Richard North, 10/02/2020  

Adam Boulton, he of Sky News, has taken to The Sunday Times to complain that No.10 "is trying to control the media". Everyone in our democracy, he says, "should be afraid".

The thrust of his thesis is that in Westminster and Washington, relations between the government and journalists are at their lowest ebb. "Routine lines of communication", he claims, "have been severed as political leaders use the electronic media to get their message out directly, bypassing the traditional mediators in print and on the airwaves".

Boulton calls in aid the "stand-off" in No.10 last week when some journalists were excluded from a planned briefing, triggering a walk-out of the entire media corps. And this matters, in his view, because people "are increasingly missing out on the information they need to function as independent citizens in a democratic society".

Instead, Boulton argues, "they are being manipulated by elected governments anxious to avoid being held to account by any outside force, be it parliament, the judiciary or the media".

At stake, he asserts, "is whether the government should deny the public the facts and background to the decisions it takes". Information which should be available on the record, and of a type which was briefed freely in the past, he says, "is now being handed out as a favour to selected journalists in the expectation of favourable coverage".

Taking the Boulton thesis at face value, however, it would seem that his real concern is that the media collective is losing its monopoly over political information, weakening their ability to dictate the agenda. Effectively, they are no longer able to control the information that people receive, with the same facility that they have historically enjoyed.

In this age of the internet, smart phones and 24-hour news cycle, no one can seriously complain that people are "missing out on information", whether it is to function as independent citizens in a democratic society, or for other purposes.

The problem is exactly the other way round. We are saturated with information, coming at us from all angles, at a speed and volume which is beyond the capability of anyone to absorb and process in a coherent fashion.

With that, therefore, while the media continues in its traditional role of content providers, our needs have changed significantly. What we really need is a trustworthy sorting and filtering process, with guides who can prioritise, analyse and explain.

To a limited extent, the media does fulfil that role – or tries to – even if its primary role is to add to the noise level. Where it does seek to guide, this is often done so badly that it has little real value, leaving people no better off.

This, of course, doesn't just apply to the major national news providers but includes the range of specialist magazines such as the Economist, which inform the debate and provide material which filters through into the popular media.

With that in mind, I was much taken by a recent article in that venerable journal, but not at all in a good way when it sought to review Anu Bradford's recent writings on the "Brussels effect".

What brings her work into focus is that she has just published a book of that name – with a publication date of 27 February. It is not yet possible for me to fully explore that work, but the Amazon "see inside" facility allows limited sight of the content. And, although the work undoubtedly has merit, it appears to suffer from some of the same flaws demonstrated in her earlier paper on the same subject.

And that is one of the first points one can make. Bradford's paper was first published in 2013. I reviewed it two years later, as part of my ongoing dialogue on the nature of the EU and its regulation, but here we are five years later and only now is the media beginning to take note of a thesis which, at its most basic, is already seven years old.

However, it isn't only the Economist which is late to the table. The Financial Times has also reviewed the book, with Alan Beattie telling us that the Brussels effect "has dominated global economic regulation to an under-appreciated extent", whence he asserts that the book "will be the definitive reference guide for those wishing to understand".

The greatest weakness of Bradford's thesis, though, is that she vastly under-rates the effect of regional and global standards-setters, to which Brussels increasingly either defers to or outsources its activities. In her entire book, for instance, there is only one reference to UNECE, and that in respect of motor vehicle regulation. There is no reference to the extensive standard-setting regime on fruits and vegetables, jointly in the hands of UNECE and the OECD.

In terms of the growing and increasingly important body of environmental regulation, one of the more important laws adopted by the EU was the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, the so-called Aarhus Convention, which was brokered entirely by UNECE. Yet Bradford does not see fit to mention this.

Nor is there any mention of the Vienna & Dresden Agreements, setting out cooperation arrangements between CEN and CENELEC and the International Standardization Organization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). Under the agreements, new international projects automatically also become European standardisation projects.

In the area of financial services regulation, Bradford does at least mention the Basel Committee, but her reach does not extend to any evaluation of the role of the FSB and its G20 sponsor, or the role of the OECD.

Neither do we see any evaluation of the EU's use of new generation treaties to extend its reach into the global standard-setting domain, sacrificing its monopoly power of initiation for a wider scope which embraces its major trading partners.

In fact, Bradford will have it that globalisation is under threat, arguing that the EU's "market-driven unilateralism" is creating a "greater regulatory vacuum for the de facto Brussels effect". This, she says, is replacing "treaty-driven multilateral negotiations".

Effectively, Bradford is about ten years behind the curve, not having taken on board the EU's policy change in its 2006 Global Europe: Competing in the World document.

Yet, as we can already see, as far as the media is concerned, Bradford is cutting edge, leading the field in the study of Brussels regulation. In the weeks and months to come, we will most likely see her work percolating into the popular media, attracting "knowing" commentary and much approbation.

But if that becomes the state of the art, it leaves the public ill-equipped to understand the policy background framing the Johnson administration's attempts to secure a trade deal with the EU. Without any intervention from No.10, the public will be "missing out on information", simply because the media isn't up to the job.

And there really does lie the problem. As the information society has expanded, the media simply hasn't kept pace. It lacks the expertise and the patience to understand the news it is reporting, and is incapable of expressing complex issues in a comprehensible form.

It is much easier, therefore, for the likes of Boulton to complain about witless journos being excluded from No.10 briefings. No doubt, he would extend his complaints to the publication of daily Hansard and the televising of the House of Commons debates, instead of leaving the media to report what is going on.

But what would be a real boost to democracy would be if No.10 actually published its briefings on its website, instead of restricting them to a privileged few, who then use their access to set their own agendas.

As far as the media goes, if it is to survive the 21st Century, it needs to up its game. But, in an environment where members of public often have more expertise, and similar access to core information and studies, it will have its work cut out to demonstrate its relevance.

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