Eastern and Western Media Mirroring Stereotypes

Eastern and Western Media Mirroring Stereotypes


Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

Allow me to immediately give a brief answer to the headline of this session “Towards an European public sphere?” - I do not think we have one yet, and I am slightly skeptical as to the pace of the development towards it. When we look at the initiatives that have been taken to initiate pan-European media, they have all failed or are badly suffering (The European, L’Europeen, and EuroNews). A little bit cynically we can state that we might have a European public sphere when it comes to entertainment and sports (MTV, Eurosport etc.), but definitely not on the political level. Some might say that the business media, both press and online, are working within a European public sphere, but I think it is more correct to define this sphere as international or global than European.

Let me try to give some arguments for my skepticism.

The ongoing enlargement is the fourth in the history of the European Union. Through these enlargements the Union has developed from a small, almost intimate political and economic club, into a major free market area with a role to play in the global economy, and is now developing into a true political super-power by including the full Europe, drawing up its borders towards Russia, Ukraine, and the Middle East. The few remaining lagoons (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Albania and the republics from former Yugoslavia) might be added within the next 15 years. It is important to realize that reshaping Europe is also reshaping non-Europe and its views on the European Union: first of all Russia, but also Ukraine and Belarus.

The EJC has for the last five years continuously been developing its training programme for journalists and editors from Central and Eastern Europe. More than 100 training events, comprising 1500 journalists and editors have been carried out, dealing with both practical professional skills and with professional standards.

In the last year, we have been running a dedicated training programme, introducing the European Union, its institutions and its political agenda to journalists from the candidate countries. In these more than 20 seminars, which took place both in Maastricht/Brussels (for the major national media) and in 10 applicant countries (for journalists from the regional media), we have often encountered the issue of how the west European media have been covering the enlargement. In this short presentation I shall give some outlines of this, as well as point to some general trends in the coverage in the candidate countries. Let me warn you that I am printing the picture with a very broad brush. There are many nuances that I will not touch upon now.

The first very general statement is that media in the member states are covering the enlargement very scarcely and very unsystematic. Of course, we will find high level journalism dealing with enlargement in the major national quality dailies, but as soon as we turn to mainstream broadcast media, to the tabloids, and to the regional and local media, the coverage is almost non-existent.

In the booklet Reporting European Enlargement, published by the EJC after an international workshop in Vilnius in 1998 on the coverage of the enlargement, we can see that until recently, enlargement of the European Union has been treated in a fragmented and superficial way by the western media. The quite poor interest reflected - and to a certain degree still reflects - the behavior of the national governments in the member states, which simply didn't care about a process considered still as a distant prospect. I sincerely believe that the lack of priority given to the enlargement process by the single national governments in the member states is the biggest single reason for the many stereotypes and prejudices we find in the media.

The enlargement has so far been an “elitist” process. Only the policy-making elite in the European Union has understood the significance and perspective of this project. Corresponding to this, only the “elitist” media have been seriously concerned. That is not good enough. The latest public opinion poll conducted in the 15 member states by Eurobarometer shows that on the average only 43% of the citizens of the present member states support the enlargement. The most supported applicant country is Malta (49%) with support ranging from 36% in France to 72% in Greece. Support for Hungary ranges from 36% in France to 65% in Denmark and Sweden; for Poland, it ranges from 23% in Austria to 70% in Denmark. At the bottom, we find Turkey with an average support of 30%, ranging from 20% in Germany to 44% in Ireland. Enlargement is not an issue close to the hearts of the European citizens, and it does not explain itself. Neither do the perspectives in the process nor the difficulties that must be dealt with during this process.

In the report from the Vilnius-roundtable, it was also documented how the quality and the depth of the coverage varied from one Member State to another - the more remote from the candidate countries they were, the less attention they paid. Irish and British media paid very little attention. The distance-decay principle also determines what is then actually given priority in the media of the single countries: For instance is German press first of all interested in its neighbors Poland and the Czech Republic, while the Scandinavian media concentrate much of their coverage on the three Baltic states.

There is increasing coverage. No doubt about that, but the whole coverage of the enlargement only really began in July 1997 outside the very specialized media with the publication of the opinions on all candidate countries by the European Commission together with the draft Agenda 2000. With these substantial documents in hand, the major national media started to realize that there was a real political process underway, which had its own internal dynamism and hardly could be stopped.

