Media and the Citizen
Dr Martyn Bond
Head of the European Parliament Office in London 1989-2000;
Director of the Federal Trust 2000-2003; now Deputy Chair, London Press Club.
|Martyn Bond started by suggesting
that Europe is a mix of tribes. Some ancient languages or dialects have been
dying out, but still there were a number of strongly held minority languages (such as
Latvian). The effect of this was that more abstract pan-European concepts were not easy to
translate into a common experience. Local media were therefore at a significant
disadvantage in explaining ideas. English language now has a predominant effect on
informing the European demos. The once universal language of diplomacy, French, had lost
its pre-eminence, even though it did remain a core language. There are a large number of
other officially recognised languages, but the focus had to remain on
There were some 1100 journalists accredited in Brussels. Any media pack produced by the
European Commission was far larger than a corresponding pack produced in Washington, with
the advantage of a single language. The clarity of EC briefings varied, and then each EU
nation would probably brief from its own perspective. The messages could be carried by a
variety of media outlets an each would be used by different sorts of people. The
majority audience expected entertainment, and for their income most media must also
satisfy the interests of advertisers.
Mass communication theory suggested a sequence of filters: the raw source
(an event, issue or decision) à the
reporter (perception or impression) à editor (a gate-keeper imposing implicit or
explicit values) à the medium
used (style of language, sometimes the priority of visuals, sound/vision
bites) à the consumer
(level of attention, lack of interactivity, attention span has become shorter and shorter,
say 10-30 words) à impact
(the receivers values, balance of information or emotion, function in changing
opinions or values) à social outcome
(eg. voting for/against issues, empowering further involvement or action).
|In this context Martyn Bond then looked at a
selection of newspapers from that day, reminding his audience that we already had certain
preconceptions about whether a particular newspaper was positive towards Europe, neutral
or sceptical. Some articles were informative, where the only indication of prejudice was
the headline, or where the significance was devalued by being placed adjacent to a
pop image article.
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Referring to articles in the Metro and Daily Mail, he pointed out
that journalists know well that actual reading declines rapidly after the headline. As
expected, the Financial Times gave wider coverage and balanced views one
article that day emphasised a sharp rise in British support for EU 25%
six years ago, 42% this year according to a Eurobarometer survey.
Not only had Europe been changing, but so too had media ownership and significance.
The press was concerned about loss of media dominance over the years to TV, and more
recently to internet. To most Britons Europe was now the near abroad, with
greater familiarity perceiving the issues more as domestic news. The internet
in particular had provided a wider number of sources and more immediacy.
Questions from the audience brought out a number of points:
||Only major media can afford to keep skilled reporters in Brussels.
||Media with a mandate for impartiality (eg. the BBC) tend to regard
European Parliament and Commission sources as propaganda. But minor language
countries, with media in relative poverty, do rely on these sources.
||What did young people use for European information? Research showed
that 16-25 year-olds us ethe internet as a main source. Under-16s might find European
issues occurring in citizenship or history courses, but the issues tended to be presented
at a very low level.
||Could foreign ownership dominate the media? Martyn Bond did not
think that the press should be a protected species in an international free-market. With
so many media outlets available, interference in editorial policy was not particularly
productive. The Murdoch empire was more concerned with preventing EU implementing
anti-trust regulations that could damage its investment.
||Opening the Council of Ministers to media coverage would not
actually reveal how detailed policy emerges in committees and corridors Power
democracy, or more legitimacy?
Director of the Federal Trust
|To start with, Brendan Donnelly
emphasised, the European Union is a highly democratic organisation. All states joining the
EU had a democratic mandate from their own citizens. The European Commission has a
constitutional role to make proposals, which can then be endorsed by the Council of
Ministers. If the Constitutional Treaty had gone ahead greater democratic powers would
have been given to the European Parliament. But it should be remembered that already more
people have voted for the Treaty than have yet had the opportunity to vote for or against,
let alone the two countries voting against.
