TCS Daily


Note From Brussels: Free to Choose?

By Matthew Elliott - December 10, 2002 12:00 AM

For many people, the car is a symbol of freedom. Arthur Seldon recalls in Capitalism how at age 11 he made a silent promise that when he grew up and had acquired a car, he would return to the East End of London to take his friends on free rides round the block. Capitalism, however, made his promise unnecessary by creating the prosperity to enable his friends to buy their own cars. Now the same process is extending car ownership in former Communist countries, but the European Investment Bank (EIB) is being lobbied to divert resources from road projects to railway systems instead.

At a Countdown to Enlargement forum organised by the EIB, Austrian Friends of the Earth activist Heinz Hoegelsberger protested: "The construction of motorways that the EIB plans to finance will damage the environment as well as people's quality of life" (European Voice, 14-20 November 2002). This begs the question: do the 'environmental benefits' of public transport justify the loss of our freedom to travel when and where we please?

Whilst a busy commuter train causes less pollution than the same number of people driving to work, a late night train with very few passengers causes more pollution than a few taxi rides home. Moreover, just as there are energy efficient trains and heavily polluting trains, there are also green cars and old bangers. For example, research done by the RAC in London shows that most of the pollution comes from a small number of vehicles: 10 percent of vehicles cause 44 percent of London's traffic pollution, while the cleanest 70 percent of vehicles were responsible for just 18 percent of the pollution.

If environmental activists want to promote clean air, they should lobby for vehicle emissions tests, but they should not oppose hard won freedoms. Four wheels good: two wheels bad.

Britain and Germany Fume

A new European Union directive to ban tobacco advertising in the print media, on the radio and over the Internet will come into force early next year after successfully completing its final legislative stages. Only two countries opposed the measures at the Council of Ministers meeting on Monday 2 December and their combined voting power was not enough to block the directive. The German government objected to the ban following months of intense lobbying from the country's media sector. Germany has the highest number of smokers in the EU - 37 percent of adults smoke compared to an EU average of 33 percent - and German magazines and newspapers earn €40 to €50 million a year from tobacco advertising. With their current opposition and their success at overturning the previous ban in the European Court, Germany has certainly come along way since 1939, when the Nazis banned smoking in public places and amongst members of the Luftwaffe.

The British government, which voted against the proposals for very different reasons, would be wise to study the great cigar smoker Winston Churchill, who was recently voted Greatest Briton of all time. British health ministers publicly suggested the legislation didn't go far enough, and urged the European Union to force tobacco manufacturers to put stronger and larger warnings on packets. To the delight of the anti-smoking lobby, they proposed strong messages about the dangers of impotence and clogged arteries, with the long-term aim of having pictures of diseased hearts, lungs and brains.

Whatever next - a ban on advertising burgers? The International Obesity Taskforce recently suggested that the costs of obesity may account for up to 8 percent of overall health budgets and called on the EU to restrict advertising of junk food and sweets. McDonalds and Cadburys beware.

He Who Pays the Piper

One European Parliament amendment to the tobacco advertising directive, accepted by the Council, provides another reason the British government may have opposed the directive. Following studies showing a strong correlation between the acceptance of political donations from tobacco companies and opposition to tobacco control legislation, the amendment called for a system to be implemented to record, monitor and review the donations made by tobacco companies to European political groups, Members of the European Parliament and Commissioners.

Speaking to the Financial Times (3 December 2002), one diplomat said: "The exemption for Formula One racing was all the British talked about in the working group discussing the legislation." Out of the media spotlight, British ministers lobbied on behalf of the Labour Party's million-pound donor and racing enthusiast Bernie Ecclestone. As the Belgian Socialist MEP Jean-Maurice Dehousse said, the whole thing is "schizophrenic, hypocritical and ridiculous."

Media Socialism

In their November plenary session, MEPs also debated media pluralism and the danger of growing media concentration. Opening the debate, British MEP Graham Watson, leader of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform (ELDR) group, argued that democracy was threatened by restricting control of the media to a small number of people. "The media needs to be sufficiently diverse for all important points of view in society to be effectively presented. Otherwise there is a danger that dominant media players can restrict access to information and thereby move public opinion." Watson didn't mention any media moguls by name, but Spanish MEP Enrique BarĂ³n Crespo of the Party of European Socialists clarified the ideological impetus behind the debate when he spoke of "Murdoch y Berlusconi".

If the European Union does consider a directive limiting media concentration, before turning its attention to Newscorp and Mediaset, they might like to examine the British Broadcasting Corporation. Not only does the BBC run countless television and radio stations, numerous Internet sites and a plethora of magazines, they also have the power to lock people up who don't pay for their services.

One of the most high-profile Soviet dissidents, Valdimir Bukovsky, who has lived in Britain for the last 25 years, has accused the BBC of being "politically biased" and acting as the "ministry of propaganda for Mr Blair's Government" (Izvestia, 24 November 2002). He has launched an "eSAMIZDAT" campaign, modelled on his struggle to promote human rights in the Soviet Union, to end the stranglehold of the BBC on the British media sector. Bukovsky, who spent 12 years in labour camps and psychiatric hospitals for anti-soviet propaganda, was released in a prisoner exchange in 1976 (for Chilean communist Louis Karvallan). Now Bukovsky is encouraging people to boycott the £112 BBC Tax that 58 percent of the British public oppose (see www.bbcbias.org).

Matthew Elliott is a columnist for Tech Central Station
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