Parliament wants media to ‘better communicate’ EU

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Better communication of EU affairs by public service broadcasters is key to bridging the gap between the European Union and its citizens, said the European Parliament yesterday (7 September), highlighting in particular the "huge potential" of social media to reach out to young people. 

Low turnout in EU elections highlights "the need to continue efforts to overcome the distance between the EU and its citizens,"MEPs said, adopting a resolution drafted by Danish MEP Morten Løkkegaard.

The report calls on the EU to "foster the establishment of transnational media […], while tightening up the rules intended to safeguard pluralism and combat concentration of media ownership," identifying broadcasting Euronews in all EU languages and making the Parliament's EuroparlTV service "more effective" as ways of achieving this.

While acknowledging the "immense potential" of social media like Facebook and Twitter to reach young people, MEPs warned that "their reliability as sources cannot always sufficiently be guaranteed," that they "cannot be considered to be professional media" and may "give rise to serious breaches of journalistic ethics".

"Caution is required when taking up these new tools," the report declares, stressing "the importance of drawing up a code of ethics applicable to new media".

Controversy over broadcasters' independence…

The resolution was only passed after an alternative version, drawn up by the European People's Party (EPP), Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and liberal (ALDE) groups, was presented in place of the original report approved by the European Parliament's culture committee.

That resolution had demanded that public service broadcasters cover EU matters more widely, and urged governments, parties and politicians to do more to explain them to citizens (EURACTIV 25/06/10).

But yesterday's report stressed that while public service broadcasters "have a responsibility to cover the EU" and should set themselves "ambitious targets" in this regard, member states should must always ensure that the broadcasters are independent.

"Public service broadcasters hold the key to informing the European public on EU matters. Of course broadcasters have full independence to carry out the coverage as they see fit: the important thing is that they have EU coverage at all and that they take their responsibility seriously," said rapporteur Løkkegaard following the adoption of the alternative text.

Meanwhile, other controversial proposals adopted at committee level were removed from yesterday's resolution, including plans to introduce a European training programme to produce a "taskforce" of journalists covering EU affairs and a fund to support student media to cover EU matters.

"It would serve nobody's future interests buying up editors and newspapers. There is a spirit in your report that seems to blur the divisions between us and the independence of the media," German MEP Petra Kammerevert (Socialists & Democrats) told Løkkegaard.

"There is nothing wrong with appealing to broadcasters to cover more EU affairs but member state guidelines are the start of a slippery slope," Kammerevert warned.

Other more controversial proposals survived, however: the Parliament advocated "incorporating the EU more fully into all educational curricula" and teaching in schools "courses in journalism using new media".

…amid Conservative opposition

UK Conservative MEP Emma McClarkin had campaigned vociferously against the committee's text, claiming that rather than being a report that looked at how new media was changing journalism around the EU and the challenges and opportunities it provides, as was the intention, it had become a report which is all about how the EU institutions can better sell themselves to the public.

McClarkin said on Monday (6 September) that she would vote against the report, arguing that by focusing on ways to boost media coverage of EU affairs, MEPs had "missed an opportunity to look at encouraging democratic engagement through social media in deference to a vanity exercise".

The report "was initially meant to look at ways new media was changing journalism. However, it became a wish list for improving how MEPs and the EU institutions are reported in the media," complained the European Conservatives and Reformists group in a statement.

The adopted report encourages member states to nominate "specialised European affairs officers" responsible for explaining the implications of EU policies on the ground.

New role for Parliament information offices

Meanwhile, "the Parliament's information offices should play an active role in informing the public of its activities and this role should not only be done by EU staff coming from the institutions," Løkkegaard said.

"We have to look at new ways, where we hire experienced media professionals to undertake this role," he added.

Political parties "should give European issues a more prominent position in their programmes and national MPs should become more involved in EU policymaking, the report said.

The falling number of EU-accredited journalists is "extremely worrying," the parliamentarians found, urging the introduction of measures "supporting those currently in Brussels".

Hailing yesterday's adoption of the report, its author, Danish MEP Morten Løkkegaard (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), said "civil servants and politicians within the system should undergo in-service training to give them the skills needed to inform and communicate with the public".

