Oct 29 2014

Holding Europe to no account: a media question

By Cristina Marconi and John Lloyd

The European Union occupies a central position in the political and economic life of its twenty-eight members and an important one in much of the rest of the world. Few other institutions of governance have such a controversial role, and its very existence is increasingly called into question by uncompromising critics who wish to see it killed off; and it is much more severely criticised than previously by those who want it radically reformed.

European mediaA debate on the legitimacy of the EU’s action has always existed and has been quite trenchant in the past, but it has never reached the current peak. The EU public has never been so engaged with and opinionated about the EU project as it is now: the news media have had to take this into account.

It is clearly important that citizens from the twenty-eight EU countries understand what effect the EU Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers have on their lives – what policies they discuss and approve, what relationship they have with national governments, what assistance they offer to member states, how much they pay to them, what power they have and what powers they seek to have.

Yet until the economic crisis hit Europe in the late 2000s, with severe effects on many of the member states and a major threat to the viability of the fourteen-year-old euro currency used by the seventeen member states in the Eurozone, most national media covered the EU much less than their own political centres of power, which in some cases meant that they covered it very little.

News editors and producers came to view European stories as deadly for readerships and viewers. Even after the crisis, news organisations often suffered from a lack of understanding of the issues and mechanisms under discussion, and/or a lack of sufficient staff to give more than a sketch of even critically important issues.

On the other hand, the amount published about and by the European Union is vast. The Union’s institutions are lavish with news announcements, with briefings, with pre-packaged but often detail-rich interviews with commissioners. Think tanks in Brussels and in all the main capitals pour out analyses and advice; the many specialised journals and websites are knowledgeable, up-to-the-minute and distant enough from their subject to be critical; the global newspapers and wire services continue to support relatively large and active bureaus, whose output enjoys a high reputation.

The problem is with the larger public which is only sporadically interested in politics and public institutions. In times of crisis or of important decisions, attention reaches a peak, but in good times news coming from Brussels is the first to disappear from newspaper pages and from TV programmes. This seems to us the largest problem facing the news media which have the responsibility of covering the EU: its very structure and mode of operation renders the task of engaging the general European public with it, in journalistic terms, hard.

Thus ‘who cares?’ becomes a pertinent question, and the consequences of the general lack of interest in the EU – except at times of crisis, which has brought a more critical, even hostile, attention than before – underpin much of the report’s findings.

The problem of interesting a wide public has different facets:

