The European Commission press service has come up with a number of “ideas” about the future of press briefings in Brussels, seeking to make online events introduced during the pandemic a new norm and open to journalists across Europe.
The cabinet of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is believed to support these ideas, presented by chief Commission spokesman, Eric Mamer, in a recent meeting with the International Press Association (API).
EURACTIV has learnt that Mamer suggested opening up regular technical and off-the-record briefings to journalists across the EU.
If the idea is implemented, reporters outside Brussels will have the right to ask questions just like Brussels-based correspondents. If the system proves to be effective, it may pave the way for applying it to press conferences too, something that Brussels correspondents oppose.
Mamer also wants to maintain the daily midday briefing as a hybrid system, where accredited Brussels journalists can participate and ask questions in person and via video conferences.
“We have had discussions with API simply on the possible changes the virtual system currently in use could allow for in the longer term,” an EU spokesperson told EURACTIV.
“In agreement with API, we already allow up to 10 non-accredited journalists to join the midday briefing and press conferences. We remain in contact with API to draw the lessons of these developments,” the spokesperson added.
Lorenzo Consoli, a former president of API and a veteran of Brussels reporting, told EURACTIV he felt deep concern about these ideas, clarifying though that he was speaking in a personal capacity.
The API plans to discuss the issue in depth at a general assembly of all EU accredited journalists, and then decide.
“We were surprised by some of these ideas as they affect us at the very core of the way we work,” Consoli said, warning that having non-accredited journalists in background briefings would dramatically alter relations of Brussels correspondents with their sources.
“How could an EU source trust and share information with journalists that they have never met in person?” he wondered, adding that because of this lack of trust, EU sources will share less useful information in background meetings, which will inevitably affect the quality of Brussels-based correspondents’ work.
Consoli explained that these ideas will result in a situation where being in Brussels will have almost zero added value and “the number of correspondents will decrease”.
According to available data, the number of accredited journalists in January 2019 was 843 while today they have dropped to 760, mostly due to the impact of the pandemic.
What could be discussed, according to Consoli, are the “very technical” briefings, where “if some Brussels correspondents cannot follow in detail, I think we could accept the idea of having expert journalists in specific fields following these technical meetings, but upon agreement of the correspondent in Brussels”.
‘We are not followers but journalists’
Consoli admitted that with the pandemic and successive lockdowns, Brussels correspondents had to adjust fully to the digital world. But according to him, this should not be the norm.
“The Commission believes that this has to continue and become the new narrative. This is a big mistake. Things need to get back to normality with the physical presence of journalists as a rule,” he said, adding that any possible change toward a more digitalised system should be discussed and agreed with journalists.
Consoli also raised the issue of how the Commission has chosen to spread its main news during the pandemic, hinting that Brussels journalists were bypassed.
“The vast majority of ‘big’ news during the pandemic was published either through Twitter or through Commission’s videos on social media. They are treating us as followers, not as journalists. Our role is to scrutinise, not follow a narrative,” Consoli said.
EURACTIV contacted several Brussels correspondents who did not see the Commission’s ideas in a positive light.
One of them, who spoke on condition of anonymity, voiced hope that the EU executive does not have hidden motives behind these ideas.
“Correspondents in Brussels deeply know the institutions and sometimes come up with tough questions as their role suggests. I hope these Commission ideas do not intend to make EU policymakers’ life easier. We are not here to spread the EU propaganda but make Europe better,” the correspondent said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]