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Not actually intended as a guide for Daily Mail editors
November 21, 2011 11:28 AM   Subscribe

A short guide to lazy EU journalism: not sure how the EU works or what institutions are involved? –> Just write “Brussels”.

And nineteen more rules for writing about the EU and Europe for lazy journalists. Previously.
posted by MartinWisse (68 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
13. Symbols are more important than substance. Stories about what people had for breakfast or diner, something about flags or anthems are great examples. Always mix personal stories about EU leaders with national prejudices. You will be surprised: it always works.

This is so true it causes me physical pain.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:38 AM on November 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Stories about what people had for breakfast or diner

Diner? That's French. Bonkers Brussels trying to force their spellings on the honest Brit. If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!
posted by howfar at 11:43 AM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


21. Don't bother to copyedit or spellcheck your snarky blog posts.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:52 AM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Brussels
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 12:21 PM on November 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Ah, but journalists* aren't always lazy, and they know well enough about how the EU works. Many EU stories often contain at least a kernel of the truth, if you're smart and open enough to look for them.

See, journalists aren't stupid enough to mix up the European Court of Human Rights with the European Court of Justice, they just know that the average reader is, especially if you repeat it often. The more absurdity they can create by blurring institutions and obfuscating history, the better it sells. For example, they know full well that English banknotes have only borne images of the monarch since 1960, but won't let you know that when raising your ire about how the eurobankers' plan to take it away. Nor will they let you calm yourself from the fear of the evil French metric system by telling you that the UK made it legal for use in 1896, and first swore to adopt it in 1902!

Journalists have created an milchcow audience of know–nothing jingoists, and their bank balances like it that way.

*Should we use scare quotes for "journalists"?
posted by Jehan at 12:34 PM on November 21, 2011


I think there are serious and sincere problems with a body of unelected officials which sees fit to step into the governance of whole nations on economic bases. It's funny that, at a time when the EU is exercising more power and influence on the governments of member nations than it ever has in history, some of us seem more concerned about the fact that tabloids are bad at printing accurate stories than about the looming possibilities that come along with the confluence of heightening involvement of the EU in the administration of its member governments on the one hand and heightening involvement of large financial institutions like Goldman Sachs in the administration of the EU on the other. Should we really be concerned about the laziness of a few journalists at a time like this?
posted by koeselitz at 12:34 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


not sure how the EU works or what institutions are involved? –> Just write “Brussels”.

I think I speak for all Americans when I say that I have no idea what you are talking about, but if it has to do with Brussels sprouts, I'm against it.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:41 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Should we really be concerned about the laziness of a few journalists at a time like this?

Yes, because if people are regularly being fed a pack of half-truths and outright lies, how can they be expected to have any kind of informed or nuanced stance on political issues?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:41 PM on November 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


If only American news media could be worldly enough to rise to the level of these complaints.
posted by ardgedee at 12:41 PM on November 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


from article: “10. Don’t mention that ministers might have a veto over EU policy –> Just write about how the EU destroys national sovereignty.”

But there are cases where ministers don't have a veto over EU policy. That's precisely the situation we're confronting now. Two prime ministers have been forced out of office in their respective nations over the past month simply because their attitudes didn't square nicely with EU policy. It seems distinctly as though this list is intended to obscure that fact.
posted by koeselitz at 12:42 PM on November 21, 2011


me: “Should we really be concerned about the laziness of a few journalists at a time like this?”

le morte de bea arthur: “Yes, because if people are regularly being fed a pack of half-truths and outright lies, how can they be expected to have any kind of informed or nuanced stance on political issues?”

I agree. But because I agree, it seems almost criminal to waste time whinging about the stuff tabloids have always and will always print. If there are pertinent points to be made, if we need to think about and talk through what's actually happening in the EU, let's do that. Let's not stand around obscuring the real issues by complaining about stuff that doesn't actually enter into the actual events at hand.
posted by koeselitz at 12:45 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think there are serious and sincere problems with a body of unelected officials which sees fit to step into the governance of whole nations on economic bases.

Which body is this?

Should we really be concerned about the laziness of a few journalists at a time like this?

A few does not quite cover it. Reporting on EU issues is very poor in most if not all countries. In times of crisis it is even more important that we get correct information about the decisions being made, instead of the latest "outrage".

