As you know, I try to keep this column light. It has more air in it than a Delia meringue and less substance than one of Charlie Sheen’s dinner parties these days. If it’s serious content you crave, there are scores of well-informed columnists out there. If it’s well-informed commentary you’re after, I think you can do no better than Dan Maskell, though perhaps that dates me. In this very publication you’ll find a more serious tone in the listings for Comedy Central than you will here.
So it’s with a heavy heart that I talk this week about something heavy.
The EU referendum is coming. We’re told it’s the most important decision we’ll have to make since deciding whether to watch something tonight on Comedy Central. The campaigns seem to have been running for ever, and there’s now just a week to go.
So why are PM listeners still writing to us in droves asking questions that don’t appear to get answered by the campaigns?
A while back, as a public service, we devoted a few minutes of PM each night for a week to answering our listeners’ EU-related questions.
Our assistant political editor Norman Smith and our Europe correspondent Chris Morris kindly agreed to answer the questions.
We get a lot of emails at PM. Usually if we talk about something on air our inbox pings delightfully for a few minutes, and then quietens down. On this topic, however, the emails have never stopped arriving. Day and night they come. Over the weekend, unprompted, earnest enquiries arrive from real people who want real answers to their real questions. We had so many unanswered questions after the original weeklong run ended, we brought Norman and Chris back for a second week. And then a third. Then a fourth…
The questions seem a world away from what the campaigns are talking about. Here’s just a tiny sample:
Have any countries, trading blocs or other such entities publicly stated they’re in favour of Britain leaving the EU and that they have specific plans to increase their trade with Britain if it did? How many people does the EU employ and what is their average salary? Regarding the European Arrest Warrant: how many UK citizens have been arrested and extradited to other EU states compared with citizens of other EU states extradited to the UK?
What’s the difference between the European Union, the European Commission and the European Council? Would we need new car number plates without the EU flag? I get eBay parcels from all over the EU, for reasonable postage, and with no customs charges or delays. When I buy from Japan or the USA, I get whacked heavily for customs and handling costs, and there are delays of up to a month while the package is checked. If we leave the EU, will all my parcels be like this?
They’re good questions, right? And we’re happy to do our bit trying to answer them: it’s part of our public service role, I suppose.
But if voters need to turn to us to answer such basic interesting questions, aren’t there more searching questions to be asked of all of us in the media about our reporting – and of the campaigns themselves?