One of my biggest bugbears about the way European issues are debated in this country is the way both politicians and the media deliberately avoid discussing the issues themselves, instead deflecting attention onto bogus stories which aim to make the EU look silly.
Nowhere is this kind of deflection more prominent than in the reporting of health and safety legislation. In 2002, when we considered ways to address the growing problem of occupational exposure to noise in places such as factories and airports, the Tories and the media had a choice between joining the debate as adults or inventing childish stories to shout from the sidelines. The adult option would have been to make a contribution, perhaps suggesting ways in which the huge problem of occupational deafness—the most common occupational disease in Europe—should be addressed. They could have debated what kind of industrial noise levels are considered safe for how long, and who should be responsible for ensuring that workers in more dangerous conditions are offered adequate protection.
But they didn’t. Instead, they went for the childish option. The Tories put about all kinds of ludicrous lies which were lapped up by the media, including the claim that bagpipes would be banned (Times
), clubbers would have to wear ear-plugs (News of the World
), football fans would have to keep their voices down (Sunday People
), and Beethoven symphonies could never be played in the EU again (Times again
). All of these were bare-faced and screamingly obvious fabrications, of course, but when the laughter had died down the fabrications had done what they were intended to do: reinforced anti-European prejudices and distracted attention from what was really a very serious debate.
Exactly the same thing happened two years later when we discussed what should be done about the frighteningly large mortality rate of workers falling off high scaffolding. Rather than making a grown-up contribution, the Tories dubbed the proposal ‘the ladders directive’—suggesting that Brussels would force manufacturers to emblazon warning messages at the top of ladders. And they even suggested, via the BBC
, that bureaucrats would have to scale mountains:
“A Euro MP claims new EU laws to prevent falls at work will mean UK mountain pursuit centres having to warn people that they are ‘high up’… Welsh Tory MEP Jonathan Evans said…’This is madness—most people know that when they climb a mountain they will be up high!’”
Same childish reaction; same damaging result.
Finally, we can thank The Sun
for the most recent example of health and safety issues being ridiculed rather than discussed:
“The EU has declared a crackpot war on busty barmaids – by trying to ban them from wearing low-cut tops. Po-faced penpushers have deemed it a HEALTH HAZARD for bar girls to show too much cleavage. And in a daft directive that will have drinkers choking on their pints, Brussels bureaucrats have ordered a cover-up.”
As ever, the European Commission
tried diligently to stem the tide:
“New EU rules on optical radiation, due to be voted on by ministers and MEPs (including those from the UK) in September 2005, do not tell people what they can wear, or ban low-cut tops or, heaven forbid, dirndls.
“They instead require bosses to assess the risk of skin and retina damage for employees who work in the sun all day. This is a pressing concern, given that in the UK alone there 69,000 new cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year. How the risk to employees will be assessed, and what measures should be taken if there is deemed to be one, will be decided at local level – in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive. Of course, bar managers can always use their common sense by handing out sun cream.”
But what made this particular euromyth extraordinary was the reaction of The Sun to being corrected. We all know not to expect an apology for such inventions — or the tabloid press would contain little else — but it takes a particular species of bare-faced cheek to try this one
“The Sun has saved Britain’s busty barmaids. EU killjoys have backed down over plans to make our girls cover up by banning low-cut tops. The Brussels bureaucrats surrendered in the face of The Sun’s double-barrelled attack... We vowed to give big-boobed barmaids all the support they would need to beat the ban. It was due to be rubber-stamped by the EU parliament next month under the Optical Radiation Directive.”
In other words, The Sun is taking credit for forcing the Commission to “back down” over something that was never in the pipeline in the first place! Now that tactic really is
straight out of the junior school playground.