Dialogue of the deaf

21 June 2004
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The Europeans talk a lot about each other but less with each other. Attempts to create Europe-wide publications and to establish a culture of dialogue have failed. Without such a medium, however, Europe will lack something vital: a free press that monitors and controls European institutions.

Begin with the most basic and principled of assertions, believed
implicitly by journalists everywhere. We say that a free media and a free
society are twins umbilically linked. You can’t have one without the other.
We know that where there is democracy there is also a paramount need for
independent newspapers and broadcasting stations to monitor its deeds,
progress and failures. Take away that monitoring and, all too swiftly, the
body politic rots and open societies turn in on themselves, mired in
introspection and corruption. We stand, in short, wholly behind the first
amendment to the American constitution and Article Ten of the European
charter of human rights, not because they serve our narrow interests, but
because they allow to serve the citizen, the reader, the voter…
Where, though, does our new Europe stand? The trouble, you see, doesn’t lie with the principle – but with the absolute lack of a press capable of doing its duty. The Union, in many vital ways, has become a supra-national force. The press hasn’t followed. It remains bound by national, even regional, chains. Pragmatism drags its principles down – and, as they fall,
the edifice of Europe may creak and slide, too.

So the problem, at heart, can be very simply stated. Our evolving Union,
with its constitutional proposals and enhanced parliamentary oversight, is
not yet some giant federation like the United States. Nevertheless, year by
year, it is becoming both wider and deeper. Its attitudes towards, for
example, immigration, foreign policy and an integrated economy have the
most profound implications for every citizen in our continent, from Latvia
to Portugal and Malta to Ireland. But, as the Union grows, where is the
interrogating press to make it accountable?

All the countries of the present and future EU have a relatively free
press and broadcasting system, to be sure. But, with the marginal exception
of some TV channels (like, in very different ways, Arte and Euronews) they
are all nationally based; that is, they reflect a French or German or
British view of affairs – not an overall European perspective. And as for
the newspaper word, there is only the International Herald Tribune (or the
New York Times masquerading under different colours). Newspaper
distribution patterns have improved hugely all over Europe. You can buy the
major papers from Milan, Frankfurt, Madrid, Paris and Rome each morning,
almost wherever you happen to find yourself. You cannot, however, buy a
paper whose catchment area is Europe itself, whose views and attitude don’t arrive filtered through some narrow national prism. Simply, there is no
newspaper for the Union itself – and that, in turns, means that the process
of democratic monitoring is frail and often forgotten.

Such a lack shouldn’t surprise us, perhaps. There was for a time a paper
called The European, but it perished for lack of a reading or advertising
audience, and there have been only cursory attempts to build a replacement.
The contrast with the USA couldn’t be starker. America has four national TV
networks and a host of cable stations available nationwide, able to talk to
Californians in the same language and at the same time as it talks to New
Yorkers. America has national news magazines and a growing selection of
national papers available wherever you live: USA Today, the Wall Street
Journal
, the New York Times.
Americans, in sum, can talk to each other. There is a shared dialogue in
a shared democracy. Europeans have none of those options. They are doomed,
all too often, to a dialogue of the deaf.

The lack, this democratic deficit, seems barely to be recognised, though.
The Council of Ministers is happy to patrol onwards through meetings and
summits, with national briefers telling national stories to a national
correspondents. The Commission and Berlaymont apparatus is even more
selective, feeding tales to local correspondents from the länder or
departements, leaving out the national context entirely when it suits them.

But “divide and rule” offers Europe nothing for the future. On the
contrary, it guarantees only increasing disaffection and disillusion. The
union grows, but without roots in understanding or participation. Some of
the new member countries are so small – and relatively under-resourced –
that their papers stand little chance of monitoring what happens in
Brussels, let alone in nation states on the other side of the continent.
Even large countries, like Britain, often have fewer staffmen in Europe
than in the USA. And the bigger our quasi-federation grows, the direr the
consequences.

What’s to be done? From time to time, someone recognises the problem and attempts to do something about it. Helmut Schmidt tried over a decade ago
to set up a European weekly of opinion; the Guardian, when I was editor,
launched Guardian Europe, a supplement of shared opinion pieces. Neither
initiative, however, went very far. Practicalities again. The business of
translation was slow and expensive. Styles of writing change from country
to country and tradition to tradition. (Try reading the first sentence of a
story in The Times and Le Monde). There was no common advertising base in a
Europe split between national advertising markets. Printing and
distribution were complex and expensive. And, fatally, there was no sign of
an international readership which could staunch prospective losses, let
alone turn a small profit. In sum: it was all a nice aspiration, but it was
also a dream. Europe needed a paper of its own – but Europe wasn’t strong
enough to sustain one.

Any attempt to address the deficit, therefore, needs to be rigorously
realistic. It is no use looking round for huge state subsidies. They would
only mean vulnerability and isolation as well as an evident lack of
independence. Audiences, like ideas, have to be nurtured, brought slowly to
fruition. And now I think there is that other way.
The internet is not a newspaper or a broadcasting station: but it can
provide a stream of information which informs other media. In particular,
it is an instant way for the individual and the news organisation to keep
in touch with each other. It is an immediate forum. So why not try to bring
that forum to the steps of the Berlaymont?

The United States, with fewer language difficulties, already has sites –
like Political Wire – which bring together comment and factual reporting
on American politics from all over the country and make them accessible.
Europe is in dire need of an equivalent service as an underpinning for
other services which can bring us closer together.

Put a relatively small but highly intelligent staff in one or possibly
two European countries. Give them, either centrally or in national
capitals, a translation service available in at most five languages: say
German, French, English, Spanish and Italian. Ask them to bring together
comment and reportage on political issues which cross European borders on
that day. Is it George W.Bush coming to London and what would Paris have
Blair say to him? Why are ultra-nationalists topping the Catalan polls?
Where is ground zero on the pell-mell development of identity cards?

In any and every case, there is always an issue, always direct relevance
to be teased out and pulled together. So make it available. Tackle
copyright restrictions so that at least the best newspaper material is
available, and can be reproduced in other papers in other countries. Start
an issues and diary service for TV and radio broadcasters so that they know
the pace and variety of European developments each morning. The Net is
there, along with the opportunity. One day it may make profits of its own,
because there is a European market for European news and opinion. In the
meantime, it is a start – relatively cheap, relatively easy to fund – along
the road to dialogue and understanding. A little later on, and we could be
asking where the latest EU fraud began, with thousands of bloggers chipping
in.

This isn’t another nit-picking British intervention, merely a way to
make Slovenia and Sweden feel they are part of the same enterprise. It
starts to create an audience. One day a newspaper and TV channel will serve
them both equally, with news they need. One day the monitoring will come
naturally. In the meantime, here is the beginning of a beginning.

Published 21 June 2004

Original in English
First published in

© Peter Preston Eurozine

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