24th Mar 2019


Pan-European Radio: There's a good idea!

After the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, the rest of today's European Council in Lisbon, is likely to prove a damp squib. In fact there is not much on the thin agenda. Leaders are however due to set up the Reflection Group' of wise men, which France's President Sarkozy hoped originally would advise on Europe's future boundaries and its competences.

In fact both boundaries and competences now appear to have been vetoed leaving the putative wise men without much to be wise about and Europe's future as much in the wind as ever.

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  • "Until we have more than an itzy-bitzy European press we cannot expect more than itzy-bitzy European government" (Photo: EUobserver)

There will be a declaration on globalisation and some hand-wringing over Kosovo but otherwise the winter summit will not have much to look back upon, save for the carbon-costly Lisbon Treaty signing. Even this is more symbolism than substance, the battle over the text being long past and the battle over ratification having not yet commenced. No one will remember, or even care, where it was signed.

The Council may also consider the Commission's proposals for a pan-European radio service, the contract for which is now being let to a consortium of European broadcasters. This will broadcast European news, analysis, education and entertainment, in a variety of languages, commencing next June.

This initiative is a small though useful contribution to filling the 'European Media Space' - the lacuna that results from journalism and entertainment being traditionally conducted along national rather than Continental lines. Anything that might be called 'European Journalism' - that is journalism about subjects with a pan-European focus and directed at a transnational audience - is at best limited.

True, we have EuroNews, the television channel whose Commission grant is being increased to 10 million euros next year and EuroSport. There are a few pan-European journals mostly, like EUobserver, web-based. For a Continent of some half a billion souls, with pretensions towards a union of peoples, this isn't much.

No European journal of record

There is still, for instance no European journal of record. No paper, in whatever format, that sets out to be a point of departure for historians in centuries to come; which records, day by day or week by week, in one place, European governance, politics, events, and developments in sport and popular culture across the Continent. Something that tells us not only what was happening at the European level but who the players were and to what the controversies amounted.

Of course, there are problems of language and geography, but the lack of a popular European journal of record is surprising, given the increasing importance of Europe both in the lives of European citizens and in the lives of the neighbours who trade with us, are defended by us, or who receive our largesse.

I suspect at present that the market is too small and fragmented to make such an enterprise commercially worthwhile, though if the Commission were to support such a journal by advertising its public announcements within it, that might make a difference. Even if such a journal were to draw on articles re-printed from existing publications edited into a coherent whole, we should be some way down the track.

As for the new radio service, we shall have to watch how it performs and what its standards are. Not all countries are signed up to it. Britain, of course, is notable by its absence from among the key players, surely a great pity considering the traditions of British Public Service Broadcasting and what it might contribute to this fledgling enterprise.

EU funding should be at arm's length

It is unfortunate also that it should be funded directly by the Commission. Although pledges of editorial independence have been freely given, sceptics will argue that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Moreover, ambitious proprietors would not be human, or prudent, if they didn't strive for an editorial line that kept the Commission sweet and the largesse rolling in. If European Public Service broadcasting - for this is what in essence we are taking about - is to develop then it must be transparent and funded at arm's length.

And why is all this important? Not for some warm and woolly idea of promoting greater 'European-ness' or even for developing better 'communications.' If it were only these there would be little point in getting excited. No, the reason is that in a modern state the media plays as important a role in good governance as do any of the other players - the elected representatives, those appointed by government, the judiciary, civil society. Without a strong media to provoke, question, ridicule, investigate, criticise, you will never have effective government.

With more decisions being taken at the European level, there needs to be on hand a well-informed European media presence that can hold decision-makers to account. To see the truth of this you need to look no further than this week's EU-Africa Summit. The 76 page communiqué is a masterpiece of wishful thinking that bears little relation to reality. Consider this passage on human rights:

With regard to human rights, Africa and the EU will work together to protect and promote the human rights of all people in Africa and Europe, including through enhanced dialogue between relevant institutions from both continents, such as the European Court of Human Rights of the Council of Europe, the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and African and European national human rights institutions.

Nothing objectionable there - but what does this mean in the context of the abuses in Darfur, the atrocities in the DR Congo, the outrages in Uganda and Zimbabwe? In the absence of a pan-European press and more particularly a pan-African press, leaders can pat themselves on the back while ignoring the hell holes on their doorsteps. Where is the press to pry, probe and ask embarrassing questions?

A strong press, written and broadcast, is a vital counterweight to modern governance. It preserves freedom, holds tyranny in check, educates, entertains, informs. It tests the glib propositions of politicians and provides the essential corridor between parliaments and peoples. It is there to bang the drum at hypocrisy and to debunk vainglorious statesmen. It is there to stop nonsense and prevent the triumph of symbolism over substance. Until we have more than an itzy-bitzy European press we cannot expect more than itzy-bitzy European government.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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