Two prime ministers have been forced out of office in their respective nations over the past month simply because their attitudes didn't square nicely with EU policy

Did you notice how the people of Greece were rioting on the streets, demanding for the prime minister to resign (among a lot of other things, most of which the resignation will not bring forth). Or how Berlusconi's resignation was not somehow ousted by "EU Officials" but rather by losing the majority support in the parliament.
posted by Authorized User at 12:48 PM on November 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


Reporting on EU issues is very poor in most if not all countries.

Also, it isn't just tabloids. Even "quality" papers tend to produce piss-poor EU reporting. Must be the Belgian beer...
posted by Skeptic at 12:51 PM on November 21, 2011


Also, I'd kind of like to see this accompanied by a list of guidelines for media sources in Europe (and the US) for when they'd like to write a nice article demonizing Greeks. It's a good idea to cite vague "studies" indicating that Greeks have a "high standard of living" and then note that not all of them pay income taxes, and then talk up the massive amount that the average Greek owes to the average German. This kind of quasi-racism sells a lot of papers, and plays well to a populace that loves a scapegoat.
posted by koeselitz at 12:53 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Authorized User: “In times of crisis it is even more important that we get correct information about the decisions being made, instead of the latest "outrage".”

Agreed. Even if the latest "outrage" happens to be poor journalism.
posted by koeselitz at 12:55 PM on November 21, 2011


> Or how Berlusconi's resignation was not somehow ousted by "EU Officials" but rather by losing the majority support in the parliament.

Nope. Draghi engineered Berlusconi's ouster brilliantly, throttling down on the purchase of Italian bonds in the secondary markets, thereby forcing the yields up until Berlusconi said "uncle". The European Commission, and the European Central Bank are neither benign nor representative. But it takes a lot of attention to figure out whose interests they serve.
posted by stonepharisee at 12:58 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


For example, they know full well that English banknotes have only borne images of the monarch since 1960, but won't let you know that when raising your ire about how the eurobankers' plan to take it away.

However, English coins have had images of the monarch for over a thousand years.

Just sayin'.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:00 PM on November 21, 2011


.... European Central Bank are neither benign nor representative. But it takes a lot of attention to figure out whose interests they serve.

How close do I get by just automatically guessing "The people with money."?
posted by benito.strauss at 1:02 PM on November 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


The problem is that it is quite impossible to have a reasoned discussion about the sort of Europe that we want, in large part because of this kind of journalism. The false conflation of sovereignty with democracy is particularly pernicious. We need desperately to act to protect and enhance European democracy, but pretending that the best way to do it is to "get out of Europe" is nothing but destructive.

We've been fed bullshit about the EU for 30 years, and now you expect a reasoned discussion?
posted by howfar at 1:04 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, I'd kind of like to see this accompanied by a list of guidelines for media sources in Europe (and the US) for when they'd like to write a nice article demonizing Greeks.

I thought that was already covered by point 13. (Also, just the Greeks? In particular the British tabloids are quite happy to dish abuse all over the Continent.)

Your reaction also confirms the outcome of all this shitty reporting. You write that:

the EU is exercising more power and influence on the governments of member nations than it ever has in history

"The EU"? Do you mean the Commission? The ECB? The Council? The Parliament? Jeez, at least you didn't write "Brussels", but still. You see, the problem with this reporting is that people don't get to learn how they can influence EU policy, both by their vote in national and European elections, and by directly addressing the responsible officials.
posted by Skeptic at 1:04 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


How close do I get by just automatically guessing "The people with money."?

And that's why they supposedly ousted from office the richest man in Italy?
posted by Skeptic at 1:08 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I noticed a particularly bad example of (2) recently:

"On an unseasonably warm September day and as the sun glinted off the vast glass dome topping the edifice that once was the seat of Hitler’s Third Reich, he shielded his eyes from the glare. "

Snide, irrelevant (unless she really meant to compare someone with Hitler?) and, the real killer, factually incorrect. The Reichstag was never the seat of Hitler's government.
posted by Segundus at 1:08 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I speak for all Americans when I say that I have no idea what you are talking about, but if it has to do with Brussels sprouts, I'm against it.

Find out what the EU bureaucrats in Brussels are doing to your sprouts in Sunday's hard-hitting expose.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:13 PM on November 21, 2011


Skeptic: “‘The EU’? Do you mean the Commission? The ECB? The Council? The Parliament? Jeez, at least you didn't write "Brussels", but still. You see, the problem with this reporting is that people don't get to learn how they can influence EU policy, both by their vote in national and European elections, and by directly addressing the responsible officials.”

