Richard North, 18/02/2020  

The UK media treatment of Le Drian's speech can only reinforce the long-held conclusion that, when it comes to reporting EU issues, the entire fourth estate is completely unreliable.

But it took one of our commenters to point out that Le Drian's declaration had been completely mistranslated, initially by the Financial Times, which was the first to report that the French minister had warned that the "UK-EU will 'rip each other apart'".

What Le Drian had originally said is:
Je pense que sur les questions commerciales ou sur le dispositif de relations futures, que l'on va engager, on va s'étriper pas mal. Mais ça fait partie de la négociation, chacun va défendre ses intérêts.
The literal translation of s'étriper is indeed rather bloodthirsty – it means to gut or eviscerate, so even to assert that it entails "ripping apart" is a bit wide of the mark. But the crucial issue is that Le Drian was using colloquial French, where the slang term is merely a familiar way of describing a heated exchange, or tough negotiation.

As one of my e-mail correspondents remarks, in English we commonly use colloquial phrases that are very distant from their literal meanings, as in, "I could murder a pint", or "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse", or even "You'll be the death of me".

Thus, a proper translation of Le Drian's comments might be something like:
I think that about trade questions, or about future relations framework, which we are going to start debating, we're going to have rather tough discussions. But it's part of the negotiation, everybody is defending his interests.
This is a very far cry from any "bloodbath" and only the faulty translation could allow such a lurid impression to survive yet, without exception, all the media sources which ran the story repeated the "rip each other apart" phrasing.

This included the Telegraph which finally posted its report at 3.35am yesterday, with the headline: "Britain and EU will 'rip each other apart' in trade talks, says French foreign minister".

Then the BBC, albeit under a more restrained headline of "France warns UK of bitter trade negotiations", managed to assert that "Le Drian predicted the two sides would 'rip each other apart' as they strove for advantage in the negotiations".

I feel annoyed with myself for not checking the French language reports before I wrote my own story, although it takes a native French speaker (or someone with far better French than mine) to spot the error. Google translate, for instance, when given "on va s'étriper pas mal" to work with, offers: "we're gonna get pretty drunk" – which I'm sure wasn't what Le Drian meant to say.

However, another of my correspondents suggests that the pas mal tacked on to the on va s'étriper indicates a certain jocularity. He also observes that the Trésor de la Langue Française gives us another figurative meaning of s'étriper. It can be taken to mean "to exhaust oneself in finishing a task", perhaps - as my correspondent says - an equally appropriate (but totally improbable) meaning in our context.

That notwithstanding, one example of the French language media translated into: "The Minister of Foreign Affairs said he expected tense discussions with the British, particularly on trade matters", which seems to be a pretty accurate rendition of what he meant – even if the machine translator falls apart once you get further into the story.

At issue here is a matter of trust. No ordinary person can be faulted for failing to understand the precise nuances of a foreign language, but the national media – and especially the BBC - have no excuse. With their resources, they could and should make the effort to check speeches of foreign politicians with a native speaker or a proper translator.

And when it comes to the likes of the Express, which then turns a miss-translation into the lurid "EU threat of Brexit bloodbath", this is so beyond the pale that the publication has no right to call itself a newspaper – but we knew that already.

Recalling recently that RTÉ News was claiming that the ECJ had direct jurisdiction over the UK, in the enforcement of the Irish Protocol, we cannot even look across the Irish Sea for any better reporting or analysis. The media has most definitely made itself part of the problem.

Currently, for want of an official copy of the transcript (now provided), we're having to rely on diverse media reports of the awaited speech by David Frost, UK's chief Brexit negotiator.

He has been speaking at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in front of a selected audience and, if we are to believe media reports, his main line is that the whole 'point' of Brexit is undermined if the UK continues to follow EU rules, where the freedom to diverge from EU rules was the "point of the whole project" of Brexit.

That, at least, is the "take" of the highly untrustworthy Telegraph, with similar renditions from other sources. But, given the tendency of the media to "hunt as a pack", and its coprophagic tendencies, even if the entire UK media came up with largely identical reports, that is no guarantee of fidelity – as we have just seen with Le Drian.

Even then, if we can get past the venality of the media, one has to confront the incompetence or mendacity (or both) of the UK government. Can it really be the case that Frost honestly believes that he can conclude a comprehensive (or any) trade deal with the EU without conceding conformity with key flanking policies?

Yet, Frost is reported as asserting that the EU's demands would compromise Britain's sovereign order, making them "unsustainable and undemocratic". The only way forward, he says, is to accept that FTAs are the most appropriate relationship for sovereign entities, and to build on this approach of "a relationship of equals".

The most obvious interpretation of this is that Frost is using the media to stake out the UK's negotiating position, especially as he is insisting that: "It isn't a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure - it is the point of the whole project". Nothing is true in politics until it has been denied.

In reporting Frost's speech, however, both the Telegraph and Sky News repeat Le Drian's misquoted comments, demonstrating that once it has become part of a narrative, an error will be repeated endlessly, without the slightest effort to confirm its veracity. Soon enough, the "first draft of history" will become locked in to become the unalterable "truth".

But even if the Frost speech is accurately reported, it is still pervaded by an air of unreality. With less than ten months for negotiations, HMG is still talking about a Canada-style deal – a treaty which, from door to door, took eight years to conclude.

We need to be reminded, therefore, that even if he is accurately reported, it doesn't really matter what Frost says. Actions speak louder than words and if the Johnson administration is intent on carving out a "sovereign path", then the UK is going to get very little more than a "bare bones" treaty – if anything.

To indicate that this is a serious speech, with a serious intent, is itself a distortion. As it stands, it would be more productive (and honest) for Frost to bay at the moon (C'est vouloir prendre la lune avec les dents, as I am told). Then, at least, the media might get the narrative right.

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