Media scholar: Let’s be modest about creating a European public sphere

François Heinderyckx [Brussels Platform for Journalism]

Attempts at creating Europe-wide media have so far fallen flat. But that doesn’t mean all are doomed to fail, according to Belgian Professor François Henderyckx, who says media bosses haven’t really learned the lessons of past mistakes.

Professor François Heinderyckx is dean of the faculty of letters, translation and communication at the Université Libre de Bruxelles – Institut d’Études Europénnes. His own research focus is on journalism.

In an interview with EURACTIV founder Christophe Leclercq, as part of the #Media4EU editorial series, he explains why a European public sphere would require media exchanges on some topics, learning from previews attempts and from Belgium’s own shortcomings.

The connection between journalism and the European public sphere has often been made in academic circles. But does the European public sphere actually exist?

The question has been asked repeatedly, and the answer is usually no.

The real issue is whether there is a chance that it ever will exist, and I think this is irrelevant as such. When people ask this, they wonder whether a European public sphere will replace existing national spheres and that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Public spheres can cohabit and people can belong to several spheres at the same time. So the question becomes: how close to a European public sphere can we get? If you can be modest about what you mean by European public sphere then yes it exists, and yes it can develop on different levels.

You have joined the steering committee of the #Media4EU project, which entails a series of interviews with journalists and media academics about the state of media in Europe. What are your motivations for joining this research project?

The project strikes a nice balance between intellectual ambition and a pragmatic approach. It tackles two fundamental issues that we are faced with today: first, the crisis of journalism and news media, which stems from a number of changes including not only technology but also the economic crisis, new behaviours by the audience, and other factors. All these elements are so critical that anything that can be done to understand them and offer solutions has to be supported.

Secondly, it also tackles another issue: the misrepresentation of the European project among the European Union member states, which generates a crisis of legitimacy. A sure sign of what happens when news media go wrong is that people don’t understand the world they live in, and in this particular case they don’t understand Europe. So, working on both these issues simultaneously seems like a great idea.

Can you think of specific topics which lend themselves to European coverage and to cross-border cooperation?

We know for a fact that European news is too focused not just on institutional news but even more on the struggle among member states to get their way.

That is because the news media are essentially nation-based and therefore they feel compelled to look at European news from the angle of their particular country and its interest. The “Blame it on Brussels” syndrome, whereby politicians criticise Brussels when something goes wrong and want to get all the credit when something goes right, is very well known within European Institutions.

So to me the coverage of Europe has to lean more towards concrete issues which are related to the reality of citizens. It might look like almost local news or very ’unimportant news’, but I think covering the reality of the daily lives of citizens from other parts of Europe can mean a lot in terms of understanding what Europe means today and what it can mean for the future. That’s where the emphasis should be put.

There have been several attempts in the past to create European media or establish cross-border cooperations. What is your overall assessment so far?

I have actually looked at them very systematically starting from the 1980s, where some efforts were done. It is fantastic that those attempts were made, but we haven’t fully learned the lessons from their failures, which might be because they were too ambitious. They wanted to create Europe-wide media reaching a Europe-wide audience and that’s not going to happen.

The most successful transnational media are those which are based on a common language. If you look at Dreisatt, for example, seems to be quite healthy because it has a sufficient market within the German language community.

So that speaks perhaps more for cooperation between national media, each keeping their language and exchanging content?

That would actually help them in so far as they wouldn’t have to do with one of the biggest hurdles in anything transnational, which is the language barrier. At the same time, the Franco-German TV channel Arte was unlikely to be successful and is still alive and kicking today, working with two different languages and two different cultures, and it still manages to find an audience across borders.

This means that it is possible to do transnational quality media, even targeted to an audience which doesn’t speak the same language. But still, to get transnational media off the ground, it is more realistic to be aimed at specific themes for specific language communities.

And, in fact, the experience of Belgium is not fully encouraging. There is no real Belgian press. Why is this the case in your view?

From the very beginning, the two language communities in Belgium have had distinct media landscapes with audiences behaving in very different ways. The time spent watching TV on a daily basis is over one hour more in French-speaking Belgium compared to the Dutch-speaking part. Just on something as basic as watching TV such a small country has huge cultural differences! This explains why the media are conceived differently for these two audiences.

There have been some attempts at content exchanges between Flemish- and French-speaking media. Is this a sign of hope for what could be done at European level?

It is, because it was very successful, except never in the long run. It was usually some experiment at specific times for some specific events. People liked it, journalists liked it, the audience liked it, but it never became something bigger.

