Before taking my seat next week in the European Parliament, I was yesterday in the press room at the European Council meeting in Brussels on behalf of E!Sharp magazine, a respected journal on European affairs.
It’s always instructive to witness how the media scene operates at such ‘summits’. Apart from the BBC, which has its own bunker in the cellar, the British media are mostly at the same long table in their corner of the press room. They are both rivals for scoops, and sources of shared stories and anecdotes. That table is the prism through which the UK receives its news, flavours and impressions of Europe. It’s a mixture of journalists from the (few) papers who have a full-timer in Brussels, lobby correspondents who only go to Brussels for a summit meeting, and some others. Yesterday, I had the privilege to join them on behalf of an English-language magazine based in Brussels.
One feature of the European Council press room is the national focus of much of the media. Each country’s president or prime minister holds his or her own press conference, and most journalists naturally attend their country’s own. Of course, each national leader spins his or her own narrative, intended to influence his or her own public — and that narrative may or may not have much to do with what was actually discussed at the meeting, or with its conclusions. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the various leaders are each talking about the same meeting! I suppose, if you went around all the rooms, you’d be able to put the full picture together like a jigsaw puzzle. But that’s difficult, as they are simultaneous. Few media outlets have the capacity to send journalists to more than one — nor are they often inclined to. They too operate in a national context.
Even more striking are the background ‘briefings’ given by prime ministers’ spokespersons to their national journalists. Talking to ‘their’ media, who are already familiar with their narrative and their national context, the perspective of that particular spokesperson is easy to swallow, while other perspectives are less easily accepted.
This is not peculiar to the EU. The same is no doubt true of G8, G20, NATO and other international summits. But, given the peculiar debate about European matters in Britain, it’s particularly striking that our media is so dependent on the spin from Downing Street.
What I never realised before yesterday was how far Downing Street goes to keep this relationship monopolistic, and to exclude others. It’s not just that there’s a natural tendency for British media to focus on British leaders and vice versa — this is actively encouraged, and any intrusion by those who aren’t an accepted part of the cosy relationship is discouraged.
Yesterday, when I went with the British journalists to the Downing Street press spokesman’s briefing in the Council building, I was challenged by a Downing Street official who asked me to leave. When I showed my press badge and explained that I was there on behalf of E!Sharp magazine, they went away, conferred, and came back again to say that the briefing was only for British media, which excludes English-language publications published abroad — even, it seems, those with British ownership, editorship and correspondents. If I didn’t leave, he suggested, the briefing would not take place at all!
Not wanting to do a disservice to the rest of the media, I left. Maybe I’m too polite. But I learned a lot!