Civil society Implementation

Revision of press policy floated by Commission makes waves

Commission proposal to also allow non-Brussels based press into off-the-record briefings is criticised by Brussels journalists for undermining the trust relationship required for quality journalism – while others question the press corps’ commitment to openness.

The Berlaymont Press Room. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Should the same standard of the openness of conduct that is demanded of the European institutions also be applied to the Brussels press corp, or would the quality of reporting suffer from doing so? This interesting question appears to be at the heart of a recent insider controversy within journalistic circles.

Press policy in times of social distancing

The origin of the controversy lies in the Commission’s revision of its press engagement with the press after the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic. As the European institutions were last year going into partial lockdown as a precautionary measure against the spread of the virus, opportunities for the press to contact EU officials were also reduced. Doorstep and ‘en marge’ press moments alongside EU summits, regular full-scale press conferences, and informal briefings were all downscaled, partially moved online, or temporarily abandoned. Reporters lamented having to cover European Council summits from their kitchen table.

In a trend observed in governments across the world, outward communication became less spontaneous and more directed, and journalistic activity more curtailed and dependent on government content, to the extent that journalists and fellow-travellers have come to ask “Will journalism recover from Covid-19?”.

In the EU context, complaints were raised about senior Commission officials, not least Commission President Von der Leyen herself, frequently bypassing the press corps to increasingly communicate directly to audiences via social media channels. Original footage and unstaged interactions became rare. Frustration was also voiced over diminished interactions resulting from digital press conferences, in which journalists had fewer opportunities to probe and ask follow-up questions. “[W]e have the impression that a lot of doors have closed, and it will be very difficult to open them again”, one journalist characterises the situation.

The Von der Leyen Commission is a social media-focussed Commission, much to the frustration of some EU reporters.

Proposed revisions

Against this background, the idea, floated by senior Commission spokesman Eric Mamer, to turn the reliance on digital press briefings into a permanent feature post-pandemic has touched a sore spot with certain journalists in the Brussels press corps.

The Commission’s proposed revisions are as of yet not entirely clear, publicly available written details on them apparently being absent. What is clear is that the Commission considers placing some pandemic-time innovations on a permanent footing, including the idea to turn press briefings into hybrid events allowing journalists from outside of the Brussels-based corps to participate via video link. This would significantly expand access for non-accredited journalists.

After Mamer made these suggestions in a recent meeting with the International Press Association (API), this triggered a response with several veteran journalists. Euractiv wrote a panic-stricken article, referring disparagingly to the Commission’s “press ‘ideas'” (between parentheses), and quoting long-time EU reporter and former API president Lorenzo Consoli who expressed his worry about the Commission’s proposals, stating that the new measures would undermine the trust base between press and the institutions that he argued inevitably requires the type of personal acquaintance that derives from controlled access. “How could an EU source trust and share information with journalists that they have never met in person?” he is quoted as saying.

Consoli’s sentiment was echoed by several reporters on twitter, who linked the proposed reforms to questions of transparency and the quality and free flow of information, one of them lashing out at the Commission by questioning the proposals’ impact on Commissioner Jourova’s recent proposal to strengthen European media freedom. Another veteran Brussels correspondent, Jean Quatremer, on twitter ridiculed Mamer’s proposal as follows:

His dream: a virtual press room for eternity and above all a press room open to the whole world to drown accredited correspondents. Thus, the newspapers will give up sending journalists to Brussels and the Commission will be free to do what it wants.

Yet the critical journalists’ response soon also met with a backlash from the circles of freelance and investigative journalists. Alexander Fanta for example criticised the model defended by the Brussels press corp as “old-school” and too dependent on a “model of access journalism”. This critique resonates with an 8-year old academic study of Council press policy, which concluded that the institution’s press officers only provide journalists with a very limited and curated picture of what proceeds in the negotiation room.

EUObserver’s Peter Teffer and Investigate Europe’s Sigrid Melchior expressed similar sentiments, implying a criticism of Brussels-based journalists as being too protective of their turf at the expensive of an opportunity for wider access and openness. Similar criticism from Hungary’s far-right nationalist justice minister Judith Varga however was quickly shot down by Hungarian reporter Katalin Halmai as hypocritical pro-transparency posturing, given the Hungarian government’s own notorious inaccessibility.

Moral undertones and role reversal

The current reform discussion is thus riddled with moral undertones, strife and power play, and role reversal. Moral undertones are notable in the disconcerted response of accredited journalists, who feel that the newly proposed measures represent an underhand, ‘never waste a good crisis’ type of institutional intervention designed to curtail their ability to deliver high-quality reporting on EU decision making. But also in their critics’ denouncement of the journalistic style that these journalists are seeking to protect, and the many journalists based in the member states that this cuts off.

Strife and power play is observable in the negotiation of the modalities of visibility between the Commission and Europe’s press corps (who gets access when, where and how), but also between ‘establishment journalists’ and -relatively often freelance and perhaps not API-accredited- outsiders.

And a role reversal is overwhelmingly clear in the way that the transparency question, typically a favourite journalistic stick with which to beat the Commission, is now asked to journalists themselves. If journalists call out the Commission for its secretiveness, shouldn’t they cheer for transparency when given the opportunity? Or do different transparency standards apply to different actors?

Be that as it may, the press plays a pivotal role in generating publicity of political processes in the EU to a wider audience of European citizens. As a seminal political science article from 2010 on the relation between transparency and anti-corruption campaigning and accountability plausibly argued, it is journalistic interlocutors, more than disclosure policies and social media communications, that make governments visible in meaningful ways. To give an example, the Open Government in the EU blog itself strongly relies on quality reporting from Brussels-based journalists for its regular digest of English-language EU transparency news.

In spite of the somewhat self-referential and symbolic nature of the current discussion, it is thus nevertheless one that is of import to the question of how transparency measures shape the access of wider European publics to what goes on in the EU.

This piece was revised on 20/05/2021 to remove the incorrect suggestion that the reform proposed by the Commission is related to or contingent on API membership.