European Affairs

Now an independent report has told the BBC it must make its coverage of the European Union “more demonstrably impartial” and better informed. “The problem of ignorance among BBC journalists on the EU issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency,” according to the report, published in January 2005. The panel conducting the survey, at the BBC’s request, found ignorance about the European Union “at every stage of the reporting process.” It warned the BBC to spruce up its coverage before the British referendum on the European constitution, expected some time in 2006.

Ignorance of the European Union, however, is by no means unique to the BBC. The same charge could be leveled at many other media organizations covering Europe’s tortuous path toward closer unity, not least those based in the United States. The not-so-surprising verdict on the BBC should motivate other international news organizations to examine their EU coverage for signs of ignorance or bias.

Nobody has ever claimed that it is easy to report accurately on the European Union, even for Brussels-based journalists who follow its activities every day. As most of what happens in Brussels consists of meetings of officials in closed rooms, there are few opportunities for dramatic TV pictures. And although many important issues are decided in Brussels, concerning both the domestic laws and policies of the member states and the Union’s role in world affairs, most dossiers under discussion are complex and technical. In fact, it is often hard for reporters to make them interesting without “sexing them up.”

Following the affairs of the European Union “requires an intense, permanent intellectual effort,” according to one veteran European journalist. Most American reporters have never even tried to make such an effort, dismissing all the workings of Union as “economic,” and thus anathema to the traditional foreign correspondent, who would rather be riding a tank wearing combat fatigues. A succinct Aristotelian summary of the attitude of many journalists might read as follows: All economic news is boring; no boring stories ever make the front page; therefore economic stories are not worth pursuing. They are even a kind of insult to a reporter’s dignity.

And it is true that the EU institutions do not make it easy for reporters. In the half-century of the Union’s existence, neither the Commission, nor the Council nor the European Parliament has ever shown any real sense of public relations. Even their names and functions are still obscure to many Europeans - let alone non-Europeans. How many people, for instance, could instantly tell the difference between the European Council, the Council of Europe and the Council of Ministers?

Even the European Parliament lacks the drama and news-worthiness of most national parliaments - not least because the proceedings are slowed down by translation into 20 official languages - and there are few quick-fire exchanges between political opponents, as take place, for example, in the British House of Commons. Then there is the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s supreme court, which deliberates in secret and draws little attention except when it makes official pronouncements.

Nevertheless, the European Union has attracted one of the world’s largest press corps to its Brussels headquarters. More than 1,200 reporters are officially accredited to the Commission, meaning that they are either based in Brussels or spend a lot of time there. They are regularly supplemented by scores of visiting editors and journalists - usually specializing in national rather than EU issues - who descend on Brussels for major events such as summit meetings. These visiting journalists normally report only their own country’s viewpoint, and interpret whether their governments have “won” or “lost” in the Ministerial fray, whereas the local Brussels journalists try to glean information from sources of many different nationalities.

Representatives of the larger countries, particularly those with a major stake in the deliberations, will naturally try to brief their reporters in a way that favors their own positions. That is particularly true of France and Britain, which both have traditions of government control over information. So the savvy journalist seeks out officials from smaller countries, those with no interest at stake, or neutral EU observers, to piece together a relatively objective account. But with 25 member governments now represented in Brussels, against only six from the 1950s until 1973, comprehensive reporting has become exponentially more difficult. As the Union has grown in numbers and in subjects covered, so also has specialist, technical reporting on the many diverse ramifications of its policies.

All this means that Brussels-based reporters are no longer the authoritative sources of all EU news they once were. In the 1960s and 1970s Brussels was considered a highly desirable posting, eagerly sought by European correspondents, many of whom were firm believers in the European idea. The first wave of reporters covered the establishment of the Union’s institutional building blocks and basic policies (such as the customs union and the common agricultural policy), while their successors have to cover contentious policy outcomes and complex institutional interrelationships. Generational change in the press corps, intractable policy dilemmas and public unease over EU enlargement and immigration have helped produce a different mood among reporters. The visionary enthusiasm of earlier years has generally yielded to greater realism.

Coverage by the media of all the EU member states follows some fairly common patterns. Council and Commission decisions receive most attention, although coverage of the Parliament and its members has grown steadily. Three topics have absorbed most recent reporting, namely economic, financial and budgetary issues, foreign and security policies and the growth of EU influence at the expense of national governments.

