Matters European fail to hit the headlines in English-language publications, says Peter Wilsher.
Telecommunications is arguably Europe's hottest growth industry. Everybody, it seems, wants to exchange data, specifications, contractual information and casual chit-chat in ever-increasing quantities - but only as long as the process is electronic and more or less on-line. The poor old written word has been sadly left behind. All that brouhaha over Maastricht, single markets and general togetherness has given the pan-Continental print media virtually no boost at all.
The last time I looked at this sector, about four years ago, there were perhaps five publications to which the English-speaking businessperson could realistically look for an up-to-date, sophisticated analysis of the developments in which he or she was likely to be interested. The list is essentially unchanged today.
The Financial Times was, and remains, conscientious and thorough in its Continental reporting, but even its own editorialists would probably admit, under pressure, a little dull. No significant merger, appointment, result or market initiative is likely to escape its all-seeing eye, but the way it writes about them is unlikely to provide much in the way of unexpected revelation.
The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, which now formally includes the word 'Europe' in the title of the edition we see here, is a much quirkier operation. It regularly lights on aspects of life which others might dismiss as economically peripheral - the British cult of 'Mr Blobby', for example, or recent French copyright battles over the status of the cartoon character, Tintin - as an ideal way to illuminate the strange ways in which other nations think. No Continentally ambitious marketing man, for a start, could afford to be without it.
However, there are disadvantages. It is, after all, an American publication and its excellent European coverage is heavily diluted with long discussions of topics such as the Clinton healthcare reforms, of somewhat marginal interest to the manager trying to sell widgets to the Walloons. And the same applies a fortiori to the International Herald Tribune, which offers a good daily conspectus of happenings in the EU, but tends to refract them through a relentlessly US-orientated prism.
Of the magazines, only The Economist retains a sustained and comprehensive watch on matters European. A recent issue managed to incorporate a brilliant three-page special on the Rover-BMW takeover and its relationship to Europe's other beleaguered car makers, plus penetrating looks at the Euro-Disney shambles, the latest Brussels moves on airline competition, the (clouded) futures of Banesto and Credit Lyonnais, and the contrasting prospects of Edouard Balladur, triumphant in Paris, and Britain's troubled Tories in the run-up to June's European Parliament elections. That was a meaty sandwich by any standards, and possibly worth the £1.90 cover price even if you were not too bothered about the rest of the contents. But the fact remains, The Economist's real concerns are global, and its editors can never devote more than a fraction of their space to things happening between, say, Cork and Kiev, the current extremes of the European landscape.
So that brings us back to the solitary specialist still cultivating this less-than-overpopulated field. The European, which appears every Thursday, price 75p, was first launched in 1990 under the dubious auspices of the late, unlamented Robert Maxwell. It enjoyed a shaky and seriously underfunded start but survived, and now, under new management, is starting to build up a genuine reputation. And encouragingly, it is in many ways better regarded abroad than it is here.
The latest audited circulation figures show that it sells on average 160,511 copies, of which only 62,138 go to readers this side of the Channel. France takes 18,115, Germany 17,680, Italy 7,994, Spain 6,991 and the Americans and Canadians think it is worth importing a further 12,715 to keep an eye on what their bowler-hatted, beret-and lederhosen-wearing cousins are up to.
For their money they get a 14 full-page main news section, another 14 full pages dedicated to business and economics, and a further 28 tabloid pages of 'culture, life and style' (under the not-unjustified title, Elan). The business pages usually contain an eclectic mixture of the main current news stories and, more usefully, a selection of the more offbeat and unfamiliar company developments, reinforced by personal profiles. One recent issue, for example, looked at Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes, whose 150-year-old firm sells £2.4 billion worth of scarves and other luxury items to the world each year, plus the man who is single-handedly pushing Prague's stock exchange to the top of the emerging-markets league table, the withdrawal of the controversial Luciano Benetton from Italian politics and a progress report on Nicolas Hayek and his long-awaited Swatchmobile.
It also earned good points by running, for once, a positive and encouraging piece about Anglo-French co-operation, charting the striking progress of Dover's collaboration with Calais across the straits (using £1 million of Brussels-provided Euro-grants) to boost local returns from the expected upsurge in trade. There are many such initiatives, but how often do we hear of them while the Euro-sceptics hog the headlines?
Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.