The Big Day

So finally, here we are. After a long and brutal campaign, the UK votes on whether it wants to remain a member of the European Union or not. Polling stations are open from 7 AM in the morning until 10 PM at night. Unfortunately for journalists like me, there won’t be any exit polls during the day, the BBC is prohibited from reporting on the potential outcome whilst polling booths are still open. “Otherwise, this could be seen as a means for trying to influence the outcome”, a BBC producer told me on Wednesday when I came in for a short live on World News.

For many journalists, referendum day itself will be quiet. I will finish two pieces for Friday just in case and set up some last minute interviews. And then, it’s just waiting, speaking to colleagues, and maybe saying a prayer. According to the weather forecast, Thursday will see a lot of rain, especially in the morning and early afternoon. That might keep some voters from making the move to the polling station, a fact that could potentially help the Leave-side, given that they are said to be much more enthusiastic about their course than the Remain-side.

It will take a while until we get a sense of direction. Markets are not expected to move too much (or sideways) on Thursday. That might change from around 1 AM onwards. According to the Independent, Newcastle and Sunderland will be amongst the first results to declare. Both are strong Labour areas so they could provide a clue as to whether Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in convincing his party to vote Remain. At 1:30 AM, Stirling, the first big Scottish city, is set to declare. In case there is no big win for Remain, the country might be heading for Brexit. At 2 AM, Oxford and Basildon are announced, followed by Hammersmith and Eurosceptic Torbay at 3 AM. An hour later, it’s Birmingham’s turn. Until 7 AM, there will be more and more results coming in. At 7 AM, the Electoral Commission expects the final four results.

By then, I should be able to observe how markets react to the outcome of the referendum. For many traders and money managers, it will be a long night. Banks have prepared by calling people in for different parts of the night, hedging risky investments and creating back stops. Some traders have already told me that they will  be doing an “all-nighter”, a phenomenon normally limited to the world of investment banking. “I will stay all night”, a senior trader said to me on Wednesday, “until noon, when I’ll go home to crash into bed.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s going be interesting. Let’s see what time I get to sleep on Friday.

Readers and the Referendum

In distant memory, there was a time when readers were unknown beings. They bought your paper, watched your shows. Some of them wrote to the editor, but unless you were the poor soul solely responsible for the readers’ letters, you rarely caught a glimpse of what they thought, liked or disliked.

But this was not meant to stay. With ReaderScan, newspaper editors got an introduction into what kind of stories their readers read, where they started reading a story, where they exited a story. Core to all this was a laser pen which traced the reading pattern of the reader and made it comparable to other readers and readers of other papers. I remember quite clearly that in 2005, when I interned at Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger, a local paper in Germany’s fourth largest city Cologne, there was a lot of excitement around ReaderScan and the ability to better understand, and, ideally, also better serve your readers, based on what you learned with the help of the laser pen.

The advance of the internet has exceeded our expactations by far. Not only can we now easily tell how much a story is being read, shared, liked and forwarded, we can also see where people enter a text and exit, whether a headline works or not, who tends to comment on what and also how long people tend to continue reading (something around three minutes is considered “good” these days). This has helped media outlets a lot in providing the content that people are interested in. One of the downsides though is that many editors tend to focus only on stories that they know will click well. A whole lot of what we would have reported on in the past – in our capacity as chronologists and gate-keepers – has now become obsolete.

Still, I welcome the increase of knowledge that we have had, thanks to the web, Google analytics and other tracking tools. I also like that I am much closer to my readers now, that I know what they like and what not, that they send me messages on Twitter and Facebook, that they inform me in case I make a mistake. But – and this is key – the age of traceability and instant communication with your readers has also led to a lot of dissappointment on my side.

I am referring to those emails and tweets that start without a salutation but go straight to the point, exclaiming “Lügenpresse”, a term initially used in the Third Reich in order to defame journalists. These days, Lügenpresse (lying press/mendacious press) refers to everything with which readers disagree, whether it is the migration crisis, the financial state of Greece, the Euro or the impact that a Brexit would have on the British economy.

During the last three years, I have observed a strong increase of these written notes that not only disagree with a text that journalists have written but go on with insulting the author, discrediting their journalistic capabilities and skills. Often times, the verdict is clear: You, the author of a text that was written following strict journalistic standards (btw, a text that was published in a reputable national news outlet), are just a pen pusher, a scribbler, someone that deserves to be abused.

I have received a number of these emails and still, it hits me when one of these arrives in my inbox, not in my spam folder where it belongs. Monday was one of these mornings again. “Dear Ms. Trentmann”, the email read, “we regret to conclude that your credibility has now been used up.” The text went on, stating I was pretending to be a fact-checking journalist that failed to attribute more space to those entirely credible arguments that the Leave-side is known for.

