Holding the institutions to account: Brussels press corps still as relevant as ever

Tuesday, 30 April 2019 12:28
There are about 900 EU-accredited journalists in Brussels. Many of them feel frustrated over the lack of response and insight provided by the many institutions they report on. © NATO There are about 900 EU-accredited journalists in Brussels. Many of them feel frustrated over the lack of response and insight provided by the many institutions they report on. © NATO
Both Brussels’ and Belgium's federal government have long boasted of the country's capital city being a global press centre, second only to Washington, D.C.
The claim is that over 1,000 journalists are permanently stationed in the city serving hundreds of news agencies and websites, television broadcasters, radio stations and good old-fashioned newspapers.

Adding media hub to a list of other attributes, including Brussels’ role as the capital of Europe, has certainly helped sell the city as a place to set up business and establish an international governmental or non-governmental organisation.

Traditionally, the life of a foreign correspondent has revolved around reporting on the main European institutions: European Parliament, EU council of ministers and the European Commission with occasional trips out to NATO press conferences, especially if a US president deigns to visit. Add to that almost 850 international NGOs, and a myriad of lesser known institutions like the Committee of the European Regions and World Customs Organisation, you'll understand why so many journalists have congregated in Brussels.

Tom Weingartner, president of the International Press Association, the foreign correspondents' association, has notched up over 20 years of reporting on Brussels for German media. Arriving from Bonn, Weingartner found a Brussels press corps that was then much more constituted by full-time journalists from traditional media, especially before enlargement to the east in 2004 and 2007.

"Today, there are many colleagues who keep up other jobs alongside journalism so as to make ends meet. That may raise questions about independence, especially if these colleagues work on public relations," he said.

Feel-good news

Weingartner sees the hand of greater professionalisation in EU communication. "The EU now runs good news and press release services. They might not tell you what is really happening, but you do get a steady stream of feel-good news about the commission, parliament or council."

Weingartner does bemoan decreasing access to EU institutions today. "When I first came to Brussels, officials were more open and free to talk. It was easier to get in," he said. "Today, there is much more mistrust of journalists by the commission and other administrations."

Weingartner does see some positive changes, mainly thanks to technology. "It's only from 2005 or so that they started communicating more online. Today, you can see the press conferences online. You can follow many things just from your office desk."

Decreasing openness of EU institutions is something Catherine Feore detects. Feore has seen action on various fronts, working in the European Parliament and European Commission, as well as serving time in public affairs working on transport, research, environment and many other issues. Now a fixture at the commission's midday briefing, she regularly puts questions to the commission.

"The commission dismisses any question with the word "if" as hypothetical," said Feore. "If you ask why tax-dodger Lalaland is not on the tax haven list, you'll get a sigh of resignation and a long list of procedural details and boring methodology." Another way the commission avoids real answers is not commenting on comments. Feore attends the midday briefing mostly as a "routine", only rarely is there real news value from replies to questions.

Replying recently to Feore and fellow journalists enquiring about the latest twist in the Brexit saga, chief commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas appeared unusually tight-lipped on the podium in the press room. "I never speculate and not on speculation. I never reply to if questions," Schinas said. "I've nothing else to add," he added. And then he followed with a short and final: "We know what we know and what we don't know we expect to learn."

Truth by accident

"I come to the midday briefing to see if they tell the truth by accident," said James Crisp, correspondent for the UK's Daily Telegraph. Crisp is more positive than many colleagues about the level of transparency and value of news coming out of the commission. It's better, according to Crisp, than under previous commission president José Manuel Barroso who left office in October 2014. "You have to be at the midday briefing just in case. And if you ask a non-political and factual question, they're actually quite good," he said.

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Also somewhat positive is the Financial Times' Jim Brunsden. "The midday briefing can be useful. You get the official commission line. You don't get behind the scenes perspectives on policy-making. It's a pool of official lines to take." By being physically present, Brunsden said the commission's midday briefing gives you the chance to go further than just watching online. "You're holding the commission to account," said Brunsden. "It's our job to get the maximum out of these people. We have to work with that."

Others are less positive. "Now information is much more tightly controlled. I'm not enjoying it as much," said the Irish Times' correspondent Patrick Smyth. Smyth first arrived in Brussels in 1993 for a seven-year stint, followed by a period in Washington in the early 2000s. "Washington was very disappointing when I went first. It was very closed. But coming back to Brussels in 2017, I was struck by how much more like Washington it had become."

"Spokespeople are not members of the commissioner's inner circle anymore. They know less," said Smyth. He remembers commissioners briefing against each other in the 1990s. "You got a much better sense of the internal dynamics."