Man, I wish every person who takes the time to whine about parlance would stop and actually make an informed comment about what the facts actually are.
posted by koeselitz at 1:14 PM on November 21, 2011


actually make an informed comment about what the facts actually are

You first.
posted by Skeptic at 1:16 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


However, English coins have had images of the monarch for over a thousand years.

Just sayin'.


Hey, who's this on the obverse of Dutch euro coins? Why, it's Queen Beatrix.

Just sayin'.
posted by rory at 1:17 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


1. There are lots of things wrong with journalism about the EU, at least/especially in US and UK newspapers. Generally there are lots of things wrong with journalism about things that happen in foreign countries, or about foreign, supranational, or international institutions that govern or influence the place of publication. These generally increase in proportion to geographic distance from the country or institution, but language and cultural differences matter a lot too.

2. That was a really sloppy blog post that in no way inspired confidence that its author would exceed the journalistic mean.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:19 PM on November 21, 2011


I think there are serious and sincere problems with a body of unelected officials which sees fit to step into the governance of whole nations on economic bases.

Truth is, most of the ghastly decisions being made about the fate of nations are made not by Eurocrats but by adhoc committees of proper politicians without a clear democratic mandate to make these decisions or legal foundation in (EU) treaties. It's Merkel/Sarkozy and chums deciding Greece needs to have a new government, not some faceless bureaucrat.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:20 PM on November 21, 2011


MartinWisse: “Truth is, most of the ghastly decisions being made about the fate of nations are made not by Eurocrats but by adhoc committees of proper politicians without a clear democratic mandate to make these decisions or legal foundation in (EU) treaties. It's Merkel/Sarkozy and chums deciding Greece needs to have a new government, not some faceless bureaucrat.”

Okay, yes, thank you. I'll be the first to cop to the fact that I'm an American, and don't have the daily exposure to have a firm knowledge of what's going on; only it bothers me. But isn't it just as problematic if it's leaders of other nations doing it?
posted by koeselitz at 1:24 PM on November 21, 2011


Nope. Draghi engineered Berlusconi's ouster brilliantly, throttling down on the purchase of Italian bonds in the secondary markets, thereby forcing the yields up until Berlusconi said "uncle".

Well it was more like his own party-mates who said uncle, Berlusconi would have tried to hang on and call the bluff, the crazy motherfucker he is. But yeah, his support evaporating was because of the financial pressures, more or less artificially imposed by the ECB. Just like other central banks, the ECB holds a massive amount of power and is even less democratic than other central banks.

The European Commission, and the European Central Bank are neither benign nor representative.

What do you mean by not benign? They're not nice? They're not well-meaning?

But it takes a lot of attention to figure out whose interests they serve.

Indeed, because pretty much everything the EU does is under the purview of the Commission. Trying to determine whose interests is served by which decision is really quite complicated and actually the reason we have politicians and such-as in the first place.
posted by Authorized User at 1:28 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


But isn't it just as problematic if it's leaders of other nations doing it?

Of course. The problem with reporting like that described here is it stops ordinary people from realising that that's what's happening. "The EU" in the terms employed by lazy journalists implies the "faceless Eurocrats" myth. The problem you want to discuss is obscured by this journalism.
posted by howfar at 1:32 PM on November 21, 2011


> Wow, bang to rights! And good for the Dutch. But the underlying point remains, you can still see how a Briton could have a sentimental attachment to their monarch on their official stores of value, whether paper from 1960, stamps from 1840, or coinage from even earlier.

"The EU’? Do you mean the Commission? The ECB? The Council? The Parliament?"

These sorts of questions sort of underscore the problem. Lazy journalism, sure, but what of lot of different things to keep straight to be sure! General rule of thumb in business as in politics, when something is a bit of rat's nest, it's because there are rats.

Hell, just look at Washington.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:40 PM on November 21, 2011


I guess what I really want here is an antidote to the sloppy EU-baiting kind of journalism, which this piece doesn't give. Is there a better news source I should be reading? Is there a higher-quality outlet of information that I'd be better off following? These aren't easy questions for an American who doesn't have lifelong acquaintance with the issues. And without better information or at least a description of some way to get better information, I think this satire kind of misses the point.
posted by koeselitz at 1:44 PM on November 21, 2011


(That was sort of intended as a request. Does anybody know of news sources that avoid these pratfalls? Ways to get info about what's currently happening in the EU and all the other various bodies that may or may not be related to it? That's really what I'd like.)
posted by koeselitz at 1:45 PM on November 21, 2011


Hell, just look at Washington.

