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Editor’s blog – The empty interview chair, where EU leaders like Ashton and Barroso should be sitting

By Dean Carroll

As a longstanding member of the press, there is no easy way to say this but the European media landscape is not fit for purpose. Journalists are not helped, however, by the remote stance taken by high-profile European Union figures like foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Those in the top EU jobs rarely do interviews and when they do, they are overbearingly stage-managed with certain topics avoided and press officers often suggesting the interviews can only be conducted via emailed questions and answers.

Heaven forbid the likes of Ashton should have any human contact with a member of the press. Even a telephone interview seems to be too much to ask. And Ashton is not alone; European Commission President José Manuel Barroso does little in the way of interviews – preferring tightly-controlled media conferences and press releases to get the institution’s message across.

To be fair, it is easy to see why the EU is so paranoid about engaging with the media. The Eurosceptic wing of the press has a big stick labelled ‘national sovereignty rules’, which it is determined to whack over the union’s head at every opportunity. As a result, though, even the impartial and Europhile media are treated with the same contempt. And there is a definite air of ‘we are operating on an intellectual plane far beyond democracy, the fourth estate and accountability to citizens’, which permeates through all levels of supranational institutions.

It is not good enough and until Ashton, Barroso and the other EU masters of the universe take their communication duties more seriously – the growing criticism of the ‘democratic deficit’ in the union will continue to gather momentum. They may not be elected by the European demos but that very fact should make them even more concerned about their public profiles. Instead, it is used as a shield to hide from the difficult debates and questions.

Let us put it another way, EU press relations are far too introverted. They look to deliver the wish lists of member states, institutions and key players like Barroso and Ashton through anaemic speeches and managerese when to move forward, they should be outward-looking and pragmatic; reacting to public opinion and questions from the press, rather than believing that if they say ‘we speak with one voice in Europe’ enough times that then the world will start to believe it.

We realise that the intergovernmental nature of the EU means that there has to be an agreed central message on many policy competences. But individual politicians and officials must surely be given the power to express and challenge those core sentiments in an emotionally intelligent way, in order to engage with those outside of the Brussels bubble.

Otherwise, we have a machine that is not a million miles away from the Chinese politburo in its approach. What people respect is honesty and candour – not polished but stilted, public relations sound bites – so get a grip you EU masters of the universe and mend your ways. The lessons of history tell us that political organisms that fail to interact with or respond to citizens and the press, without fail, end in systemic collapse. None of us want that.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev

  1. Thought-provoking piece. For too long people in positions of authority — whether senior politicians or just a local police force — have been in thrall to PR professionals who meld and shape the news. It moved beyond simple delegation many years ago and I doubt whether the busier, more powerful people give much thought to their public image beyond trusting in their head of PR. Yes, they want to get a set message out to a maximum number of people with least effort but they forget that it is often the politician on his soapbox on the stump who has most effect — and is admired because of it.

    Comment by Will Bramhill on February 12, 2014 at 8:02 am
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