Thursday

21st Mar 2019

Opinion

How Europarl TV develops will be the test

There can be few people, interested in the European Union and its affairs, who have not noticed that we are now in the era of EuroparlTV - launched on Wednesday of this week.

This is the European Parliament's own TV station, transmitting, via the internet, on four channels catering respectively for EU watchers, the general public, young people and those in all these categories who wish, and importantly have the time, to follow the Parliament's deliberations as they happen.

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  • Parliament's 'Pravda' - or more communication with the citizens? (Photo: European Parliament)

It is a brave attempt at improving our knowledge of what goes on; at 'communicating with the citizen,' as the jargon has it, though whether the ordinary citizen is actually truly interested in being communicated with is another matter.

Therein lies a paradox; many people readily complain that they know next to nothing about Europe and profess themselves eager for knowledge.

Yet point them in the direction of the large volume of material that already exists and they turn grey with indifference - a prelude to remembering a sudden and urgent errand.

Voting in European elections

In this context EuroparlTV's justification - responding to the right of all citizens to know and understand what is happening in their elected institutions - seems a rather one-sided contract.

Of all the rights that citizens want to see implemented, this one must figure rather low down on the list, though it is, for obvious reasons not least to do with the public's apathy when it comes for voting in European elections, rather high on the Parliament's list.

Nevertheless, I do not want to strike a negative tone.

I would far rather see EuroparlTV up and running than not, even if, at a cost of some 40 million euro over four years, the call on the public purse is by no means insignificant. It is clear much thoughtful work has gone into the project, even if on its first day I found a number of glitches and the website caused my browser to crash repeatedly in a fury of frustration.

Such teething problems will no doubt be resolved shortly and those who are interested in European affairs, or who explain them to others, will find the station a useful reference.

Though whether it will ever reach an audience of 20-40 million for 'hot debates' as forecast by Mr Alejo Vida-Quadrass, the Parliament's Vice-President for Information and Communication Policy, must be moot.

Take out the old and young, the sick, absent and those who take no interest in politics whatsoever and we must be talking there of about one in ten of the European population. I am not sure you would even get that audience for a football match.

His Master's Voice

There are, however, two rather more important points to make about the project. The first concerns EuroparlTV's independence - or rather its lack thereof.

For this is a parliamentary venture, paid for and supervised by the parliament itself. Yes, journalists working for the station will have a certain amount of freedom and there are guidelines to ensure that all strands of elected opinion will be fairly reflected - but at the end of the day EuroparlTV will be ‘His Master's Voice.'

Does this matter? Yes, I think it does. And fundamentally. Just as we Europeans have fought to separate the judiciary from the legislature (though we might look again at the position of the European Court of Justice), so we should be in the business of separating the Fourth Estate from the organs of democracy and government. It is a principle of governance that should be respected.

It is all very well to say that EuroparlTV will not be under the Parliament's day to day thumb - and indeed to mean it - but I question whether this can really be so.

People have jobs to protect, companies have contracts to win or renew. Whenever a conflict arises between a public interest story and embarrassment to an institution, the temptation will always be to soft pedal and for editors to compromise to the advantage of their paymasters.

How would EuroparlTV, for instance, have run the story earlier this year about the report on MEPs' expense irregularities? If you remember, Parliament suppressed that report and swore those who had seen it to secrecy. Had a copy been leaked to EuroparlTV, would they have had the courage to publish it? Almost certainly not.

There will always be potential conflict between the public interest and public institutions. In this case Parliament has chosen to run its own TV station; it didn't have to. One of EuroparlTV's objectives is to contribute to the development of a ‘European Public Space' - where European stories are debated transnationally across a range of media.

This objective would almost certainly have been better served by the creation of a European Public Service Media Trust with a guaranteed income removed from the control of the institutions it served.

This could then channel money to media outlets for purposes such as making programmes about the European Parliament. Organisations representing radio, television, the written word would then compete for funds according to the quality of their output and the audiences they attracted.

An hour a day

Were EuroparlTV funded thus it would remove the charge that it was merely Parliament's ‘Pravda.' And if journalists felt that their purposes might be served by showing MEPs asleep or picking their noses, then they need not mind the wrath of those offended. The strongest democracies are those with the most vicious satires.

Besides assisting a plural media, an independent funding mechanism would also remove another of EuroparlTV's current limitations - namely, that if citizens want to know about anything, then it is Europe in the round that they want to know about and not just that part of the European political agglomeration represented by the Parliament.

It would make more sense (and help to fill the hours of necessary programming) for the station to cover all European institutions and all European news.

This need not compromise the amount of Parliamentary programming: EuroparlTV only envisages some 300 hours of new programmes a year - less than an hour a day.

Moreover, covering the Commission, the Council, the Courts as well as European news would do far more to develop the European Public Space than a parliamentary channel alone.

Of course, there are recognised tensions between the European institutions but the duty to citizens - indeed to the European construction itself - should surely provide sufficient cause to override them. We shall see how EuroparlTV develops.

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