National TV pressed to air EU election ad

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In an attempt to boost voter turnout at the EU elections next June, the European Commission has asked public service broadcasters to put on air a “politically neutral” advert to motivate European citizens to go to the polls, EURACTIV has learned.

In a letter to the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Margot Wallström, Commission vice-president in charge of communications, urged public TV channels to consider broadcasting, “without the normal commercial charges,” an advert prepared by the European Parliament. 

Reverse downward trend in voter turnout

Taking stock of recent surveys predicting potential low voter turnouts across the EU, Wallström wrote to EBU Director General Jean Réveillon, noting that “the role of the European Broadcasting Union – as the most important public service broadcasters’ organisation in Europe – is therefore invaluable in providing information on the impact of the elections on the lives of Europe’s citizens and their future,” the letter reads. 

The EU institutions, Wallström continues, have “decided to work together to increase public awareness of the elections and of the impact which the results will have on the everyday lives of citizens.”

Commission sources told EURACTIV that the EU executive cannot afford to launch a Europe-wide advertising campaign, and is instead hoping that public broadcasters will pick up on the initiative. 

TV’s key role in the campaign

According to scholar Claes H. de Vreese of the Univesity of Amsterdam, television played a key role in the campaign for the 2004 Parliament elections. 

However, De Vreese found that, during the 2004 elections, EU-related coverage took up only 9.8% of news airtime during the two weeks leading up to election day. The average visibility was higher in the new member states (10.4%) than in the old ones (9.2%), he further found. 

In the letter, the commissioner emphasised that the campaign ad is an institutionally and politically neutral one “aimed at encouraging citizens to vote and to make their political choices, without in any way attempting to influence those choices”. 

Talking on behalf of EBU, Giacome Mazzone, head of the strategic audit department, said the organisation will invite all its member broadcasters to show the ad and raise awareness, but stressed that in some countries, public service television will be blocked by the national regulatory framework. 


News coverage vs. advertising

For example, Mazzone pointed out that in the UK, the BBC cannot carry such ads, but would more likely report about the campaign in its news programmes. However, in countries like Italy, which have civic information campaign frameworks, it will be possible to air the ad at no cost, he said. 

These ads, however, will not be able to boost voter turnout, said De Vreese. “What can have a real impact is regular news programmes showing different candidates’ viewpoints, conflict and animosity. That can create an atmosphere to boost turnout,” he concluded.

Since direct elections were first introduced in 1979, voter turnout has consistently fallen from 63% to 45% in 2004, calling into question the ability of EU politicians to reverse the trend for the 2009 elections. 

Citizens' knowledge about the upcoming elections remains alarmingly low, according to the latest Eurobarometer survey published in January. Only 26% of respondents were aware that EU elections would be held in 2009, with a whopping 67% choosing not to answer. 

This comes despite the fact that half of citizens said they considered the European Parliament to be the most trusted of the Union's institutions (EURACTIV 21/01/09). 

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