I am not entirely sure what the reader was referring to. Maybe to one of the economic arguments according to which a Brexit would not hurt the British economy although almost every reputable institution in the world has said so? Or to one of the immigration arguments according to which there was “good”, e.g. German and French, immigration, in the EU, and “bad” immigration, e.g. Polish and Slovakian, immigration, leaving aside important findings such as those of the International Longevity Centre (ILC), a reputable British think tank, according to which the claim that Brits and European immigrants compete for the same jobs, is false? Or maybe another Leave-argument, perhaps the one about the UK sending 350 million pounds to Brussels per week?

Obviously, the friendly reader drew the only possible conclusion: That my reporting of the British EU-Referendum was hugely biased. It seems my thoughtful reader has missed some of my stories – I did investigate some of the arguments made by the Leave-side. But that’s not the point. The point is that journalists, like me, observe an ever-increasing amount of insults, provided by our readers that of course, know it all. Not just me, but also a lot of other colleagues find that quite distressing. Some of my colleagues at DIE WELT have published their favourite reader’s comments on Facebook and Twitter. Not that this would change anything. But of course it’s good to know that I am not the only one receiving these emails.

To me, this is not only a sign of the deterioration of manners when interacting with strangers. Of course, the internet provides a great shield for all those that would never have the courage to swear at you in public. But, it is also hinting at a bigger problem that Western societies face. The perceived lack of credibility of governments, central banks, international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, journalists and politicains. Often times, public anger and aggression do not stop with emails, as we have seen last week, when Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was shot in her constituency in West Yorkshire.

I think that this tendency is deeply worrying. By categorically declaring that governments, journalists, central banks or politicians are untrustworthy, we undermine the very foundations that our Western democracies rest on.

Reporting the Attack on Jo Cox

For some time, I have not only been working with DIE WELT, the German newspaper, but I have also been working for N24, the national news channel that our holding company Axel Springer bought in December 2013. Mergers are never easy and so it has taken a while for the integration of DIE WELT and N24 to make some progress.

In Berlin, they are currently working on a new, joint website. My colleagues at DIE WELT often times comment on trending developments not only for our print and online edition, but also for N24. On Thursday, I received further proof that the integration has entered a new stage and that we are getting closer to becoming a truly multimedia outlet that provides content for all channels – print, online, mobile and TV. Unfortunately, it was a very sad incident that provided that insight.

Just after 4 PM in the afternoon, I was on the phone with an interview partner, when a colleague from N24 called and asked whether I could do a live on the attack on Labour MP Jo Cox? I hadn’t followed the story and had to get myself prepared within a very short amount of time. Some fifteen minutes later, the first live started. I answered the most pressing questions and thought I was done. But no. The phone rang again and again. In the end, I did five lives for N24 – an indication that the merger between WELT and N24 is not only working in Germany but also abroad.

The incident itself is really shocking. Apparently, Jo Cox, a 41-year old mother of two, was stabbed and shot when she interfered in a scuffle in her constituency in West Yorkshire. A 52-year old man shot her several times, reportedly at least once close to the face. According to witnesses, he shouted “Britain first” before that. Cox was known to be an ardent supporter of Britain’s continued membership in the EU. Only on Wednesday, she took part in a boat demonstration on the Thames, waving a flag for Remain.

At this point, we don’t know whether the attack was politically motivated or not and whether there is any connection to the upcoming EU-referendum. Both sides, the Leave- and the Remain side, cancelled their campaigning for the rest of the day. Also on Friday and Saturday, there will be no campaigning for the EU-referendum. Leading politicians, including David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, have taken to Twitter to utter their condolences and their sympathies for Cox’s family.

With only seven days to go, reporting the referendum is obviously getting much more difficult. It will be easy to draw the wrong conclusions after this incident. Let’s hope that journalists do their job properly and check the facts before they report.

 

Britain and the Eurozone

We are now in the final strides in the run-up to the EU referendum. No surprise that the debate gets ever more heated, more vitriolic and more off-topic. I, of course, know that the British debate around the EU does not circle just around the British membership of the EU, but also around the overall state of the EU and the question where the confederation of states will head to in the future. Thus, it is not with great surprise there are things coming up that have something to do with Europe, yes, but not with the British membership of the EU. Nevertheless, they are mentioned as arguments against the continuation of the British EU membership.

One of these arguments is that it is just a matter of days, months or years until the Euro, the currency that 19 member states share, will collapse, no doubt about it. Europe, the Leave campaign argues, is about to go down in a sea of debts and deficits, taking the common currency with it. Should it survive a little longer, the costs for the upkeep of the EU will inevitably rise, the Leave-side claims, leading to higher financial obligations for the UK.