Or indeed any complex organisation. Does saying "the government" of anywhere really mean much? Of course not. The point is that most journalism about national governments doesn't pretend that they are monolithic entities with a single secret agenda. Basically only the batshit insane conspiracy theorists do that in the national context.
posted by howfar at 1:47 PM on November 21, 2011


(That was sort of intended as a request. Does anybody know of news sources that avoid these pratfalls? Ways to get info about what's currently happening in the EU and all the other various bodies that may or may not be related to it? That's really what I'd like.)

There's basically a tradeoff: deadly accurate equals deadly dull.

I found the European Voice informative, but I am sure those suspicious of The Economist would not warm to it.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:01 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: Nosemonkey's EUtopia is a good, Euro-positive EU blog.

@UKFederalists is a Twitter account with a strongly pro-EU line.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:05 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


(That was sort of intended as a request. Does anybody know of news sources that avoid these pratfalls? Ways to get info about what's currently happening in the EU and all the other various bodies that may or may not be related to it? That's really what I'd like.)

Guardian and Independent are typically above the worst cases of EU madness that infects most English papers.

For blogs, I've found Nosemonkey's EUtopia quite informative, but he's posted little of late. Trawling the backposts might be rewarding, however. He is also a proper skeptic in the sense that he's willing to intelligently question what the EU does.
posted by Jehan at 2:08 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Snap!
posted by Jehan at 2:08 PM on November 21, 2011


Not sure how the EU works or what institutions are involved? –> Just write “Brussels”.

As the resident of a state capitol, I've become quite familiar with metonymy. (A friend of mine even wrote a zine about the phenomenon.) It does seem inescapable, though.
posted by epersonae at 2:29 PM on November 21, 2011


Wow, bang to rights! And good for the Dutch.

And Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Monaco (the two latter not on all denominations, though). And yes, even him.
posted by Skeptic at 2:51 PM on November 21, 2011


(That was sort of intended as a request. Does anybody know of news sources that avoid these pratfalls? Ways to get info about what's currently happening in the EU and all the other various bodies that may or may not be related to it? That's really what I'd like.)

Euractiv is rather good. The European Voice is informative and often carries entertaining gossip, but it's good to keep in mind that it is basically the Brussels lobbyists' guild house journal. It's often distributed free to EU officials by various sponsors, so it's a good idea to take notice of who's writing what next to which ad...
posted by Skeptic at 3:41 PM on November 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Apropos, the Commission maintains a blog dedicated to correcting the various Euromyths (the former name of the blog) published in British newspapers.
posted by ersatz at 4:14 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Research on Money and Finance has some good papers on the Euro crisis from a left perspective.
posted by Abiezer at 4:40 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


All right, informed recommendations! Can anyone point me at a good introduction to the history of the EU while we're at it?
posted by No-sword at 8:11 PM on November 21, 2011


(That was sort of intended as a request. Does anybody know of news sources that avoid these pratfalls? Ways to get info about what's currently happening in the EU and all the other various bodies that may or may not be related to it? That's really what I'd like.)

There's E!Sharp as well as the other outlets people have suggested.
posted by cmonkey at 10:02 PM on November 21, 2011


Kosmopolito is a friend of mine, but he hasn't got this quite right. The fault isn't so much with the journalists but that some major newspapers refuse to accept pro or neutral EU stories and have instructed their hacks to only get anti-EU stories.

Hence the rather desperate tone to the shock horror Brussels 'news'.

The other side is no less sinister.

The European Parliament spends millions a year on a vanity TV station, EuroparlTV that is watched by around 200 a day. They refuse to issue figures even though it is taxpayer funded. The interviews are so soft it isn't surprising it's called Europravda. some MEPS have refused to answer difficult questions of mine by saying, "I've said it all on EuroparlTV". Secondly, the intention is to make news reports and send them, free, to local TV companies throughout the EU and beyond (Hello there CNN).

EV is the house journal of the commission. Favoured and funded. Euractiv says it is independent but is entirely funded by the EU.

so, the EU is trying to replace the independent media, some of which is either in the pocket of the institutions or is under instruction to be entirely negative and bugger the facts.

The blame goes well beyond the journalists.
posted by quarsan at 10:07 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


A few sources (somewhat wonkish in places).

