Like so many institutions these days, the European Commission has taken its press conferences entirely online. While understanding the challenges this creates, we cannot help feeling that press relations seem to have generally started going downhill.
It was an interesting intermezzo in the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Wednesday (6 October), when Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said he was “very upset” about leaks of the EU’s enlargement package he was about to present to EU lawmakers.
MEPs had complained about having received the official documents literally just before Várhelyi’s appearance in the committee and argued this had made asking pertinent questions impossible.
Várhelyi replied that there had been leaks before, and they were ‘outrageous’, and that he would investigate whether this one had come from his team.
So he either misunderstood the MEP’s point or failed to acknowledge the real problem.
Which is: this is a leaky Commission, judging by the number of official documents that have already found their way to Brussels media outlets since it took over almost a year ago.
Often enough, leaks are either a deliberate act of shaping public narrative ahead of a policy presentation or a sign of dissent inside an institution about how policy is made or communicated to the public.
What is often forgotten is that the ‘art of the leak’, especially in Brussels, serves a higher purpose.
Even more so today, when the pandemic makes it so much easier to avoid unwanted questions and generally restrict press access to information, which is bad for accountability and the image of the institutions.
It is hard to preach transparency to rogue member states if you fudge such issues at home.
Needless to say, journalists have noticed.
For us, the press, whose main job is to hold those in power to account, digital communication can never fully replace face-to-face contacts with officials.
In a physical press room, it is much harder to ignore a question. If you do it virtually, while skim-reading a long queue of press questions, chances are that no one will even notice.
Technical background briefings for the selected few, or the complete lack thereof, before big policy announcements, have conveniently become something of a norm.
That is why accusing journalists of distorting the narrative by being too pessimistic, or lecturing them about the manner they report the news, while at the same time increasing barriers, smacks of hypocrisy, to say the least.
“It has never happened in the history of EU summits that Brussels-based journalists had access to so few sources of information and that the most of these sources were available only to a few media outlets,” the International Press Association (API) head tweeted after an EU summit earlier this year, those usually being information heaven for the thousands of journalists attending with all its background channels and sherpa briefings.
The same goes for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who seems to have developed a habit of doing journalist-free statements on camera, without taking any questions.
And the same goes for EU leaders, who also make doorstep statements on camera with rarely facing the press directly.
A journalist’s job is not transcribing official speeches or reporting on press releases. Our job is to ask questions.
In this sense, Várhelyi’s comments seem more fitting for the media reality in his native Hungary, than for an EU press room.
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Look out for…
- Justice and Home Affairs Council
- Commissioners Borrell and Lenarčič visit Addis Ababa
Views are the author’s