Prior to that, we were told that the UK would have to contribute to further bail-out programs, should Euro-countries such as Greece need some extra cash – although Prime Minister Cameron 2011 made sure that the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) would not continue to provide funding for needy Euro-countries. According to that deal, only the 19 Euro-countries are expected to account for their currency partners’ debts and deficits.

This was again confirmed in the EU-UK agreeement that David Cameron negotiated in February. “Emergency and crisis measures designed to safeguard the financial stability of the Euro area will not entail budgetary responsibility for Member States whose currency is not the Euro, or, as the case may be, for those not participating in the banking union”, the the final document read. Still, the Leave-side claims that Britain will have to pay more, should it stay a member of the European Union, both into the budget but also in case of future financial crises in the Eurozone.

I do admit that the EU is currently not in its best possible shape. There are the structural challenges of the currency, the high levels of public debt, the need for structural reform and more competitiveness. The Euro-crisis, the Greek debt crisis and the refugee crisis are just three of the crises that have devastated trust in the EU and its institutions. And yes, I do acknowledge that it’s not going to be an easy ride for Britain, was it to remain a member of the European Union.

Due to the shared currency in the majority of EU states, there will inevitably be a move towards more, not less integration. In order for Europe to keep its currency working, there is a need for more fiscal alignment, more coordination and more oversight by European regulatory bodies. I am not sure whether this necessarily leads to a fiscal and political union, as Wolfgang Munchau commented in Monday’s Financial Times.

“My conclusion is that there is no way around a political and fiscal union in the long run, even if the idea is growing less fashionable. Without it, I see no counterweight to a rise in German power in the Eurozone and no end to the rise in intra-Eurozone imbalances”, Munchau wrote. But, to some degree, I agree – there is strong case for more fiscal and political integration, do we want to improve the functioning of the Euro.

Of course, this does not sound great to British ears. Many Brits still cherish the fact that their country did not join the Eurozone but instead kept the Pound Sterling. I sometimes hear comments like “Look at the Euro – it’s obvious that we are standing on the right side of history” and “Thank god, we did not introduce the Euro”. Much can be said about the structural problems of the EU. And yes, I understand that Britain has the fear of being minimised in a Euro-dominated EU. There is a legitimate point to be made here – what role can the UK play, was it to stay, in a European Union that becomes more, not less unified, a direction of travel that the UK has resisted before?  This needs careful thinking and an open debate.

Nevertheless, one should not forget that there are eight other countries that are part of the EU but that don’t use the Euro. Let’s not pretend as if the UK was the only country that had this issue. Often times, there is a second reason why Brexit supporters mention the Euro. They claim that in a short while, we will see the whole project implode. This is the only route that Leave-supporters see the Eurozone taking and with it the EU. To me, this argument stems from a lack of perspective and understanding.

Even if there are deficiences in the Euro, support for the common currency in Germany for example stays strong. This does not only refer to public support but also to political support. Giving away the Deutsche Mark was a long and painful process for Germany. Do Brexiteers really think that Germany and other Euro-countries would let the Euro fail, now that so much money, time and effort has been spent on trying to improve its functioning? The fact that it has its difficulties is a strong motivation to get it fixed, not to dismantle the whole project and get back to the Mark, the Franc and the Lira.

This to me is another example of the difference between what continental Europeans tend to think and what many British people think. Even though the commonly shared currency makes it impossible for weaker economies to just devalue their currencies and thus regain competitiveness, none of the existing Euro-countries wants to get rid of the currency. Even Greece, at the brink of bankruptcy, was desperate last year to remain a member of the currency block. Thus, I find it funny that one of the arguments that people bring forward when proposing Brexit is the state of the Eurozone. Britain is not part of the Eurozone and will probably never become one.

The point is similar to many of the other arguments we hear from Vote Leave – that for example Turkey would become a member of the European Union fairly soon and that 75 million turks would then be entitled to work in the Schengen area. This is, to put it midly, not the most realistic thing to happen. Germany, especially the CSU – the CDU’s sister party in Southern Germany – does have strong objections against a Turkish membership in the EU and has done so for the last 30 years.

The turn that the country has taken under Premier Erdogan during the last year makes it ever more unlikely that this was to change quickly. Thus, I know at least one strong voice – not the least influential one – against it. By the way, France, a second core member of the EU, also objects to a Turkish accession to the EU.

I am mentioning this to underline the fact that the British EU-debate has unfortunately moved away from the initial subject matter. Instead of debating the advantages and disadvantages of the membership of the European Union, politicians, advocates and journalists instead discuss all sorts of maybes, “could-bes” and “would-bes”, without any of them having a crystal ball. With June 23rd approaching fast, this will only get worse.

It would sometimes be good for Brits to ask fellow Europeans for insight when discussing core European topics. There is not just a British view on all things European.