Quick, cheap and simplistic

"Twenty years ago, the Brussels press pack consisted of your typical foreign correspondent from each national newspaper, senior, serious, well supported and well paid," said Oliver Money-Kyrle, assistant general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. "That's being increasingly replaced by the struggling freelancer scraping a living by pitching to a range of clients article by article," he said.

Money-Kyrle does detect a drop in the overall quality of EU coverage in mainstream journalism. He points the finger at quick, cheaper and simplistic reporting based on press releases by EU institutions winning out over complex and expensive investigative journalism.

The financial aspect is also picked up by Maria Laura Franciosi. She arrived in Brussels in 1993 as a salaried foreign correspondent sent out by Italy's ANSA news agency. A founding member of the Brussels press club, Franciosi says it's financially much more difficult for many journalists in Brussels today. "Fewer colleagues have proper contracts. They're now paid by article," Franciosi said. Journalists arriving in the early 2000s from central and eastern Europe would be paid the top salary in their countries. A top salary in Bratislava, Warsaw or Budapest would only just pay the rent of an appartment within walking distance of the Berlaymont. "Some of these colleagues were making or serving pizzas in the evening. During the day, they'd be reporting on Europe. Some were even doing PR work," said Franciosi.

Another important change Franciosi picks out is the lower added value of actually being present in Brussels due to today's omnipresent webstreaming and flux of press releases, FAQs and press packages. "It was difficult then because of the technology," said Franciosi. "You had to run from one institution to another and be physically present to get the news," she said. Before the fax and computer, Franciosi would dictate stories down the telephone to typists in Rome. For very big stories, Franciosi had to get friends to bag a telephone for her to be ready to get the news out fast to Rome.

Bigger picture

"Being a foreign correspondent in Brussels used to be a stepping stone. That's gone today. It's no longer the pinnacle of your career," said Hans de Bruijn, who reported for Dutch regional newspapers from Brussels in the 1980s. He then went on to cover the Clinton years in Washington till 1997 before finally returning to Brussels after a stopover at his editorial office in The Hague.

"The big problem is you're usually a one-man shop covering everything. There's so much more information poured at you every day than there was in the 1980s. You can't cover everything; EU, NATO and Belgium, and cover it well."
"Too many people working for the EU institutions don't see the big picture themselves," said James Kanter. He came to Brussels in 2001 to write for the news agency Dow Jones and went on to report, for 12 years, for The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, first in Paris and then back again in Brussels. "It's concerning at a time when the entire EU project is under threat from nationalist and nativist forces, not just in the member states but also in Brussels itself." Kanter now is the editor of EU Scream, a not-for-profit progressive Brussels-based podcast about EU affairs. "We can still be for European integration without being slavishly pro-Brussels," said Kanter. 

Numbers

Former journalist, speechwriter and lecturer on journalism in Brussels, Gareth Harding has been digging out statistics for many years on the EU press corps. He counts only 259 journalists accredited to European institutions in 1976 with only nine members of the then European Economic Community. After Greece, Portugal and Spain joined in 1987, that number jumped to 480 and then again to 520 EU-accredited journalists in 1991 and 783 by 1995. With enlargement to the east, numbers shot up to 929 in May 2004, peaking at 1,031 in April 2005.

Numbers have decreased to some 850-900 EU-accredited journalists. Certainly, important technological factors have contributed to this, such as the rise of Internet with web-streamed press conferences and mail programs serving up press releases for thousands of journalists worldwide. But there is no wildly dwindling Brussels press corps as reappearing articles and blogs claim. And Harding even points to a resurgence in interest in Europe and Brussels. "Europe in the last ten years has hit the front pages in a way it never did before. Ukraine, Russia, eurozone, Brexit and refugees. Those stories interest the whole world," Harding said. That's a difference to the early days of Europe that appeared much more bureaucratic and process-driven: not the stuff of commanding copy. 

Brussels press club

Opening its doors in the rue Froissart in 2010, the Brussels press club (www.pressclub.be) has earned its place as a key venue for conferences and debates, mostly revolving around EU affairs with a healthy input from journalists. The press club was launched with much fanfare together by then commission president José Manuel Barroso. The Brussels region has been an important financial backer, keenly aware of the added allure that a press club can give a city.

Since 2010, the club has notched up notable moments, including a chaoatic press conference transmitted globally with Carles Puigdemont. Some 400 journalists and camerafolk crammed together to hear the politician hold his first press conference after being removed as Catalan president. Other press centres are Residence Palace next to the council building and the International Press Center (IPC), opposite the commission's Berlaymont building. But many journalists work out of the so-called 'bunker' — a workroom next to the commission's main press conference auditorium.

By Daffyd ab Iago

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