Tuesday

20th Oct 2020

Journalists wary of interference in parliament TV

  • Journalists are waiting to see what sort of service Europarl TV turns out to be (Photo: UNMIK)

The European Parliament is beaming itself live to the four corners of the continent and beyond via a new web-based TV channel, in a new initiative aimed at raising the profile of the institution and allowing citizens instant internet "oversight" of their deeds and misdeeds.

Journalists' organisations in the European capital however have given the new media instrument a guarded welcome, saying on the one hand it will be a great new tool for them in their research, but also that they worry about political interference in the content that is being delivered to Europeans over the heads of traditional media outlets.

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Europarl TV goes beyond providing live coverage of the parliament's plenary sessions and committee meetings, but will also offer a range of news programming via four themed channels-within-the-channel, targeting the general public, EU legislative stakeholders and school children in particular.

All programmes are to be translated into 22 languages, with some programmes dubbed and others subtitled.

Raymond Frenken, the head of EUX TV, which also delivers online video coverage of the parliament, as well as the other European institutions, was impressed.

"Europarl TV is probably the most ambitious web TV project in the world," he said. "To deliver all this content in 22 languages. It's an enormous technical challenge."

Teething problems

Checking out the programming on its first day live on the web, Mr Frenken gave the language offering a provisional thumbs down, however.

"Not all of it is available in the different languages. Some of the debate programmes aren't offered in Dutch or Swedish.

"Maybe this is just teething problems," he said. "I hope it's not because they're cutting corners to save money and they think, 'Oh, Dutch people and Swedes can understand English anyway'."

One Brussels journalist, who did not wish to be named, said that he was worried that the company responsible for the content, Brussels-based Mostra, was the same company that produces much of the European Commission's multimedia promotional material.

"They have a track record of producing propaganda for the commission where the journalistic ethic is put at a lower level."

Such promotional video material, including "video news releases" - or VNRs - are increasingly being produced by governments, corporations and some NGOs.

VNRs have come under fire from transparency campaigners when they are designed to be indistinguishable from independently-produced news reports and distributed to newsrooms.

TV networks often insert VNRs into their programmes, but rarely make their viewers aware of where the footage comes from.

The journalist was worried that as Mostra had developed such experience with VNRs and other video material that this might bleed into what is now supposed to be objective news coverage.

He did say however that the editor-in-chief, Patrick Delfosse, is a "good journalist" and respected by his peers, and that he hoped that he would put a stop to any attempted political interference and defend editorial independence.

'Pre-cooked'

Official journalist bodies have also been guarded in their reaction to the new service.

Aidan White, the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists - headquartered in Brussels - remained open-minded but concerned.

"On the one hand, all this is part of the process of 'do-it-yourself' journalism increasingly done by governments all over the world," he said to EUobserver, "including the Bush administration's setting up production companies in all the different departments of government that produce pre-cooked clips that are then sent to news outlets and broadcast as if they were journalism."

"At the same time, if Europarl TV instead heads more towards a European version of CSPAN [the US congressional TV channel], opening up the parliament to public scrutiny, then that's a very good thing, as the private sector is getting out of the business of covering legislatures as it doesn't make enough money."

To ensure that Europarl TV serves "public rather than state propaganda interests," said Mr White, the channel should mirror the oversight structure of other government-funded public television services such as the BBC and institute independent administration of Europarl TV "to stop there from being political interference with news gathering."

Representatives of the foreign press in Brussels are also taking a wait-and-see approach.

Lorenzo Consoli, president of the International Press Association (API, to use its French initials) in Brussels, said: "So long as it works as an institutional service, this will actually be a great help to journalists, permitting much more research and allowing us to go into more depth and be more accurate."

"We'll see how it goes though," he continued. "The concern comes with programming that is presented as journalism, or any pre-packaged press reports. These will look and sound like a normal piece of journalism, but will be produced by someone with an interest."

"For such reports, there must be a health warning across the screen - like on a pack of cigarettes - telling the audience that this has been produced by Europarl TV."

Editorial charter

Michael Shackleton, the head of the Europarl TV unit within the parliament said journalists have nothing to worry about, pointing to the new channel's 'Editorial Charter,' which lays out the principles by which the service is organised.

"The charter demands that we be neutral and non-partisan. If we don't respect our own charter, we would naturally expose ourselves to criticism," he said.

The editorial charter reads that the channel will be governed by principles of "public service" for "informational and educational purposes."

Europarl TV must also "ensure ... the plurality of opinion" in the parliament "with due respect to the relative strengths of the political groups," meaning more conservative opinion would be featured on the channel if more conservatives are elected, but "in accordance with a neutral, non-partisan editorial policy."

He also joked that journalists themselves can be "a bit self-congratulatory about their own objectivity."

"I know in the morning before I even open any given British paper, for example, what angle they will put on a particular EU story."

However, he disagreed with the IFJ chair's demand that an arms-length governing body is needed to oversee the channel to ensure its independence, saying that instead an "advisory panel" made up of MEPs would ensure the charter's principles are adhered to.

The advisory panel is composed of one member per political group and is to assist the Bureau of the European Parliament (itself made up of the parliament's president, Hans-Gert Poettering, the vice-presidents and quaestors - individuals elected to look after the financial and administrative interests of MEPs) in ensuring the principles of the charter are respected.

"It not the same as the BBC or TF1," he said, adding that the advisory panel will not operate in the same way as the BBC's independent Board of Governors, now called the BBC Trust.

"Europarl TV is a part of the parliamentary institution and is more akin to parliamentary television channels that already exist elsewhere in Europe."

Mr Shackleton added that Europarl TV is "just another example of the way the media is going".

"NATO's generals have also decided to set up their own web TV," he continued.

"These days, it's not unusual for public or private entities to set up their own media services to get their message out."

The annual budget foreseen for the channel is € 9 million.

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