[1] On Greece and the EU: Yanis Varoufakis
[2] On the Irish Economy
[3] Megan Greene on the Euro Area Debt Crisis
[4] Eurointelligence: A bunch of economists

Those are not all singing the same song. Expect contradictions.
posted by stonepharisee at 11:43 PM on November 21, 2011


quarsan is right: I should have nuanced my appraisal of Euractiv, it's "rather good" when it comes to following how a particular piece of legislation is progressing through the EU machinery. Not so good when it comes to judging it. Like the European Voice it gets funding from both the Commission and various corporate sponsors, and it often shows.

However, I wouldn't call the propaganda efforts of the various EU institutions "sinister". "Pathetic" would be more accurate. The Commission's communication department are the Keystone Kops of PR, and there's hardly a single Commission official (including in the communication department itself) who has a good word to say about them. If lazy hacks find the EU such a soft target it is also to no small extent because of that.

As for the Parliament, MEPs are notoriously up their own backsides: of course any communication efforts will be largely about massaging their own egos.

To go back to koeselitz' original question, there's indeed a dearth of well-informed yet inquisitive English-speaking sources on the EU. The Guardian clearly stands above the rest, as did the previous BBC correspondent, Mark Mardell (the current BBC correspondent is, quite frankly, a hack). The Financial Times and the Economist follow behind. Otherwise, you'll have to go to non-English-speaking media and rely on machine translations if you are not fluent. The centrist German weekly "Die Zeit" is excellent, as is the business-friendly Swiss daily "Neue Zürcher Zeitung". For a left-wing perspective, you have the French "Libération" or, a bit more to the center, the Spanish "El Pais".
posted by Skeptic at 1:50 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Hey, who's this on the obverse of Dutch euro coins? Why, it's Queen Beatrix.

That is a big disappointment to me. My one consistent reason for wanting to join the Euro was the Queen would be on Australian money but not on British. That would have been hilarious.
posted by vbfg at 2:55 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: "I'll be the first to cop to the fact that I'm an American, and don't have the daily exposure to have a firm knowledge of what's going on"
Didn't stop you from letting your outrage go to eleven upthread, though.
posted by brokkr at 5:22 AM on November 22, 2011


To go back to koeselitz' original question, there's indeed a dearth of well-informed yet inquisitive English-speaking sources on the EU. The Guardian clearly stands above the rest, as did the previous BBC correspondent, Mark Mardell (the current BBC correspondent is, quite frankly, a hack). The Financial Times and the Economist follow behind. Otherwise, you'll have to go to non-English-speaking media and rely on machine translations if you are not fluent.

Der Spiegel has an excellent English-language web edition. Apparently it's not the entirety of the German-language paper, but it does have some comprehensive articles on international affairs and a lot of EU coverage. Politically it seems fairly centrist.
posted by acb at 7:11 AM on November 22, 2011


Der Spiegel has an excellent English-language web edition.

Der Spiegel has always taken a clear center-left position. It's generally good, but in its political coverage it tends to be contrarian and/or self-righteous just for controversy's sake. It loves a good outrage, and this often shows in its EU reporting.
posted by Skeptic at 7:56 AM on November 22, 2011


Der Spiegel has always taken a clear center-left position.

Center-left relative to what? By US standards, The Economist is center-left these days.
posted by acb at 8:02 AM on November 22, 2011


By US standards, The Economist is center-left these days.

Der Spiegel is definitely center-left for German standards. As I say, it has a strong contrarian bent, which sometimes makes it difficult to pin it down, but it is generally sympathetic to the Social-Democrats and especially the Greens (for instance, it is very strongly anti-nuclear). It has had a few notorious run-ins with the Christian-Democrats (conservatives), and especially with their Bavarian strain. There's more than just politics in this: Der Spiegel is based in Northern, Protestant, old-money Hamburg, which tends to look down on the newly-rich, Catholic, Southern Bavarians. Finally, it submits the pro-business line and generally mercenary convictions of the centrist Free Democrats to relentless mockery.

In the US it would probably be a West-Coast fanzine, replete with medical marijuana ads...
posted by Skeptic at 9:16 AM on November 22, 2011


A friend of mine works in Brussels as a journalist, and I have done quite a lot of proofreading for her. She covers the EU for one daily newspaper in Sweden and also writes pieces for magazines and trade journals.

The way I see it, it's not a matter of lazy journalists. The journalists I have come across are all over-educated and view their profession with more educational ambition than they are allowed to exercise. They also work a lot more than they get paid for. If anything, it's a matter of a lazy publication policy, or a policy to cater to lazy readers.