"Social media has proven an excellent way to do this by giving the public a chance to have a look at what goes on behind the walls. And finally this is the easiest way for citizens to talk and debate directly with decision-makers," Løkkegaard said.

Given the present market situation in Europe, the media is becoming strongly influenced not by their readers, but by their 'benefactors' from business or government, said Bulgarian MEP Ivailo Kalfin (Socialsits & Democrats) during 7 September's European Parliament debate on freedom of expression and press freedom in the EU.

"Media freedom is an integral part of the system of fundamental rights and cannot be assessed outside of the context of democracy. In Bulgaria, the same as elsewhere, the media work under strong market pressure. Sales are going down, advertising revenues are shrinking, and new media are increasingly dissolving the boundaries between professional journalism and public affairs. Media with traditions and readership have become bankrupt under these market conditions," Kalfin stated.

"Unfortunately in Bulgaria a large number of media owners have their own interests in many domains - thus putting pressure on editorial policy – and also hope for favours and good relations with the government," he continued.  

"For its part, the government systematically demonstrates its disregard for the principle of independence of the institutions, including media regulators. The government's policy reached its peak when the prime minister asked for written answers from the editors of mainstream the media as to whether they feel pressurised. This was in fact another way to put pressure on the media," the Kalfin argued.

The Bulgarian MEP stressed that "the problems in Bulgaria aren't unique and they can be seen in other countries too".

He recalled that "the previous European Commission drafted a series of measures to protect and monitor media pluralism".

"Today we are in desperate need of that. Populism and aggression may appear as tempting to many, but they never brought the solutions required. I expect the European Commission to be proactive and to propose a solution. European democracy is at stake," Kalfin concluded.

Welcoming the adoption of the report, Ingrid Deltenre, director-general of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the world's leading association of national media organisations, said "we are pleased that [it] acknowledges the crucial contribution of public service media in getting the EU's message across to European audiences, and the importance of editorial independence and freedom of the media".

"Løkkegaard's proposals further contribute to our members' efforts in delivering unbiased, pluralistic and diverse information on the EU to European audiences," Deltenre added.  

The EBU welcomed the report's mention of the division of competences between the EU and its member states as laid down in the Amsterdam Treaty. "Under this principle, the latter retain competence in defining the remit, financing and organisation of their public broadcasting system. Moreover, in line with the fundamental right of freedom of the media, broadcasters develop their editorial guidelines," the EBU said in a statement. 

"The EBU welcomes the report's recognition of public service media's investment in new services covering EU news and current international affairs, especially on the Internet, in order to target a younger audience," the statement continued. 

In a statement released following the report's adoption, the International Press Association (API-IPA) welcomed the fact that the idea of creating "groups of journalists to impartially cover EU affairs" and other controversial proposals were scrapped from the final version voted upon in plenary. 

"Furthermore, we welcome the fact that the Parliament has included in the final text some ideas that are strongly supported by us, like the need to expand the training possibilities for journalists covering European affairs," the API-IPA statement continued. 

Speaking after the draft resolution had been adopted in June, UK Conservative MEP Emma McClarkin said "this report has been hijacked by some MEPs who want to change the rules on how the European Parliament is reported by forcing broadcasters to include more EU content, by funding training courses for journalists in EU affairs and by funding student radio and broadcasters to cover EU matters".

"It is completely unacceptable to use more taxpayers' money to promote the European Union. You can't buy newspaper or broadcast coverage. To do so is dishonest, manipulative and frankly something you would expect from an authoritarian regime," McClarkin added.

In recent years, the European Commission has launched several initiatives to tackle citizens' growing lack of trust and interest in the EU project. 

Following 2005's 'Plan D' response to the institutional crisis prompted by the 'no' votes against the EU's draft constitution in France and the Netherlands, a White Paper on a European communication policy was launched in 2006. 

Another initiative, 'Debate Europe', was launched in spring 2008 as part of the EU executive's new Internet and audiovisual strategies, which were unveiled ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2009. It is an online discussion forum on which all input is translated into all the EU's official languages. 

The Commission also opened its own channel on YouTube and revamped its central web portal Europa in an attempt to make it more user-friendly (EURACTIV 14/07/09EURACTIV 21/09/09). 

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