Dr Richard North of EU Referendum, who together with Christopher Booker has spent the best part of 20 years railing against the creeping coup d'état from Brussels, has signalled his readiness to raise the white flag. It's over, he thinks.
Euroscepticism is dead. It is not official yet, and the putative corpse is still breathing. If it was a human being, it would be on life support, showing no brain activity. The relatives would be gathering round, discussing when to switch off the machine and whether any of its organs could be suitable for donation.
North hasn't yet explained the full reasons for his pessimism, though the apparent enthusiasm shown for the EU by big business seems to be high on his list of suspects. In a democracy, however, that should not in itself spell doom for an ambition - repatriating power from international bureaucrats to local voters - that enjoys widespread public support. More pertinent, I would suggest, is is the abstract nature of much of the argument.
The EU project - which, whatever one thinks of it, involves the wholesale transfer of power from elected politicians (in other words, the voters) to supranational bureaucrats and regulators - is one of the biggest and most important stories of our age. But it doesn't (except where there's a "shock" referendum result somewhere) produce big headlines. By contrast, the looming energy crisis, which is an even bigger story, is capable of punching its weight, journalistically speaking. That's because a sudden increase in fuel prices hits people where it hurts, millions of them and all at once. A spike in the cost of fuel has more immediacy than a Brussels directive could ever have, even if one allows for the fact that most are in any case disguised as secondary legislation and "laid before Parliament", as the jargon quite accurately has it.
Over the years North, Booker and other anti-EU campaigners have reported meticulously on the (sometimes unintended) consequences for small businesspeople of various Brussels diktats. But while such items are often reported, and occasionally attract press interest, the response rarely goes beyond a resigned shrug or passing irritation. They tend to be filed under "bureaucracy gone mad", along with non-EU stories such as the woman who got into trouble for sticking up a poster of a missing cat.
Lacking a truly momentous disaster that can unambiguously be blamed on the EU, a slow drip-drip of items hardly disturbs the surface temperature of national debate. There is, I think, a settled dislike of "Brussels interference" on the part of most British people, but this is coupled with a sense of helplessness and inevitability, above all a feeling that there is no real alternative. A referendum on the Lisbon treaty would, for a while, have galvanised debate on the European issue; but its absence, despite being a blatant betrayal of the promise contained in Labour's election manifesto, has not generated the sustained outrage that would be necessary to turn it into a defining issue. Instead, the government's miscalculation in the matter of the 10p tax rate, a piece of political clumsiness quickly and easily put right, has become, oddly, the hinge around which the story of this government's collapse will turn, just as the 1992 ERM debacle (a much more profound economic and political event) was for John Major's.
There tends, in fact, to be remarkably little correlation between the importance of a news story and its impact on the mediated public consciousness. Or, if there is such a correlation, it tends to be a negative one. Looking back, stories notable for their irrelevance and triviality stand out in the memory far more than the important, but boring ones. Edwina Currie's "gaffe" about egg-production being infected with salmonella is remembered by many who forget that what she said was entirely true. The Duchess of York's toe-sucking exploit in the south of France was huge news at the time, bigger even than Britney's haircut (and imagined to be an issue of great national importance). People who forget Tony Blair's war lies and were never interested in his wholesale constitutional vandalism nevertheless have a corner in their brains reserved for Cherie's shopping trips.
In the current US election we can see this tendency everywhere. In the intense attention paid to the largely irrelevant sermonising of the Rev Jeremiah Wright, for example. Or, more recently, Hillary Clinton's supposed gaffe about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. This last incident has attracted far more attention than the more significant story of how the Clinton campaign is now so cash-starved that Hillary has been leaving a trail of unpaid bills. But it's worth looking at in some detail. Her rather strange remark, when asked why she was still in the race, came out as follows:
My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.
Talk about putting your foot in your mouth. Hillary's rapidly took on the appearance of Imelda Marcos's wardrobe. What she was trying to say, presumably, was that many nomination contests go down to the wire. What went round the world, by contrast, was the notion that she's hoping that someone shoots Barack Obama in time for her to claim the nomination. Perhaps there's a deep part of her ferociously ambitious brain that does indeed think along those lines. After all, it could happen. Some of the blogosphere chatter about Obama being some sort of Al-Qaeda plant is sufficiently deranged to set off some random nut-job. I'm not too holier-than-thou to imagine that she's unworthy of public office merely for having contemplated such a scenario. (Unlike, for example, Emily Yoffe, who accused Hillary of "calling forth the forces of madness to give her the presidency".) But why did an offhand, trivial remark, immediately withdrawn, become the major story of the campaign?
