Has ‘boring’ Brussels just got interesting?
RISJ launched its new publication Reporting the EU: News, Media and the European Institutions on the 14th October 2014. Authors John Lloyd, Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute, and Cristina Marconi, Italian Freelance Journalist and former Journalist Fellow at RISJ, spoke to a full audience at both launches in Brussels and London.
Around 45 people from commissioners, European Parliament members, permanent representatives of the member states and the media attended the breakfast launch, part of European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Coffee morning series. John Lloyd and Cristina Marconi opened the launch with a presentation of the publication findings, followed by a thought provoking response by Sara Hobolt, Professor and Deputy Head of the European Institute, LSE. Hans Kundnani, Research Director, ECFR, chaired the discussion and debate in the closing Q & A session.
This event was co-organised with the ECFR – for which we give thanks to Mark Leonard and his colleagues.
The evening panel session at Thomson Reuters offices in Brussel, was kindly hosted by Paul Taylor, European Affairs Editor, Reuters. Lloyd and Marconi again opened the discussion which was followed by an engaging response by Paul Taylor, whose comments on the publication can be found below. The panel session ended with a Q & A session with the audience, charied by Paul Taylor.
This event was co-organised with Thomson Reuters – for which we give thanks to Paul Taylor and Nick Collier and his team in the Brussels office.
Paul Taylor’s comments on the publication Reporting the EU: News Media and the European Institutions.
Most human endeavour is driven by money, sex and power. The European Union is all about money and power, and as such should be an exciting field for journalists, even if it is somewhat short on sex. Yet there is often a pervasive sense that the EU is boring, complicated and technocratic.
John Lloyd and Cristina Marconi have done the news media and the study of journalism a service by putting the evolving coverage of the European Union under the microscope at a time of crisis – both economic crisis in the euro zone and the wider EU, and a crisis of confidence between many European citizens and the European Union’s institutions.
This book offers many telling insights into the realities and challenges of covering the EU. It explores the complex interplay between news coverage and the rumbling ideological struggle over the nature and legitimacy of the European project, which has been a theme ever since the conclusion of the Maastricht Treaty, and more widely since the onset of the euro zone crisis. The authors focus rightly on the tension between national media with a national or regional audience and the pan-European policy process and interests at stake.
The headline “All news is local”, which opens this book, highlights the challenge to most journalists covering the EU of making the story relevant to a national or regional audience, in contrast to those of us like Reuters who are transnational media writing for a professional, international audience. The authors perhaps slightly unkindly describe us as providing “news from nowhere”. I prefer to think of us as delivering the news people need to run their businesses and make choices as informed citizens, savers, investors.
John and Cristina give us the authentic feel of how Brussels-based journalists, past and present, go about getting and reporting the news, putting it into context and holding the EU institutions to account. They are perhaps rather harsh on the Commission spokesperson’s service, which in my experience is broadly helpful in providing factual information and access to experts. The spokespeople are only one of the multiple sources that journalists need to use in this town. As a bureau chief, I have always told my reporters in Brussels but also in Berlin, London or Paris that news resides beyond the spokesman. Can we really blame them for trying to “sell” their institutions’ policies in a favourable light as acting for the common good of Europe? Don’t all spokespeople try to do that? Anyway, huge quantities of information are available in Brussels, from national missions, the Commission, the Council, visiting ministers and officials, lobbyists, NGOs, lawyers and corporations. No one has a monopoly of spin. As Geert Linnebank puts it, journalists are like little children: if you can’t get it from mummy, you go to daddy.
The authors explain well the special difficulty of bring the EU alive for television, when the main images on offer are “man getting out of car and walking into building, man walking out of building and getting back into car”. Very often the faces and voices, the action and reaction needed to illustrate European news are at the other end of the continent, in the streets, the factories, the farmyards or the soup kitchens. Bringing the two together is a crucial, but costly task.
Beyond that, it was fascinating to read about how most of the Brussels press corps had to learn about finance and economics on the hoof after the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, and the way their relationship with the European Commission has evolved and became more adversarial. We see how some lone journalists, with a huge workload, attend almost exclusively their home country’s briefings and hence tend to regurgitate national “spin”. This is especially true of the reporters who travel to EU summits following national leaders – the Lobby or the Elysee hack pack. In my experience, a lot of Brussels reporters pool information informally to try to get a fairer and more rounded picture. But it is equally clear that some media have no interest in fairness or balance.
Where I differ somewhat from the authors is on this question of whether journalists are captured by the European institutions and whether the key dividing line is pro-EU or anti-EU. We don’t usually regard journalists who cover, say, the German government, or parliament or constitutional court as either pro-German or anti-German. Surely the same should now apply to Europe. The institutions have been in place for more than half a century now, put there by treaties that were ratified by the democratically elected parliaments of the member states. I’m not sure that the proper role of journalistic scepticism today is to constantly question whether they have the right to exist and are legitimate. Surely it is to hold to account those who are in positions of power and responsibility for their policies. The British may still be obsessed by whether they want to be part of Europe at all, but most of the rest of the continent is debating what kind of Europe we want – more protective or more competitive; more or less regulated; more or less redistributive; more or less open to further enlargement; with more or less migration; and tougher or more cooperative with Russia.
There is no doubt that there has been a pervasive “group think” over the decades in Brussels that shared the Commission’s narrative that the solution to most if not all problems was “more Europe”. However, “group think” is not a monopoly of Brussels. I have experienced “group think” in many of the capitals where I worked, whether on the leading role of the state in France, the long-running British assumption that markets are efficient; or the deep-seated German belief that savings and balanced budgets are morally superior to debt. All these assumptions were thrown into doubt by the crisis.
Finally, the fact that European affairs are complex, about serious policy choices and difficult to make sexy for television or tabloids should not lead us to lionise journalism that puts prejudice and polemics ahead of facts, and wilfully distorts or makes up information to serve a political cause.
My own reality was that my multinational team had very good access to commissioners, senior EU officials, diplomats, MEPs, campaigners and lobbyists without having to swallow anyone’s “spin”. The level of transparency and access compared favourably with that in many of the national capitals, notably in the UK and France, where secrecy, “spin” and manipulation strike me as more prevalent.
In Brussels, we were frequently able to obtain and make news out of internal policy documents before they became official proposals or communications or decisions. That enabled us to do our primary job of informing our readers rapidly and accurately about decisions and policy debates that affect their lives and their businesses. This remained the case during the euro zone crisis.
From Brussels, I conducted and still run a virtual orchestra of correspondents in the member states who bring the economic, social and political realities on the ground, using Reuters reach to inform and provide a reality check for the policy reporting. I really like Bill Emmott’s suggestions in Chapter 12 of the kind of cross-border stories European journalists should be covering. That’s my brand of European journalism.
Reuters does not have views on the EU or any other subject, so any views contained in this review belong to Paul Taylor.