable to the government and much of the popular press. Then, as I was about to finish this article, this popped up: The Vaccine War on YouTube. The suggestion is that the vaccine war: “is just a tacky jingoistic tabloid misrepresentation of a highly complex global supply issue”.
21 FEBRUARY Expansion
“Boris Johnson ‘se vacuna’ contra los crecientes fallos del Brexit”, (“Boris Johnson vaccinates himself against the growing failures of Brexit”)
Expansion, the Spanish financial paper, carried this article back in February, but it serves to explain the government’s behaviour, and the way the ‘vaccine war’ is being portrayed in certain elements of the UK press as a diversionary tactic in the context of Brexit-induced problems: to maintain and boost anti-EU emotions, e.g. the Daily Express front page headline on 26 March:
“EU can’t stop us! We will all get jab by July”
So, Expansion explains that the “frantic pace of the vaccine programme deployed by Downing Street is eclipsing the constant political problems arising from Brexit.” Hence the desperate rush to get the AstraZeneca vaccine approved. Hence the trumpeting of “fantastic news” by Boris Johnson and the crowing about the “triumph of British science” by Matt Hancock: “It’s a gigantic story of British success.” Never mind the international nature of the team which developed the vaccine… But of course, says Expansion: “The (Brexit) divorce is presenting far more problems to the UK than to the EU.”
These problems, amply covered in other West Country Bylines articles, are then enumerated by Expansion, with the sub-title “Tormenta perfecta”, “Perfect storm”, followed by the detail of the tragic impact of Covid-19 in the UK which the government and elements of the press are seeking to sweep under the carpet of the vaccine programme.
As regards the ‘vaccine war’: “This battle is secondary to the much wider battle Johnson is really setting up, a media battle… the anti-Covid-19 vaccines are serving to immunize Johnson politically from other conflicts. Especially from the growing sensation in the UK that Brexit, his great boast when he came to power, is proving much more complex, harder and more negative than he expected.” Again, WCB has covered this in many recent articles.
However, Expansion then points out the risks involved in the vaccination policy: “Whilst the UK will have administered at least the first dose of the vaccine to all adults by the autumn (NB this has now been advanced), the World Health Organisation is asking for prudence and for the vaccine to be distributed in a just way throughout the world. Not just for humanitarian reasons, but also for economic reasons. It is no use immunising all of the UK if the rest of the world continues under the threat of the virus. Unless the UK isolates itself from the rest of the planet, contagion will continue to be a risk.”
That’s OK then. In the words of Jon Worth, who writes on EU affairs: “The European perspective of the UK is now that it’s a malevolent country on the EU’s fringe. A problem to be dealt with, not a relationship to be mended.” In the words of our Editor in Chief, Anthea Simmons: “We’ve exchanged frictionless trade for tradeless friction.” Now, the UK’s self-imposed isolation is being reinforced by its ‘vaccine selfishness’. Would it suit Brexit Britain to be an international pariah? Not so much shunned by the rest of the world as constructing a wall around itself. The phoney ‘vaccine war’, in the words of Pink Floyd: “All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall.”