  •  The coverage of the EU is inherently difficult for journalism, above all for broadcasters and for popular papers. Most journalism has long assumed that it must woo the reader into the story told, since s/he reads or watches, usually, at leisure without any externally imposed need to do so: a few moments of boredom will mean a decision to move on. This is especially true of the most popular news medium, TV.
  • It is difficult because the Union and its institutions – including, and sometimes most of all, the parliament – are largely devoid of the dramas, confrontations, rows, large and well known characters and issues which make up much of the political coverage within the nation states. Instead, the journalists must deal with (changing) officials who are mostly, and remain, unknown to most Europeans. The processes of the Union and especially the Commission are slow, complex and hard to grasp by a layman; many of the issues handled are technical and detailed; there are constant and often opaque negotiations in the Council of Ministers which brings together departmental ministers and the Council of Europe which unites the heads of state and government of the member states, both of which meet in closed session and retain the largest power.
  • Even news which significantly impacts on everyday life – a decision which can affect a community in a positive or negative way, and there are many – are delivered in different steps over an extended period, and it can take years before the measures enter into force. If on one hand it shows how carefully every step is taken by the EU authorities, on the other hand it is hard to retain wide interest in the enforcement of a decision taking place years after it has been announced for the first time. The parliament especially – unlike national assemblies, where the actors are known and the dramas often vivid – is hard to televise and often soporific.
  • Popular media – tabloid newspapers and television – could in theory do much to convey the central issues being discussed and agreed in the EU to a wide audience. There are two reasons why this is true only to a very limited extent. The most powerful and influential among the European popular newspapers – “Bild” in Germany and the “Daily Mail” and the “Sun” in the UK – are strongly critical of the EU, take a combative posture vis à vis the EU and, especially the UK papers, are accused by the Commission and by many journalist colleagues of distortion and gross inaccuracies.
  • Yet this press has at times revealed, even if through exaggeration and at times falsehood, something of the underlying contradictions and silences of the EU – especially the contradiction between the long-term aim of ‘ever closer union’ and the reality of continuing national control. It is true that an approach usually confrontational, and with both news and commentary uninformed by having a permanent correspondent in Brussels means that polemic and a focus on errors and absurdities is preferred to facts. However,  the practised skill with which the popular tabloids present the news means that their message comes through much more powerfully than that of the quality media, influencing voters and public opinion in a way that inevitably has to be taken into account by politicians.
  • Television presentation is much less polemical – indeed is legally barred from being so in many European states – but is generally brief. In addition, in nearly every state, the regular habit of watching the news is in decline, especially among the young, to be replaced with accessing news when interested in specific issues. This might include the EU, but probably only when crises seem imminent.
  • The growing conviction that news about the EU is unpopular with readers and viewers led to a shrinkage through the 2000s, of the permanent correspondent corps based in Brussels and a greater dependence on coverage from the news media’s home bases, or from other capitals, as Paris. EU information depended much more on freelancers and fixers, a less expensive workforce which replaced the established correspondents. In addition, the crisis itself forced further cuts on the news media – leaving the worst hit countries, who arguably needed the news and analysis the most, with a shrunken representation.
  • Most news organisations, when reporting on the EU, produce coverage which is not aimed at Europeans, but at French, Dutch, Polish and other national citizens. The subtext is: what is the EU doing for, and to, us? Journalists who find themselves assigned to cover the EU, or ‘Europe’, thus do what seems to come naturally: they bring their nation with them.
  • Most journalism from Brussels covers the central institutions of the EU with both eyes on the business of determining how far they act in the interests of the home country. To cover it in this fashion is, of course, to miss most of what these institutions do – jerking them into life in print, sound or images only to judge how far they are useful to the national interest; who are the losers and winners, the opponents and allies; what the national ministers, especially the prime minister, have achieved at their meetings, with the content generally briefed to the national news media representatives by the public relations officials of the government in question. ‘Europe’ thus becomes an adjunct to the nation, and is simply another chamber in which the latter ‘speaks to itself’ – or a chamber which each nation can blame when something goes wrong.

The exception to this rule are the transnational  organisations – the global wire services, as Reuters, Bloomberg, AP and AFP; the global economic papers, such as the “Economist”, the “Financial Times” and the “Wall Street Journal”; and – to a lesser extent – the global broadcasters such as the BBC, CNN and others. These organisations see their mission, and their business model, as doing coverage which has no or little national focus: ‘News from nowhere’.

But these are for the global elite, as well as for the Brussels insiders. We seem at a loss to develop media which can both give an adequate account of one of the most important facts of European political and social life, and attract an audience larger than the few thousand  for whom information is their stock-in-trade. It’s a bitter contradiction.

This time was reposted from eutopia where it first appeared.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics

Cristina Marconi is an Italian freelance journalist and former fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford. See more.

John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor for the “Financial Times”, Director of Journalism at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and a columnist for “La Repubblica” of Rome. See more.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

A Shrinking Brussels Press Corps Could Put Investigative EU Journalism at Risk

The struggle over the Greek national broadcaster: a debate of extremes

“Systems were simply not in place to handle a crisis of this magnitude in the euro area” – Interview with Peter Spiegel

The impact of the international press in Portugal

“A system that is failing to deliver economic wellbeing naturally comes in for greater public criticism than one that succeeds in doing so” — Interview with Stephen Fidler

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