Yet, apart from language issues, my editing suggestions often strive to dumb down the text and make it more accessible, to explain the roles of the different organs involved. To her, it's all transparent, and she wants to vary her language and use the limited space she has for other things than explaining the basics. For the readership, however, the EU is a complex beast with many institutions which have similar names and roles. We generally have a blurry picture of what the different pieces are and what they do, and where they get their mandate from. If I'm uncertain about something in an article, or if my eyes start to gloss over, I assume that will be the case with most other readers as well.

Although I'm mildly in favor of the EU, I think this is a real problem, even a democratic problem: Refering generally to "Brussels" may sound dumb, but it isn't worse than referring to Wall Street or, as IndigoJones said, to Washington. In all three cases, the ambiguity reflects the same problem: We don't know exactly how things are decided, who to hold accountable or by what means.
posted by springload at 9:39 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem of EU journalism EU already had me quite worried a couple of years ago, but I was hoping it could be fixed by some sort of active collaboration between media which are already established on national level in the member states. I've since gotten increasingly dissatisfied and pessimistic and wondering what this means for the legitimacy of EU as a democratic institution.

It feels a bit weird to keep bringing up an old AskMe of mine.:
[In coverage of domestic politics] every day we get interviews of and statements from representatives and officials who a) are directly or indirectly accountable to voters and b) have power over the issue in question. These are contrasted to statements from an opposition of some kind.

You know, basic daily political coverage? Except that we get essentially none of that for daily EU politics, and I'm not sure I understand why. The local member of the Council of the EU goes unchallenged, as do the MEPs and the leaders of the parties who nominate them. I suppose it's possible that reporters here simply do not understand who has which means to affect decisions in the EU and what are the channels through which voters (i.e. most of the audience) might have influence over those people (and thus an interest in paying attention). I understand that the structure of responsibility is more complicated than on the national level, but I don't see how it's qualitatively different in a way that prevents asking the same sorts of questions and pitting the politicians against each other like the press is supposed to.
The way I understand democracy is that not only should the public be aware of what is being decided in the government, and how they could influence those decisions, but also that the agenda of the government should reflect the broader public discourse.

There is no public discourse in the EU, not the sort that's supposed to be at the core of a modern democracy, the sort that people are familiar with on the national level, where every citizen has the means to follow any aspect of this public discussion and to (possibly with some effort) weigh in if something alarming comes up. Most EU citizens have no practical means of following what most other EU citizens are talking about. In addition to the thick grid of language barriers there are also the more subtle differences in each nation's journalistic and political institutions culture that people learn in their local civics class and through experience.

This is a huge problem which I'm not sure the press is equipped to solve, even if finally one day it began to try. And this really is not just an issue of bogus scandals in junk rags; most of the 'respectable' press has done an extremely sloppy job on EU issues, as reflected in my AskMe aboce.
posted by Anything at 7:52 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


above
posted by Anything at 7:53 PM on November 23, 2011


The problem of EU journalism EU already had me quite worried...

Sorry for all the typos; I'm having a flu and I'm agitated.

posted by Anything at 7:57 PM on November 23, 2011


Of course, those are in fact two different problems -- I'll reiterate:

1) The failure of the press to report EU issues in terms of who's responsible for what and in what way is he accountable to the voting audience.

2) The absence of a shared public discourse in the EU due to language barriers and a lack of knowledge of other countries' political culture.

Problem 1) could be fixed by the press simply by following the model of what they (well, the proper ones anyway) have been doing all along in the coverage of domestic politics.

I'm not sure problem 2) can be fixed, and still it would need to be fixed for EU to be a legitimate democratic institution.
posted by Anything at 9:18 PM on November 23, 2011


There is no public discourse in the EU, not the sort that's supposed to be at the core of a modern democracy, the sort that people are familiar with on the national level, where every citizen has the means to follow any aspect of this public discussion and to (possibly with some effort) weigh in if something alarming comes up. Most EU citizens have no practical means of following what most other EU citizens are talking about.

I don't quite agree with this. While there's certainly a degree of disconnect between the public opinions of countries, on the truly relevant matters people are more aware of each other than some like to claim, and sometimes much more than the governments claiming to represent them: for instance, while the behaviour of European governments in the run-up to the Iraq war was disgracefully insolidary, its rejection was pretty much unanimous throughout borders, both in "old" and "new" Europe: there certainly was a European "demos" (and the demonstrations to go with it) at the time.