Coverage of these issues is often in- 15 Winter/Spring - Volume 6, Numbers 1 & 2 - EUROPEAN AFFAIRS European Perspectives fluenced by the political stance of the news organization concerned, or by a reporter’s instinctive affinity with the position of his or her own country. As in journalism generally, conflict is much more newsworthy than agreement - for example over Iraq or the provisions of the new European constitution. But behind most Brussels coverage there still lies a tacit assumption that closer European unity is basically a good thing. Except in Britain, Denmark and Sweden, the views of Euroskeptics are not given much space. Nevertheless, the media in most member states focus less on the broad future of Europe than on the doings of their national representatives in the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament. The activities of Members of the European Parliament are attracting increasing attention in regional and local media in their home states. As a result, voters and regional authorities may increasingly look less to national parliaments and politicians and more to EU institutions. Even so, reporting still tends to focus on national, regional or local interactions with the European Union, rather than with EUwide news. This may reflect similarities to the evolution of the United States as a single political entity. Speaking of racial intolerance in the South, Adlai Stevenson once said his country should be thought of as “the Uniting States.” If a Europewide political consciousness and community is to emerge, it will take time. Against this background, questions of bias, of Europhilia or Europhobia, may seem largely irrelevant to many reporters. Most Brussels correspondents do not question the desirability of European integration in general – after all, their job is to cover it in a context of generally supportive national newsrooms and governments. Critics might argue that journalists have in a sense become co-opted into the process. The report on the BBC, for example, said there seemed to be “overwhelmingly” more complaints about biased coverage from critics of the European Union than from EU supporters.

Interestingly, the report said it found no evidence of “deliberate bias” one way or the other. It added, however, “there is a widespread perception that the BBC suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias,” and that there was evidence of “distaste of conservative ideas.” Clearly, even journalists who think they are being objective may display an unwitting preference through their choice of topics and the way they treat them.

The experience of the British press corps as a whole is illuminating. In the 1980s, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accused British journalists in Brussels of “going native.” She meant that Brussels-based reporters had come to adopt similar attitudes to those of the European enthusiasts whose activities they were covering, and failed to grasp the possibly negative political and economic consequences of European integration for Britain. Mrs. Thatcher believed that some British journalists welcomed UK membership in the European Union as “socialism by the back door,” while others, regardless of politics, saw the European Union as increasingly crucial to the advancement of British interests. Many of the British tabloids, on the other hand, were more interested in trivializing or distorting events in Brussels in the interests of sensationalism.

British coverage continues to be somewhat schizophrenic. For some reporters, the European Union is a “cor- 16 EUROPEAN AFFAIRS - Winter/Spring - Volume 6, Numbers 1 & 2 European Perspectives rupt, Franco-German racket,” while for others it is a serious effort to ensure peace and prosperity in a hitherto violent collection of nation states. These tensions are not exclusive to the UK. Voters in other member states have difficulty understanding what the new constitution means when it is described so differently by national leaders and news organizations. While the German government has hailed the constitution as “the birth certificate of the United States of Europe,” the British government has said it means “thus far and no farther for European integration.” In fact it is probably easier for journalists who are biased one way or the other to take a coherent line on the complex provisions of the constitution than it is for those struggling for objectivity.

Over the years the European Union has sought to organize information programs to generate popular support, especially as it has begun to seem increasingly detached from the general public and accusations have mounted that it suffers from a “democratic deficit.” In the 1990s, the Union commissioned two expensive inquiries into its news release policies. Both produced very critical reports on all aspects. The secrecy of the Council of Ministers and internal divisions in the Commission and Parliament created a blurred image for EU voters – a “joke” as one Commissioner put it. On his retirement in 1995, Commission President Jacques Delors lamented the failure to establish a persuasive image among voters, a complaint that amused critics who believed he had himself increased the secretiveness of Council and Commission policy making.

José Manuel Barroso, the new Commission President, has made public relations a central plank in his administration and has appointed Vice President Margot Wallström as Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication. She wants to create a youth wing to bring young Europeans together to sell “European citizenship,” not only before referendums on the constitution, but as a permanent fixture. She has also launched a trendy “my blog” feature on her website. But it will take more than gimmicks for the Commission to connect with Europe’s citizens and educate the media.

In an open letter to Ms. Wallström in 2004, a group of European activists called on her to keep the message simple, establish better contacts with national and regional media and react more quickly to events by setting up an EU newsroom to supply up-to-date footage on EU developments. She was also urged to create “Reporting the EU” scholarships to bring young journalists to Brussels for intensive training on the Union’s political machinery and major EU issues. It might help to send a large stack of invitations to the BBC.

David Morgan is an author and broadcaster, and emeritus professor at Liverpool University, where he was formerly Dean of Social Sciences.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 6, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2005.