By Dean Carroll
Imagine the scene. A busy newsroom full of journalists putting together the latest breaking stories on European Union affairs. Then comes a telephone call to the editor from a VIP in the upper echelons of the European Commission. The voice on the other end asks if a certain piece will stress the more positive argument from the EU. Welcome to ‘Pravda Europe’, as the plan for a commission-funded ‘independent’ news website was quickly christened by hacks before it was unceremoniously canned in May of last year.
Of course, these calls to certain newsrooms already take place across Europe. A small minority of newspaper and broadcast news proprietors – you know who you are – ring journos to express a certain view and ensure the ideology of their title remains intact during coverage of important events. The right-wing press produces content tailored for its right-wing audience and the left for the leftists. To pretend it does not happen is disingenuous. Nobody in the trade likes it but very few fight against it. To do so would probably destroy any hopes of a career trajectory within the said organisation.
So given that that some media outlets are biased despite their claims of impartiality, would it really be so bad for the EU to extend its own propaganda machine; in order to counter the disproportionate kicking it gets in the Eurosceptic – usually right-wing – press? The answer has to be a resounding ‘yes’. Not only would it dent freedom of the press, such a venture would surely breach the EU’s own antitrust laws. The union would have a monopoly on interviews with its star players like the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.
These big beasts of Brussels already distance themselves from the media, rarely going beyond the stage-managed press conferences to actually talk to journalists or – perish the thought – answer some probing questions. This remote technocratic approach is the real problem, not warped reporting by traditional or online new media outlets. The failure to engage with the fourth estate and, by extension, citizens just reinforces the democratic deficit. It pours fuel on the Eurosceptic fire that seems to burn brighter with every day that passes.
A generous €3.2m annual budget – the proposed figure for the commission-backed news service – and translation into 10 languages would also have brushed aside many struggling media outlets; especially, if the EU site took advertising revenue away from titles in the private sector. And as British Conservative Party MEP Richard Ashworth said before the project was spiked: “If anyone thinks this organisation would really hold the EU up to scrutiny they are living on a different planet. It will never bite the hand that feeds it.”
However, the commission before its U-turn claimed that the resource would address the one-dimensional media landscape which was “often scarce, irregular, lacks any broader European perspective, and citizens do not have any specialised platform where they can find and share quality content”. Without wanting to be unkind, this is hogwash of the highest order. I repeat, the real problem is not with the quality or quantity of reporting on EU affairs – it is the omertà under which the union operates.
For example, the commission makes all of its decisions behind closed doors and will only talk to the press on its own terms via press releases and micro-managed set-piece conferences. Here at Policy Review, we have experienced this code of silence time again and time again. The likes of Herman Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso and Catherine Ashton either refuse our requests for interview or insist – in my own personal experience as a journalist on other titles – that the questions are sent across to the media team so that emailed replies, often just a spin-doctor line taken from a press release, can be returned.
No human contact is allowed; they are far too busy to communicate the work they are doing in any meaningful way. Of course, all this may well be a symptom of the EU’s schizophrenic existence as a global collective power that can only do what all 28 member states allow it. But this excuse is a cop-out. And if the union does not fix its broken methods, it will only come under increasing pressure.
Back in April last year, I asked Barroso’s office if he was available for interview or to write a piece for me on European federalism. The reply came back that he might be able to honour me with an article based on his State of the Union speech in September. When I protested that this was too distant a date, his spokeswoman responded: “I was offering you the September State of the Union moment because I have nothing to offer for now. There is a long waiting list for interviews and no chances for an article.” Strange then that Barroso never does any interviews, isn’t it?
This is the reality of EU engagement with the press. The spin and propaganda is costly but achieves less than zero. It is not effective and it is certainly not sustainable. It only antagonises journalists. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have written about this issue. Undoubtedly, it will not be the last time either. Later this year, Barroso et al will be gone. We would love to see a new approach encompassing openness and cooperation from the next European Commission in its dealings with the media. We shall not, though, hold our breath.
Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev