Commentary on the European Commission White Paper on a European Communication Policy

The European Federation of Journalists, the largest organisation of journalists across the European Union, representing unions and associations of journalists in all member countries, welcomes the opportunity to comment on the White Paper on a European Communication policy.

As we do so, we applaud the aspirations of the Commission as set out in the introduction to broaden its commitment to inform citizens and to put communication at the service of all people across the European Union.

Equally, the EFJ believes that the desire to strengthen communication work and to raise awareness among Europeans of the activities and work of the European Union institutions is a shared objective of policymakers and media.

However, we are not convinced that this paper sufficiently values or appreciates the crucial role of professional and independent journalists to mediate between the European institutions and the public.

Certainly, we recognise the commitment to better communication with citizens and we endorse the calls for an enhanced debate and dialogue that will promote the creation of a European public sphere. But such a debate must be informed. People need access to a range of opinions, ideas and competing thoughts, all of which are best expressed through a commitment to pluralism in communications practice.

In this regard we would support strongly the issuing of a clear mission statement by the Commission which highlights the common principles set out in the White Paper of transparency, diversity, inclusiveness, participation and pluralism.

Such a statement should, in particular, stress the following:

• The Commission’s belief in open government, and the need for freedom of information policies across the European Union;

• A renewal of the Commission’s support for access to information, at all levels, of government and administration including protection of sources;

• Support for the removal of all obstacles to the exercise of free expression, including laws that are restrictive of what journalists and others may report and which permit access to all meetings where laws are enacted.

What European Commission President Barroso said when launching the European Transparency Initiative should apply to the EU Communication Policy:

“We’ll discuss the future of Europe in June. But there is one conclusion we can already draw: we need greater transparency and stronger accountability towards the public if we are to maintain the legitimacy of European decision-making.”

The EFJ is not convinced that a specific European Charter or Code of Conduct on communication is necessary.

While we acknowledge the commitment to the voluntary principle in the operation of such Charter or Codes, the EFJ believes that new Charters or Codes may open the door to actions in relations with media organisations and journalists that could prove intrusive and potentially damaging to existing methods of self-regulation within media.

We believe that existing commitments and statements of rights regarding information and communications as set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the various Treaties all provide an adequate framework for securing the rights of all citizens to free expression and access to information.

The challenge, of course, is to create an enabling environment that will ensure these rights can be enjoyed by everyone.

The proposals in the White Paper regarding civic education, connecting the citizens and connecting citizens and public institutions provide thoughtful suggestions which should be followed up, but we would also like to see the addition of initiatives to promote media literacy and media in education which are an essential part of helping Europeans to better understand the rapidly-changing information environment in which they live.

We also note that the European Union institutions are making steps to improve transparency and scrutiny of the democratic process, but we believe they could go further. The Seville European Council agreement that the Council should meet in public when enacting EU legislation jointly with the European Parliament is a start. But it does not go far enough. The EFJ believes that all meetings of the Council should be open to the public when enacting European Union legislation.

No laws should be passed which affect the lives of Europeans without the fullest possible scrutiny, including the televising of all meetings, something which is now the case in almost all European Union national legislatures.

Further, the EFJ believes that more work needs to be done to strengthen European transparency, particularly by ensuring that citizens have the fullest possible information on the relations between the European Union institutions and all political, corporate and social interests groups who are engaged in lobbying for support for their causes.

A comprehensive register of lobbyists, with yearly statements of financial interests and a formal listing of activities, meetings and relevant payments deployed in the exercise of lobbying European Union interests, is essential. This would improve transparency and ensure that all Europeans are aware of the influence of significant corporate and political groups on European Union affairs.

This fullest possible disclosure of detail of relations in this area would, we believe, build greater public confidence and would greatly assist the efforts of the EU institutions to connect with citizens.

The EFJ notes the Commission’s concern over media coverage of European issues and we believe the White Paper correctly analyses the challenges, but we are seriously concerned about the tone of the White Paper when it proposes that a European communication policy “should encourage public bodies at European, national and regional level to supply the media with high-quality news and current affairs material…”

Our anxieties are based on the knowledge that, only a short time ago, there was consideration within the Commission of proposals to establish an institutional media service that might provide information in competition with the work of independent, media professionals.

Indeed, the proposed transformation of the Europe by Satellite to produce high-quality audiovisual content beyond the coverage of press conferences, debates and activities within the institutions raises concern within the journalists’ community. The notion of supply of “material” as set out in the White Paper goes further than providing the raw material of information which journalists and others are able to use, in the context of independent professional and ethical judgement, to provide a service to citizens.

We note with some anxiety that the Commission is thinking of “providing material” at national and sub-regional level, with a “notion of adapting the information to the needs of different countries and segments of the population.” While it is always useful to ensure that information is tailored to suit different audiences – available in the local languages, with local sources for journalists and others to use, for instance – we are concerned that the level of discretion applied in “adapting the information” might border on editorial judgments that are best left to media professionals.

In this regard, we are concerned that too much of the Commission’s thinking is around strategies to get media to tell a “good news” story about the European Union. Much of the philosophy appears to be based on the idea that if journalists won’t tell the story as the Commission want it told, they will do it themselves.

Many in journalism are rightly concerned that behind this “new approach” is good old fashioned political public relations, through the provision of governmental information services that project positive messages as an alternative to independent, journalistic reporting.

The danger, as has been recently exposed in the United States, is that providing stories, whether sophisticated video packages or prepackaged articles, can lead to “imposter journalism,” which is often little more than propaganda posing as legitimate journalism.

Indeed, the Bush administration in the United States has spent tens of millions of dollars on fake journalism which has promoted government policy. Some of this propaganda has been used by mainstream media without informing readers and viewers of its true origins. It is a form of deception that we don’t want to see operating in Europe.

The creation of a reliable, independent and professional public information space is vital to building public confidence. People need to be confident that the information they are getting is accurate, independent and truthful and that it is not driven by political interests.

The European Union should not be involved in the provision of “official” stories that can be confused with genuine and independent journalistic work. At a time of economic uncertainty and editorial budget cuts, some media may be tempted to use such services to fill gaps in their coverage, but this should never be done without disclosure at all levels. The Commission should not seek to substitute itself as an alternative to professional media outlets for the dissemination of official information.

An example of an unhappy development in this area is the decision to limit the access of professional photographers and camera staff in the coverage of formal activities in Brussels – diplomatic visits and other formal occasions, for instance. The idea that using official photographers and providing photographs for free via the Internet is a satisfactory alternative to independent professional coverage of such events, demonstrates our fears very well. The professional eye is able to capture nuances and body language at such events that can provide an important element in the journalistic record. Official photographs, subject to political oversight, inevitably cannot meet the same standards. This European Union ban on journalists in favour of in-house photographers reveals a lack of respect for independent media.

Having said this, the European Federation of Journalists does believe that there are a number of practical and positive actions that the Commission and other Institutions can take to assist media, to encourage well informed journalism and to improve the scope of reporting.

• First, we would support the suggestions by many of the journalists working from Brussels who seek to have more useful and reliable background information for journalists;

• Second, we suggest that the institutions should increase levels of transparency. More visibility for enactment of laws, more disclosure of the relationship between the institutions and lobbying groups, and more effort to provide access to documents at an early stage will all be helpful.

• Thirdly, we suggest that the Commission sets the standard for transparency by providing an annual report on its financial relations with journalists and media, highlighting projects and programmes which provide financial assistance to journalists and media institutions. Disclosure in this area is a valuable way of improving public confidence.

• Fourthly, the Commission should create transparent and accountable structures for media assistance, including help for journalists to attend and report on Commission and European Union event, to which accredited journalists and freelances may apply and with accountable rules of procedure so that assistance goes to those who most need it.

• Fifth, the Commission should offer further training courses for journalists including freelance journalists on deepening knowledge regarding the European institutions, its legislative and participatory mechanisms and impact on national legislation and life of citizens. Such training should be based on the notion of independent journalism.

The EFJ commends the efforts of Brussels-based media and journalists’ groups which have drafted their own code of practice seeking to set standards of transparency. Support for this sort of self-regulating process would do much to increase confidence in the communications approach of the Commission. A copy of that code, which has been endorsed by the European Federation of Journalists, is attached to this paper.

There are additional actions that could be taken, such as looking at ways of promoting and supporting ethical journalism through the promotion of an independent foundation to support investigative journalism or supporting media-driven efforts to promote dialogue and enhanced professionalism.

Finally, the EFJ acknowledges that the involvement of key actors in the evolution of communications policy is crucial. Political parties, member states, civil society organisations and the EU institutions are all essential to the process. And so are journalists groups and media.

The White Paper rightly identifies the major challenge of developing a European public information sphere at local level. However, it is clear that the battle for clarity of vision, quality of content, and efficiency of service depends upon the actions of member states, many of whom play a negative role in communications work because their engagement in this area serves predominantly national political needs rather than wider community interests.

The action of governments and political groups in feeding stories to local media that serve their own narrow, short-term political interests contributes to a profound uncertainty in the public mind about attachment to the European Union.

Media certainly reflect the realities of this dualism and the confusion that is caused as a result in the communication of the EU message, but they are not responsible for it.

Much can be done to ease the passage and flow of information, but it is the political voice that determines, in the end, the credibility and authenticity of the common European Union project.

Good quality information, timely and useful is essential to people’s understanding of Europe. That is why professional, ethical and informed reporting should be at the heart of any communications and information strategy.

This White Paper makes a start, but it has some way to go in satisfying the needs of journalists and it is by no means the last word in finding a lasting solution to the crisis of public confidence that has interrupted the steady progress of the European project in recent years.

The EFJ and its member unions at national level appreciate to be consulted throughout the process of defining the Communication strategy and other related media issues.