Like other powerful but controversial institutions the European Parliament is stepping up its investment in what amounts to paid-for journalism. Contracts are about to be awarded for funding programmes to be broadcast by local and international television channels. But, with editorial budgets for investigative and analytical journalism in steep decline, are the European Parliament -- and also the European Commission -- faced with no alternative but to buy news coverage in the media market place in the hope of gaining some favourable exposure? If the initial reports are correct, and if the contracts likely to be awarded for programmes on CNN and ITV are to be controlled by script and even post-production approval, the European Parliament could be in danger of repeating the worst examples of embedded journalism during the Iraq War and might well end up financing nothing more than blatant propaganda. Nicholas Jones examines an initiative which is already producing some agonised soul searching among Europe’s journalists.
Journalists trying to wrestle with the complexities of the European Union pose a difficult dilemma for both the European Parliament and the European Commission: How are these two institutions going to overcome an appalling information deficit among the people of Europe? And, perhaps more alarmingly, is the news media about to be manipulated?
Having spent the last five years meeting and talking to reporters in many of the newer and most recent EU member states, I know how irritated they can become in their dealings with the Parliament and Commission. Not only are there language problems but all too often they say that in their search for reliable facts and guidance they come up against a seemingly impenetrable bureaucratic barrier.
Such is their frustration they tend to fall back on reporting the facts and opinions relayed to them by their national governments and politicians rather than do their own investigation. As a result, there is little analysis and their reporting is stuck in the rut of pre-determined agendas.
Nowhere is the communications gap more apparent than in an accession country like Turkey. In its south-east corner, on the borders with Syria -- and what might finally become the EU’s ultimate eastern frontier -- the plight of local journalists was all too evident when their representatives met to consider how to improve coverage of European affairs.
Although anxious to learn more about the implications of Turkey’s proposed membership of the EU, the difficulties which the journalists faced seemed insurmountable. At a seminar in Gaziantep (28.3.2008) to discuss the response so far by media organisations in south-east Anatolia, Murat Gures of the Gaziantep Journalists’ Association, painted a bleak picture.
The Association represents journalists on seven television channels, fifteen local newspapers and twenty local magazines but he readily acknowledged that negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU have sparked little interest. There was not enough understanding of European issues to generate an adequate level of reporting.
Nor was any solution forthcoming from the newspaper owners. Orhan Kizilaslan, president of the Gaziantep Anatolian Press Association, freely admitted that the local press did not have the economic wherewithal to provide the kind of journalism that would inform the local people of the EU accession process.
"Local newspapers are the most important instrument for providing the people of Anatolia with information about the EU. But although the local press could be used as a tool for providing news and comment we do not have the economic means to inform the public and support the EU process".
What compounded the difficulties faced by the Anatolian news media was an equally frank acknowledgement by Ms Ulrike Hauer, a counsellor and head of section in the European Commission’s delegation to Turkey, that its communication strategies, especially in accession countries, were woefully inadequate.
Surely the right answer is for the EU to do much more to disseminate information in an accessible form to media organisations in the 27 member states and those countries hoping to join. As a first step it could invite journalists to Brussels at the Commission’s expense so that they could be instructed on how best to extract information on EU policies and how to follow the Parliament’s decision-making process.
Instead of reaching out to the journalists themselves, the Parliament seems to think the only realistic solution is to invest in collaborative projects with local media outlets in order to help them finance the production of more informed reporting of its proceedings.
Rather than opt for what could turn into some pretty blatant product placement, another more imaginative solution might be to fund an arms-length television and radio service along the lines of the BBC or even a channel like Al Jazeera, which has transformed news coverage in the Arab world thanks to the foresight and generosity of the Emir of Qatar?
When facing the twin pressures of strained resources and increased competition, journalists realise they cannot turn their back entirely on the reality of media economics. Subsidised reporting comes in many different forms: without an agreement to accept advertisements there would be no way of sustaining both BBC World and overseas access to BBC News Online.
What seems to be missing in the plethora of documents about the development of the European Union’s media strategies is a clear-cut statement on the need to protect journalistic independence and an assurance that subsidised reporting and collaborative programming will not undermine the financial viability of existing hard-pressed media outlets.
Awarding prizes to journalists for the most informed reporting of the European Parliament will alarm some MEPs who fear this will encourage sycophancy. The test of any such contest will be its independence from the donor of the prizes and the degree to which it can reflect differing national agendas.
Perhaps there will have to be prizes in each member state which might make the cost prohibitive but so great is the lack of understanding among journalists about EU affairs and so few are the opportunities to learn more, that an awards system might at least generate some interest.