The focus was very much on the financial side - Agenda 2000 was, and is explained as a sacrifice in the member states necessary to make enlargement possible. Quarrel among member states about money - lowering of price support in the framework or Common Agriculture Policy, phasing-out of structural funds for certain regions, fixing the ceiling of contribution at 1,27% of GNP - has become a major issue of EU internal policy and will remain so. This is the third general observation, we can make, namely that much of the coverage has focused on the budgetary outlays that the new members would require, and at the same time the financial burden that has to be carried by the candidate countries has been clearly disregarded in the Western media. So has the political destability that these burdens might bring with them.

Only lately, and this is the fourth observation, the Western media have started to make a serious "differentiation" among the candidate countries. Now we will find media carrying separate articles and analyses on the different countries, explaining at last that they aren't all the same, that there are huge economic, cultural, historical differences among them and also different prospects of adhesion. Some of these reports go beyond the touristic exoticism and are of high quality and do influence both the readership and the decisiontakers.

The fifth observation is a very banal one: The press in the different member states only covers the enlargement-related items, which are of immediate public interest to themselves. The perspective is too often parochial: German and Austrian press will analyze the impact of free movement of workers from the East and take sides in campaigns to allow the selling of land to foreigners in Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. Sweden, Denmark and Finland will closely follow the evolution of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, lobbying for the admission of all of them within the "first group". The French are more occupied with the competition of agricultural products while the Portuguese will brace for the clash with cheap textiles produced in future new members states. The southern "Club-med" will continue to be vigilant about losing money, competitiveness and also about the shift of attention of the EU northwards, at the expense of their Mediterranean neighborhood - although it seems as if there is some more enthusiasm about the enlargement now when both Cyprus and Malta are candidates. The perspective is predominantly national - and not European. As long as the national political debate does not include the enlargement issue as an important element, this perspective will not change, I am afraid.

In the middle of all this criticism, I actually do trust that there is progress in the coverage of the enlargement process. We had on Schumann Day a large roundtable in Maastricht with the participation of several negotiators and politicians from both the present member states and the candidate countries, and the funny thing was that there all of a sudden was certain optimism. Romano Prodi who joined the roundtable in a videoconference amplified this optimism. Maybe it was the good feeling in the hall where the Maastricht Treaty was once signed, or some mass suggestion, but there was an almost tangible optimism in the room. Not one forgetting about the problems but optimism based upon the many good results already achieved in the concrete negotiations. It is nevertheless imperative that the single Member State and the single candidate country fully realize the importance of the project and that the Union as such is able to successfully adjust itself to include more than 10 new members.

However, the responsibility for quality coverage of the enlargement also lies with the media themselves. They must invest in the level of knowledge of their staff, and in time for them. This goes for both national and regional media. Furthermore, as EU-matters have relevance for every aspect of social, political and economic life, it is necessary for almost all the reporters to get serious information about the EU and the enlargement process. Journalists - and their editors - must get access to all relevant information, public authorities must stop their playing hide-and-seek if they will avoid “strange stories”, public information officers dealing with enlargement issues must be better trained in working together with and not against the media, and finally - journalists themselves must work deliberately in setting up reliable sources and networks with colleagues from other candidate and member states. As it still is now, too much is left for the sudden, sensational, or xenophobic story.

Let me turn briefly to the candidate countries.

The media in Central and Eastern Europe also do not come together in one clear picture. There are big differences from country to country and within the single countries. Also, here is it evident that a small group of highly competent reporters, together with an equal small group of highly competent politicians and civil servants, have been leading the serious discussion about the enlargement.

At the same time however, colleagues from central and east Europe have rightfully been concerned about the general trend towards interpretation instead of reporting and they point to two dangerous developments in the reporting of enlargement: one is the hyper-enthusiastic, problem-avoiding coverage that leaves disbelief with its readers, and the other is the very nationalistic, almost paranoid coverage that leaves the readership with fear and anxiety. Both approaches are based upon an ungracious mixture of stereotypes and lack of true knowledge about the enlargement process.

