Magazine article The Spectator

For a Nation Obsessed by Germany, It's Hard to Find out Anything Important about the Germans

Magazine article The Spectator

For a Nation Obsessed by Germany, It's Hard to Find out Anything Important about the Germans

Article excerpt

How big a mess is Germany in? I have scoured British newspapers for the past few days and haven't found an authoritative answer. I haven't read a piece -- perhaps I missed it - which has told me in any detail what effect Germany's latest unemployment figures are likely to have on her ability to meet the Maastricht criteria for a common currency. I have, however, read several articles by columnists who seem to know even less about the German economy than I do.

The basic problem has to do with reporting, not punditry. It is amazing how inadequately all our newspapers, with the exception of the Financial Times, reported last week's staggering news from Germany. The FT apart, the reader of any single serious newspaper would have missed something or other. Even I, who forced myself to read them all, only got a fairly complete picture by looking at the FT and the International Herald Tribune. It wouldn't matter if it were a humdrum foreign story of little relevance to ourselves, but the health of the German economy is of incalculable significance.

The Times was quickly off the mark last Thursday -- before figures were released - with a foreign-page piece by Roger Boyes in Bonn saying that German unemployment had jumped by about 450,000 to 4.6 million. Good for the Times. But the next day, Friday, the paper didn't run so much as a foreign `news-in-brief even though the official figures were worse than Mr Boyes had predicted - an increase of 510,100 to 4.66 million. On the same day, the Daily Telegraph carried the news in a rather short foreign-page lead by its excellent German correspondent, Andrew Gimson. The Independent, once famous for its foreign coverage, banished the story to its business pages. Only the Guardian and the Financial Times ran front-page pieces.

On Friday, something of equal importance happened: Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, said that Germany could fail to meet the Maastricht criteria if measures to tackle her rising unemployment are not successful. This was reported the following day on the front page of the FT and on the foreign pages of the Independent and Times. The Guardian, having done well the previous day, ignored the story. The Daily Telegraph limited its news interest in Germany to a front-page piece about the 2006 World Cup, though it did carry a thoughtful leader on the German economy.

After the uneven coverage of the dailies, there was much for the Sundays to chew on. All the broadsheets save the Observer carried lengthy summaries. The Sunday Times drew comparisons with unemployment in the Weimar republic. But apart from an enlightening piece by Bill Jamieson in the Sunday Telegraph there were few attempts to answer these allimportant questions: by how much will Germany's public borrowing rise as a result of this unprecedently steep increase in unemployment? Will Germany breach, under existing trends, the public borrowing limit of 3 per cent of Gross National Product which countries signing up to monetary union are required to meet? If so, what are the prospects of her making further budgetary cuts so that she can qualify for monetary union, given that Germany, unlike France and Italy, is averse to cooking the books?

Mr Jamieson apart, no pundit I read helped much in answering these questions, though there was, as I say, a well-balanced leader in the Daily Telegraph, as well as a very good editorial in the Times on Monday, both of which attempted to put Germany's serious problems in perspective. …

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