On 6 July, the Mail reported:
A few days later, the papers focused on one particular 'fine' that was handed out to the University of Northampton. It was reported by the Express:
The Daily Star:
And, a day later, the Mail:
It was also covered in Richard Littlejohn's Friday column (a column which didn't include one word about phone hacking). He, like the original Mail headline, and the Desmond papers, claimed these 'fines' were for failing to 'fly the EU flag'.
The Express' editorial raged:
To be expected to fly a flag to which very few people feel any allegiance is outrageous. This ridiculous episode is yet another reason for Britain to get out of the EU.
But this isn't quite accurate. It is common for organisations to acknowledge their sources of funding when they receive a grant. In the case of EU funding, it's part of the agreement that some mention is given to the fact the money has come from the EU.
Here's how Tom van Lierop, EC regional affairs spokesman, explains it, as reported on the Express website:
"If there is a contract between a member state and the commission as a co-investor in a region, there is a requirement to have a small indication for every project under half a million euros (GBP470,000).
"The indication could be a mention on a website or in a leaflet, and for bigger projects we ask that on the billboard during the building works it states that it was co-funded by the EU.
"Once the project is finished, there should be a little plaque, but you don't have to wave a big flag above a project: that's nonsense"...
"That's perfectly standard procedure, and private investors in projects, or organisations such as the UK national lottery, also like some recognition of investments they've made."
So they aren't expected to actually 'fly the EU flag' but just make clear where the money has come from.
But has the taxpayer had to foot the bill for 'fines' imposed on the University of Northampton and others?
Well, as the Mail admitted in the final paragraph of its first article:
The European Commission insists Britain is responsible for managing EU funds and can redirect some or all of the cash from fines to other eligible projects, rather than having to reimburse Brussels.
And von Lierop added later:
"We're not fining anyone. The UK authorities oversee the proper spending of taxpayers' money, and if it isn't mentioned that it is co-funded by the EU, a small percentage of the total is re-allocated to other projects in the same area."
So the money is simply given to another project - it's not, as the papers imply, an additional cost to the taxpayer that goes into the pockets of the EU.
Here's von Lievop again:
"We don't want to be flying the EU flag above any kind of project, but it's normal to have some indication of involvement: these stories are total lunacy."