Still, it shows that cooperation between journalists from different horizons can be gratifying for them and for their audience. Yet somehow it still needs to strike that balance so that it becomes feasible and stable over time.

Could Belgium provide a laboratory for new approaches to overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers between media?

Belgium is a very interesting lab for multiculturality in general. Just to give you an example: we’ve done this survey among journalists in Belgium two years ago, the first of its kind, and it showed that even basic core attributes such as attitude towards ethics show significant differences between Flemish- and French-speaking journalists. In spite of that, they can work together. This means that even structural differences are not insurmountable obstacles to content exchange.

When it comes to translation, this country has some serious experience because everything has to be translated in two or three languages and even more now with the European Institutions. The progress made by technology, of course, opens up some promising perspectives, except we have been announcing powerful automated translation for over 20 years now. It is always around the corner and we are still waiting, but we will get there eventually.

When there will be sufficiently efficient machine translation, the game will be completely changed because the flows of content will no longer be hindered by language differences. Even though it will never be perfect, it will be good enough for people to get access to content of other language communities.

But the fact that it is possible doesn’t mean that it will be interesting. Today you can go to the website of newspapers in Japan and in Brazil if you like, It’s free, it’s easy and then Google translate can give you a sense of what‘s in those newspapers. But who does that? The fact that it is possible doesn’t mean that people will want to do it, so you’ll have to find ways for them to feel gratified to do the effort to reach out to content from other communities.

So the need is basically there and the technologies are there as well, which seems to speak in favour of innovation projects, maybe even R&D efforts at European level. Is that something you would recommend?

Yes, I would certainly recommend that. There are business issues and technological issues, and they still need some tweaking.

But again, we should not fall into the trap of thinking it’s all about money and technology because we have to consider the human factor here. We have learned over and over again that the fact that a technology is free or easily available does not mean that people will want to use it. It’s more complicated than that.

What is overlooked here, I think, is working towards something which we could call an editorial project. This means finding a target audience, motivating them to access the content and finding ways for them to come back for more. That doesn’t rely on technology, it doesn’t rely necessarily on money either, it is based on imagination and clever innovation within the editorial project.

What policies – if any – do you believe should accompany the changes underway in the media sector? Is there something to be done at the political level?

Yes, because there is a convergence of interest between the media industry, governments, and citizens – it does not concern one part of society in isolation. Our political leaders benefit from having a healthy media sector, they have everything to gain from having citizens understand the world they live in.

That’s a perfect case for policy initiative. We need to find ways to not just encourage but enable systemic changes to improve the situation.

Inevitably, it will have to do with financial incentive at some point because this sector is in a crisis. So, if you can have tax deductions or subsidies maybe the industry will take the initiative. There is this hurdle now to be jumped over by the industry, which is locked into a certain way of approaching the media market, trying to cut down on costs, invest heavily on technology and find new business models.

All that is fine, but it’s sort of a panic strategy that doesn’t seem to have much of a vision in terms of how you come back to a balanced situation where the media play their role and have some footing and the citizens feel compelled to access content and find gratification there.

I think the policy component is to find ways to enable this systemic change and help it for a transition. After that transition, then it will be back to the market dynamics, but it’s a matter of knowing how we live through that period and how long it will last.

We have been talking about transition in the media sector for about 20 years now, so are we in a situation where we will be permanently in transition? If that is the case then policy can also help make that transition safe.

The European Commission has initiatives about copyright, the audiovisual sector, and other areas related to the media industry. How would you bundle them all in order to create the vision you were talking about?

I think there are lessons to be learned from the academic scene: there is a trend to render research results more accessible to a wider audience. We have gone so far into hyper-specialised publications in hyper-specialised language which only hyper-specialists can make sense of. No wonder people don’t fully grasp all these acute science topics which are essential to understanding the public debate today.

So the trend now is saying, ‘look, we can explain things in simpler terms’. Of course, it will never be completely accurate because reality is sophisticated, and of course the specialists will be upset that you simplified things in such terms, but at least people will be aware of those realities and understand them.

I think the same should be true for policymaking, and journalists can play a key role in this. It’s always complicated to explain growth, and why the Euro is a factor of stability, for instance. But we can’t give up in having people being conscious of these concepts.  Journalists help a lot. Talk to science journalists. They are the ones most skilled (at explaining) complex realities in a language that can be understood.

Read more about Professor Heinderyckx’s views and research in Transnational News Media and the Elusive European Public Sphere.