Note to journalists: shake up EU parliament's media routine
By Peter Teffer
Every Friday before a plenary session in Strasbourg, a curious ritual takes place in the press conference room of the European Parliament in Brussels.
The European Parliament spokesman; his deputy; a spokesperson for parliament president Martin Schulz; and spokespersons for all the political groups show up to announce the topics that will be discussed and voted on in plenary the next week.
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However, for the first half hour - sometimes longer - the so-called “pre-session briefing” is a classical one-way broadcast, that borders on the repetitive for those journalists that picked up the agenda papers waiting for them next to the entrance.
On 4 March, the listing of agenda items by the non-political spokespersons lasted a good 12 minutes, while the political groups then needed another 20 minutes to each mention their “highlights” of the plenary week.
“I will be much shorter than last time, as I was criticised a bit for the lengthy start,” said Antti Timonen, spokesman for the centre-right EPP group.
With his two minutes, Timonen did manage to stay under the average speaking time of 2.5 minutes, and was only outpaced by his colleague from the eurosceptic EFDD group, spokesman Alistair Harrison, who needed less than a minute.
(It should be noted that this sample is incomplete, as a spokesperson for the other eurosceptic group, the ENF, was missing this Friday).
But when you break down what the spokespersons actually said, much of it is exactly what is said in the press releases. And isn't it fortuitous that the spokespersons' highlights of the week are always events which involve a member of their own group?
The efficiency of the monthly briefing can be questioned, which is exactly what this website did.
Why not distribute the press releases 10 minutes before the press briefing is due to start, let the journalists read it, and then go straight to questions and answers on those topics that journalists are interested in?
Director of media and lead spokesperson Jaume Duch Guillot said he was not opposed to the idea.
“We will discuss it, I don't have problems discussing the way of better organising these briefings,” he said.
However, Duch Guillot did not embrace it immediately.
“This would be a very nice idea at least for those journalists who are attending the briefing here physically, but it would be quite a problem for all the others who are watching through EbS.”
EbS refers to Europe by Satellite, a main journalistic source for EU-related press conferences and other recordings.
But leaving aside the fact that in the modern age press releases can also be distributed digitally, the European Parliament may be overestimating the level of digital interest in its briefings.
While it is unclear how many people watch the briefings live, the most recently recorded one was viewed 284 times on EbS.
Most dishearteningly though, is the number of questions journalists pose through Twitter.
Since last year, the European Parliament has been promoting a special hashtag, #epressbriefing, to be used by journalists unable to attend the briefing in person.
The hashtag has been used by Twitter users 113 times since 21 June 2015. However, on a hundred occasions, the tweets which had the hashtag were actually sent by the European Parliament, asking in various languages if journalists wanted to ask questions.
Eight tweets with the hashtag were comments, and only five of the tweets that featured #epressbriefing were genuine questions.
But the European Parliament's communication department is not to blame. The hundred tweets to announce the possibility of asking questions was a decent effort to create awareness.
The lack of tweet-questions actually reflects the real life situation pretty well.
Of the eight pre-Strasbourg press conference since the summer break, two ended without any questions being asked. On another two occasions, no questions would have been asked if an EUobserver journalist had not spoken up.
And that's even more of a waste.
The pre-session briefing is a rare occasion when all parliamentary groups are represented through their spokespersons in one room, and can be questioned about how the MEPs in their respective groups voted, why certain backdoor deals were closed, what their group's opinion is on topic X or Y.
The lack of interest contrasts with the much higher attention the European Commission receives during its daily midday press briefing.
Yes, the commission is the executive body of the EU, but most of the proposals that are presented in the Berlaymont building, require approval by those in the parliament building.
While the European Parliament was not such a powerful body in the past, it now has real legislative powers, that demand journalistic scrutiny.
So journalists, use that hashtag. Or better yet, take a double espresso on Friday morning, sit through the half hour press release recital, and start firing questions.