The real issue was legitimacy. The ministers for each country make decisions, and often
compromises. These can be misrepresented as Brussels diktats. It is then the
duty of national ministers and parliaments to explain to their own people the decisions
they have agreed to. It has been easy for national ministers to claim responsibility for
successful decisions, and allude to Brussels when the decision is less
National parliaments, after an election, have a new government or coalition. But after the
European Parliament elections it is difficult to see what differences in policy might
emerge. Political parties do not spread across Europe, so there is no focused political
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raised a number of issues for discussion between participants and Brendan Donnelly:
||The Constitutional Treaty was not really about a new Constitution,
but more a consolidation of accepted conventions.
||In France, the full Treaty and a summary were made available to all
voters. The UK government has not yet any motive to carry through a similar information
exercise, until a referendum takes place.
||The detail of EU legislation is developed by civil servants in
Brussels, but subsequently the legislation is interpreted and implemented by national
||There might be advantages in developing a recognisable party
political system across Europe, with political platforms to assist intelligent voting. But
currently that was not practical the labels meant different things in different
countries (eg. the political label Liberal). Nevertheless euro-parties might
help a European demos to emerge.
||Proportional representation, rather than open list
voting, was a requirement in the constitution of the European Parliament, but the
practicalities could be interpreted nationally. This tended to favour parties recognised
in national elections.
||European integration is often seen as bringing peace to Europe.
There were still powerful memories of World War 2, and the hope that developing common
ground would eliminate the causes of 19th and 20th century wars.
||Federalists were in favour of decentralisation, but this could also
work against transparency, because monitoring also has to become decentralised.
the EU democratic enough?
views from Westminster and the European Parliament
MEP for SE England. Liberal Democrat
MP for Arundel & South Downs. Conservative.
The session was moderated by
Editor, County Times newspapers, West Sussex
|Nick Herbert had launched a strong
campaign for a no vote on joining the euro, and against the Constitutional
Treaty, but he said he was not obsessed by European issues. He is currently shadow
spokesman on police reform.
The European Commission, he said, is a powerful civil service, not democratically elected.
Past problems with corruption had led to the resignation of the whole Commission. The
Council of Ministers is the only legislature outside North Korea that meets in
Voting for MEPs was by party list. Retirement or death of an MEP does not precipitate a
by-election, just moves the post to the next on the party list.
Only about half of the European Commission documentation is available to the public. All
controversial documents remain hidden. We should expect public disillusionment
if decision-making does not become more transparent. Accountability was a key problem in
the gap between the EU and its voters.
Sharon Bowles confessed that she was an MEP next on
the party list, replacing Chris Huhne after his election to Westminster. She said
that personally she disliked the party list system, but was not against proportional
representation by other methods. Realistically most Westminster MPs were indirectly
determined by a party list. As an MEP she felt she had not yet had time to go
native. She had seen the European Parliament voting down a bill and it was an
She had observed professional lobbyists in the EP, and learned to respect their work
they would not be credible if ever found to mislead. The timescale for complex
decision-making was a matter for concern. To make any progress there had to be
co-ordination between the parliamentary parties.
An illustration was the process of signing off on the EU budget. Really this
depended on each country being prepared to vouch for its local EU spending. In other
words, George Brown needed to set up a mechanism to monitor the UK part of the budget, and
put the Chancellors name to it.
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Nick Herbert, Gary Shipton, Sharon Bowles
Gary Shipton briskly steered the audience through a number of
||Proportional representation was a valuable tool for focusing voting
on the mainstream parties there was otherwise a risk of the balance of power being
held by a maverick party like UKIP.
||When it comes to referenda, most people vote on local rather than
||On the question of openness in the Council of Ministers Sharon
Bowles pointed to the risk of exposing conflict media adrenalin versus
insight. Nevertheless the voting should be open, and thus individual ministers would be
accountable. Nick Herbert agreed that the UK Cabinet was not analogous to
the Council of Ministers, but transparency will become an increasing theme.
||A final question asked each speaker if there was one piece of
legislation you would like to put through on your own. Sharon Bowles
chose her specialist area pensions and insurance companies. There was need to have
a pan-European standard, especially in the context of retirement mobility. Nick
Herbert emphasised employment legislation, and his desire to bring powers back