Similar pan-European movements of opinion exist on a wide range of issues, and indeed, often enough, the whole purpose of those who dismiss the existence of a European demos and try to go back to the nation-state is to ignore a broad consensus (see the efforts of the British Tories and their watercarriers in the press to present EU financial regulation efforts as an attack on British sovereignity, despite bankers currently being just as impopular, if not even more, in the UK as anywhere else).
posted by Skeptic at 3:27 AM on November 25, 2011


there certainly was a European "demos" (and the demonstrations to go with it) at the time.

That's certainly true, but that was the case during the Vietnam war as well when there was no union to talk about. It's not enough for the EU to define itself in reaction to the US or other powers of the world, and it's really only in that kind of relation that a European identity comes forth. Even so, it wasn't even easy for the EU to act as a unity against the arabic dictators, because different nations had different ties to the regimes in question.

The real problem lies not in the EU's relation to the outside world though, but in its internal politics and the lack of public debate about that. The political traditions differ too vastly between the member states for there to be any political debate resembling the domestic one on a EU-wide scale. Politicians and political profiles are regarded by the public - and also by cultural and political establishments - as representatives of the countries they came from. From a Scandinavian perspective, the ideology of Berlusconi is irrelevant since he cannot be seen as anything except a product of a crazy and corrupt Italian system. We cannot extend our debate to encompass such a system.

The parliament is anonymous, and as voters we don't necessarily feel that we have a whole lot in common with people from other member states whose candidates are seated in the same block as ours. In fact, the only thing we know about those foreign candidates is that our own candidates chose them as their allies. We don't have the feeling that it matters a lot, but we hope our interests will be protected. Those are more often our interests as member state citizens rather than as workers, consumers, investors or whatever fraction of society we may belong to.

I also don't see that there is a forum for EU wide debate. There aren't TV channels (that get watched) or serious newspapers (that get read) that cover the EU as a whole. In fact, there aren't even sensationalist scandal-hunting papers that aren't very specifically domestic. That's perfectly natural: Such journalism would be hopeless to conduct, but more importantly the public interest in the people involved isn't there, and what counts as a scandal differs between Sweden and Poland.
posted by springload at 6:25 AM on November 25, 2011


While there's certainly a degree of disconnect between the public opinions of countries, on the truly relevant matters people are more aware of each other than some like to claim, and sometimes much more than the governments claiming to represent them: for instance, while the behaviour of European governments in the run-up to the Iraq war was disgracefully insolidary, its rejection was pretty much unanimous throughout borders, both in "old" and "new" Europe: there certainly was a European "demos" (and the demonstrations to go with it) at the time.

Such matters do arise but I have to argue that this actually highlights the issue that they are in a significant sense an occasional exception -- this in contrast to how the national political discourse that I am familiar with is a ceaseless process where new issues every day are brought in front of a large audience, from party platforms and statements by individual public figures to whatever other events that may be socially significant. Many of these issues provoke further debate among the public, one result of which is that people tend to get a sense of where others stand on the various issues and how committed they are -- with the further result that by the time these issues enter the agenda at the top levels of political institutions, the public is ready to respond. Because a lot of the policy emerges through a broad public discussion, there's a fair bit of incentive against 'sneaking legislation through parliament'.

Diverse important issues, shared by a large audience, on a daily basis. As far as I understand, we don't have that on an EU level. The result is apathy, and a thorough expectation to not know where each new decision came from.

The ongoing response to the debt crisis, of course, is another exception to this. But the various decisions that resulted in the crisis to begin with were not.

And in case it's an issue to anyone, I assure you that I did not arrive at these arguments in a quest support some existing nationalist worldview, but from my general interest in politics, contrasted to my own alarming realization that neither I nor my friends really cared about what goes on in the EU. Of which I had to start asking 'why'.
posted by Anything at 7:50 AM on November 25, 2011


what counts as a scandal differs between Sweden and Poland

You see, I strongly disagree with this. Having lived in several European countries, I can assure you that what counts as a scandal is pretty much the same in every country. Indeed, the worst thing about the "lazy" journalism the FPP decries is that it actively manipulates the reality and foster stereotypes to convince the public of the contrary.

Italy has Berlusconi, who isn't so much the product of a crazy and corrupt Italian system as a precautionary example of what a monopolist media tycoon can accomplish in any country if left unchecked to manipulate the minds of the public. But Germany had its Siemens and VW affairs (and it hardly gets more scandalous than the management of a multinational buying hookers for its workers' representatives), and Britain had, a.o. the Ecclestone affair (worth noting that Berlusconi's perjurious lawyer, David Mills, was also involved in that one). The virtuous Netherlands found out, not so long ago, that its whole construction industry was fixing public works contracts and paying civil servants bribes (and hookers, there's a pattern...) to cover it up. I could go on and on...