An interesting perspective from the sharp end of online news coverage comes from John F Harris of the US site Politicos. "The signature defect of modern political journalism is that it has shredded the ideal of proportionality," he complains. In the Internet age, this tendency has been greatly exaggerated, thinks Harris, because the importance of a story is measured in terms of clicks and inbound links. The result is predictable and, in an informed democracy, probably disastrous:
Important stories, sometimes the product of months of serious reporting, that in an earlier era would have captured the attention of the entire political-media community and even redirected the course of a presidential campaign, these days can disappear with barely a whisper.
Trivial stories — the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top — can dominate the campaign narrative for days.
Hillary's gaffe was "an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child — overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience." And he should know:
On Friday afternoon, I heard my colleague, Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, bellow in excitement as he called me over to his desk.
Martin was furiously typing away, not looking up as he told me the latest: Clinton had given an interview to the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota in which she answered inquiries into why she is staying in the race by citing the fact that it’s only May, and RFK had been shot and killed in June.
Here is what I was thinking: Wow. Maybe she has come unhinged? It’s not as though such macabre thoughts have never occurred to me, but for Clinton to give public voice to such a scenario is bizarre. This is going to be a big story and is almost certainly going to shadow and quite likely accelerate the final chapter of her presidential campaign.
Here is what I said: Martin, quick get that item up!
He needed no prompting.
Politicos is a fairly new, entirely net-based operation. But the venerable New York Times was even more alacritous in putting the word out.
Harris found it "a deflating experience" to watch the quote in context, where it appeared far less outrageous, if still ill-judged.
Make no mistake. Clinton stepped on a rake with her comment and got bopped in the face. This was entertaining political slapstick, for those of us who like that kind of thing. Little wonder she apologized.
But Clinton’s clumsiness does not excuse news media clumsiness in making a minor story seem like a major one. A note on the randomness of the news: If this really was a big story, then the media has blown it for months. Clinton made similar remarks to Time magazine back in March.
Maybe it's having a British perspective that makes me less rosy-tinted than Harris when it comes to journalism past. "Once, the elite papers and network news set the agenda, and others followed suit, following up on what these establishment pillars deemed important," he claims. "Now it’s just the opposite. The conservative old voices increasingly take their cues from the newer, more daring ones." I can't remember such a time. At least over here, political journalism has always been more about personalities than about issues, because politics is a soap opera. As Andrew Marr put it, with refreshing honesty, in his book My Trade,
Political stories, like politics, are about power. They are about who has it, who is trying to get it, who's losing it and who is fighting for it. In every human society that has left a record, power is an obsessive, fixating cultural magnet. The personality of the prince, the plotting of the courtiers, the plumage of the priests, the errant phallus of the president... without stories of human power, nine-tenths of history and much of art and literature would be void.
This fact of human nature leaves a dangerous vacuum at the heart of political reporting, and the Eurosceptic campaign would seem to have been sucked into it. For politicians, getting and retaining power is what counts; the policies are often secondary. And to argue for serious reform of the EU institutions is, even in the Conservative party, potentially career-destroying, as the likes of John Redwood long ago discovered. Career politics undoubtedly takes place in the deepest recesses of the EU where so much of our lives is unaccountably determined. The lobbying, the bad accounting, the secrecy ought to be higher up the news agenda; but Brussels (or the WTO, for that matter) lacks the theatrical quality of the sideshow of national democratic politics. That's where the fun is, and that's where the gaffes are. And in that under-reported world the continual advance of the EU machinery goes without question.
You can blame the media for not giving the subject enough coverage, or politicians for not being quite straightforward with the people about the source of most of our laws, or even the people for not knowing, or caring, enough about the intricacies of European bureaucracy. But it's probably inevitable. The voting system of the EU is no more impenetrable or opaque than that of the Eurovision Song Contest. But it is considerably less eye-catching, and therefore more difficult to get really upset about.