For countries, that has been either directly a part of the Soviet Union or closely tied to the Soviet Union through the Warsaw Pact, there is a natural skepticism towards another hyper-national union - now when independence - has finally been achieved. Then we can of course always discuss if you have more or less sovereignty as a member of a big, strong club or outside this club. The fear for the alien bureaucratic Brussels-monster is something we know of in some member states (my own for instance, DK), but when the media play upon this fear without the citizens having any alternative reference, nationalistic and very rightist movements have a much too easy ride. In the previous presentations, the dichotomy between emotional and rational opinions and attitudes has been raised. I am a strong and hopelessly optimistic believer in the ideals of enlightenment, of training. I do believe that more knowledge will lead to a better platform for the journalists to make the right stories and further for the citizens to have a better background for making their choices. Still, one should never underestimate the influence of the emotional side of politics.

The more primitive black-and-white picture is also supported because the discussion in the media hardly deals with the major political perspectives of the enlargement, the security issues. Most of the discussion is concentrated on what is in this enlargement for us, here and now. This goes for the politicians as well as for the citizens. If you have this attitude, then the slightest backlash in the negotiations or the national economy is enough to fuel the anti-movement. Instead of admitting and explaining the difficulties and the burdens that they candidating countries will encounter, many politicians in the candidate countries have the same tendency as in the member states to avoid talking about the difficult issues. It is much easier to “blame it on Brussels” when it goes badly. The same politicians will sure enough know how to take the honor for it when it goes well.

Many western media is concerned about the financial problems in several of the candidate countries or about the crime rate, the nuclear power plants or other environmental issues. Very often rightfully so. During the last year, the serious media in the candidate countries have rightfully become equally concerned with some of the existing problems for the present member states. First of all the necessary and difficult institutional reform, that can potentially explode the whole enlargement strategy. How can the present consensus-oriented decision-taking process survive when there are more than 25 member states? How can the fragile balances between large and small, rich and poor, north and south be maintained when more than 10 new countries enter into these paradigms plus opening a new one: east and west?

Another issue, which is being well tackled by the serious press in the candidate countries, is the political developments within EU that can instigate hostility towards the accession of new members. The recent developments in Austria have fuelled the polarization in both member states and candidate countries towards enlargement, because closer collaboration and internal market all of a sudden was implying a demonized migration from east to west. This demonized picture is kept alive by much western media although reality shows that there are more west Europeans living and working in the candidate countries than the other way around.

Concluding, I would like to mention two more points. Firstly, that it is important to remember that the enlargement coverage is difficult because the whole enlargement process is extremely complex and contains - at least - four levels, and each of these is already a match for most media: the more global political level comprising the relationship between east and west Europe and between Europe and Russia; the more internal political level comprising the weakened but still existing division in the east between the countries to enter first and the second wave and between those which are accepted as candidate countries and those which are not - yet; thirdly, the technical level concerning the concrete negotiations on all the different issues from agriculture to education; and finally, the internal EU level concerning the necessary institutional and financial reforms of the EU and the balance between the present member states.

Secondly, I would like to briefly point our attention to the online media and the rapidly increasing importance of these media all over Europe. One could maybe say that the Internet is offering, not just a European but a global public sphere. Again, as with television, the public sphere is concentrated on entertainment and private matters more than politics. At the same time as the Internet is increasingly used for news updating, online sources grow by the day. Journalists covering the enlargement process have access to a rich variety of electronic sources and it is important that reporters learn how to best possible work with these sources - where to find them, how to use the short-cuts, how to validate them and hence to avoid the less reliable ones.

Without embarking into a long speech on the enlargement as such, I believe it is fair to stress that it is indeed one of the politically most important developments since the Berlin Wall was torn down 11 years ago. Well-informed and well-trained media professionals must help securing a free and open discussion about the enlargement process without underestimating neither the complexity of the issue nor its political importance. The press should not act as a PR office for the Union in its endeavors towards enlargement. It is not the role of the media to advocate enlargement or the opposite, but to report it seriously, including initiating and maintaining the public debate about the issue.

We know now that the European Commission has made 150 Mio. Euro available for information actions on the enlargement process for the next six years - which by the way says something about the expected time-horizon for the enlargement. It is important that this money is not used to fancy, glamorous advertising campaigns, but are used to stimulate knowledge about the enlargement and give exposure to the full menu of different opinions, also the critical ones. Let us hope that some of this money will be used to train and further-train the media professionals from all over Europe, not least by bringing them together crossing the borders and providing them with the opportunity to share experience and learn from each other. The European Journalism Centre has prepared and will certainly propose several training-actions within this field to the EU-offices in the member states and in the candidate countries. I will be happy to explain more about our proposals should you wish so.

Thank you for your attention.

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