But this kind of stereotyping, and convincing the public that the guys just across the border have a completely different moral setup is not just lazy: it actively seeks to drive people apart. A clear example is Belgian politics. A ominous development during the last decades is that, not just did the political parties split across linguistic lines, but people increasingly became ignorant of what happened just across the linguistic border, with each side's media actively encouraging this split, if only to prevent competition. The result is the current political quagmire and mutual incomprehension. Arguably, French- and Dutch-speaking Belgians are culturally and morally very much alike, and they share the same legal system, yet listen to a Dutch-speaking Belgian and you'll hear him repeat about the French-speakers pretty much the same tropes as a German about a Greek (it also works the other way around).
posted by Skeptic at 8:00 AM on November 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, I realize I'm probably sounding more fundamentally pessimistic than I actually am. I've had some fairly elaborate thoughts on how some of this could be fixed, but I've feared the debt crisis may be eroding some of these opportunities -- but we'll have to see where it goes.

And I'm really pleased to be having this discussion, so thanks for that. So much on the subject is presented in the form of a pissing match.
posted by Anything at 8:33 AM on November 25, 2011


Italy has Berlusconi, who isn't so much the product of a crazy and corrupt Italian system as a precautionary example of what a monopolist media tycoon can accomplish in any country if left unchecked to manipulate the minds of the public.

That principle may very well be true and I see how it would apply in an argument against some sort of essentialist position on national differences but I don't think that's the argument we're having here. What it leaves open however is the question of how, in practice, would I operate in an unfamiliar media environment given the differences as they exist now. An Italian who's lived with the Berlusconi media empire for all his adult life knows what to expect from it and can take those things into account if he starts arguing for some political position whereas someone like me only has a vague idea.

I'm sure comparable issues of varying magnitude apply for each country. You need to know who has what sort of clout on various issues and which lines of argument are fresh and which are tired and a bunch of other things that are difficult to have good handle on unless you've been following closely for a long time. And yet all of this is peanuts next to the both more obvious and more serious problem of language barriers.

And all the above would remain to be solved even if we managed to avoid the particular problem of all the jingoism that's so easily raised in the absence of a functioning discussion. I think to some extent the prominence of this jingoism clouds the seriousness of some of the less vulgar and conspicuous problems.
posted by Anything at 8:23 PM on November 25, 2011


Skeptic, I think you misinterpret me. The point is not that Italians are stupid or inferior for having the poitical system and the media landscape they have. The point is that they have it, and it's hard to allow a unified discussion across such divides.

Likewise, the point is not that some countries are too good to have scandals, but that different topics are scandalous to various degree in different countries. That could stem from different thresholds to corruption and societal moral stance, again largely built from expectations.

To see differences between the countries, you shouldn't look at the biggest scandals, but see how events at the other end of the scale are treated, and include the distant-news-multiplier. For fun let me expand a bit on recent political scandals here in Sweden: If a politician sees a prostitute and it comes out, he's gone, no matter if it's all done in private for his own money. This happened to one minister about a year ago. One minister had to go because she used to have a housecleaner that she didn't pay taxes for, and another had to go because she hadn't paid her TV license. One candidate to become the leader for the biggest party had to go because she had bought chocolate and diapers on a parliament credit card and been too slow to regulate it, and the most recent leader for the same party almost had to go because he applied for full compensation to cover the rent of his apartment in Stockholm, in spite of the fact that his girlfriend lives there too so he should only have had half. Most people agree that the two latter incidents were mistakes, but the tolerance for mistakes is low.

This level of scrutiny is not necessarily a virtue - it's got more than a tinge of self-righteousness and moralism to it, and it hampers the recruitment of politicians. It's rare here that people here enter politics later in life, after having a career e.g. in business as is common elsewhere. You are supposed to start out in a political youth organization and work your way up, put the political party before the person, and it's probably good to start early to make sure you don't do anything that may disqualify you later on.

With that back story, can you really imagine an EU-wide evening newspaper with a scandals perspective on politics? I have a feeling that German readers would skip the pages about the Swedish guy who saw a hooker, and that Greek readers wouldn't care so much if a Swedish woman used to pay her cleaning lady in cash.
posted by springload at 3:11 AM on November 29, 2011


As a heads-up, here's another thread on these issues, posted yesterday.
posted by Anything at 3:53 AM on November 29, 2011


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