Has ‘boring Brussels’ just got exciting?
A new report by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism says news desks believe their audiences have found stories about Brussels too boring and technical in the past. However, most Brussels-based reporters believe that a more divided parliament, with one third of the MPs representing Eurosceptic parties of various kinds, has created the drama to make parliament easier to cover.
The findings come in 'Reporting the EU' by John Lloyd, a Senior Research Fellow at RISJ and Cristina Marconi, journalist and RISJ Fellow, in the latest of the Institute's 'Challenges' series.
Interviews with news desks show that at the start of the Eurozone crisis, many of the journalists covering the EU struggled to understand the complexity of the financial and monetary crisis. The mechanisms developed to deal with it were outside of the expertise of many – though most worked hard to improve their understanding, with some taking crash courses in economics and finance.
The report finds that the Brussels press corps remains large, but has declined in numbers of full-time correspondents. The decline in numbers is especially negative for those states most affected by the crisis, such as Greece. Popular newspapers rarely have a permanent correspondent in Brussels.
Brussels lacked sufficient drama and well-known personalities to make good copy. However, the crises afflicting the EU in the past few years have made covering Brussels more central to the news agendas. It finds that strongly Eurosceptic reporting is still a minority, but this is still dominated by the UK. This tradition was set in the 1980s by, above all, The Sun when edited by Kelvin MacKenzie and The Daily Telegraph when its EU correspondent was Boris Johnson, presently Mayor of London. However, critical voices, including from those strongly in favour of greater integration, are much more in evidence today. Many correspondents report that their audiences at home are themselves more sceptical, even hostile, to the European project.
Report co-author John Lloyd, RISJ Senior Research Fellow and a contributing editor to the Financial Times, said: 'We are on the brink of a fascinating time for journalism from Brussels. Politicians have been elected who have a reputation for being outspoken and populist, keen on starting controversies and using abrasive language. This sort of fare is bread and butter for journalists struggling to engage their readers with stories about the EU. However, this political climate is likely to make it even harder for reporters to attempt to explain the substantive decisions and policies under discussion in the EU. For a journalism which claims to hold power to account and act in the public interest, it is likely to do little. For journalism that wants to interest people, it is a large step forward.'
Cristina Marconi, a freelance journalist who covered Brussels for Italian newspapers, said: 'To assume that a public largely ignorant of the main pillars of their public life can properly orient themselves is increasingly a luxury we cannot afford. The European Union is powerful, multi-national and has been and remains the centre for aspiration, challenge, the embedding and spreading of democratic governance – as well as sceptical polemic, charges of failure and weak leadership. It’s the perfect place for a journalism that holds its power to account.'