Cash-strapped media firms in grand march out of Brussels

 

EUROPEAN DIARY:As media organisations pare costs, the inevitable result will be less coverage of EU affairs

TRAVEL BANS, salary cuts and pared down expenses are the main topic of conversation at the press bar these days at the European Commission, which luckily enough provides cheap coffee at less than a euro a cup.

In recent months several of my colleagues have either been recalled to home base or axed altogether as the economic crisis bites deep into media firms’ budgets.

The venerable French daily Le Mondehas gone from four full-time correspondents to two over the last year. The Guardianhas not replaced one of its two Brussels-based reporters who retired recently.

The Brussels-based and Economist-owned European Voicenewspaper has made two reporters redundant. News agencies Reuters, AP, BruxInfo and Bloomberg have either not replaced staff or made people redundant. Even the BBC is cutting back and may not replace its European correspondent, who is moving to Washington.

The inevitable result is less journalists covering EU affairs in a year punctuated by the European elections, a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the appointment of new team of commissioners in Brussels.

“This is bad for democracy because more and more legislation is coming from Brussels, particularly in the environment and economic field, where 80 per cent of laws are decided here. But there are less journalists to check on these institutions,” says Lorenzo Consoli, president of the International Press Association, which represents journalists in Brussels. “There is a tendency for publishers to bring staff home and expect them to cover events from home using the internet.

“But this is a bit like saying a newspaper won’t cover its own state’s national parliament but will just cover the government.”

The current wave of cutbacks is hurting firms in some states worse than others. The three Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are currently represented by a single journalist each, and one of them plans to return to Lithuania to take a job as the president’s spokesman. It is small wonder that just a quarter of Latvians say they are interested in this week’s elections when so few of their journalists are in Brussels reporting what their MEPs are doing.

But it would be wrong to view the current spate of cutbacks as a temporary aberration prompted by the recession. News organisations have been paring back their EU coverage and other foreign coverage for several years, preferring to rely on news wires rather than base their own correspondents in the field. Many newspapers are also replacing full-time correspondents with a new breed of “super-stringer” – a contract reporter who gets paid an annual retainer and for every article rather than a salary. He/she is also unlikely to be eligible for a company pension or to have their apartment rent paid.

The British newspapers the Daily Telegraphand the Independenthave both gone down this route, while the Irish Independentclosed its Brussels office altogether and currently does not employ anyone in the city to cover events.

Saving money is the primary motivation for this downgrading of foreign news, but in Britain, and increasingly in Ireland, many editors also do not consider European affairs as an interesting story for their readers or viewers.

“Much of the Irish media ape the British attitude to Europe and see it as burden and a drain on budgets because they assume no one is interested,” says Michael Foley, head of the journalism school at Dublin Institute of Technology.

“Despite the importance of Europe, whether in the political sphere in referendums or in terms of policy area such as farming and fisheries, so many newsdesks see Europe and coverage of EU affairs only in terms of domestic politics,” says Foley, who warns the Irish media’s failure to engage with Europe seriously has done a huge disservice to the people.

Statistics show Ireland is very poorly represented in Brussels, with just six journalists registered to cover the commission from The Irish Times, Examiner, RTÉ and Irish Daily Mail.In comparison, states with a similar population such as Denmark, Austria and Finland all have 13 or 14 correspondents based in Brussels, while Switzerland, which isn’t even an EU member, has 19 registered reporters and Norway has nine journalists.

Research conducted after the first Lisbon referendum demonstrated that public knowledge of EU affairs is low in Ireland. The commission has also noted a growing euroscepticism among the Irish media, which is being driven by increasing sales of the Irish editions of British tabloid papers.

With a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty due in October, the commission is beefing up its Irish representation’s press service and last week signed a €1.6 million communications contract with a consortium led by Edelman public relations.

But PR is no substitute for journalism, and even though Irish-based reporters do cover some EU stories from Dublin, it is a poor substitute for having someone based in Brussels to cover decisions made by ministers at the council of ministers or by MEPs at the parliament.


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