The EU Communication ‘propaganda’ debate

23.08.2009 - 22:57

A brutal debate flared up over the hottest days of the summer in Europe, about the European communication efforts.

The discussion was sparked by a report by Swedish think-tank, Timbro, entitled  “
The European Union’s Burden – Information and Communication to a Reluctant People”.
The report, which goes to great lengths to label all communication efforts of the European Commission (and Parliament) as propaganda, was met with both direct responses by European Commissioner for Communication, Margot Wallstrom, and other supporters, as well as critics of the ‘propaganda machine’.

What struck me as most interesting was the polarisation of the rhetoric, which was either strongly pro- or anti- EU-Communication, with a very visible lack of middle ground or real dialogue taking place. Rather simply stakeholders appear to be broadcasting messages to each-other in a one-way manner.

What’s in a title

The Timbro report bashes all kinds of European initiatives, including the “Together since 1957” slogan campaign, the 7.5million Euro provided to DG Economy in 2009 in order to provide information on the Euro, and several media related projects such as Euranet (the European Radio Network), EUTube, EuroparlTV, and last but not least, Euronews.
The most important (in my personal view) responses to the bitter report, came from Wallstrom, Richard Walker, the editor of Euranet, and on the opposite end Lorraine Mullaly, the Director of Open Europe thinktank.

Wallstrom’s response was on the surface quite dismissive, with a blog post entitled ‘
The silly season’, yet dwelled on the report quite deeply, giving both some adequate and some insufficient responses.

Wallstrom writes that “Timbro blames the Commission for wasting tax-payers’ money on ‘propaganda’, but the truth is that the EU has no control or influence over the media and no involvement in the national education curricula. What is called propaganda is, in some cases, action to promote involvement and participation. This is the opposite of propaganda since it is aimed at promoting questioning of what the EU does, and action to change it.”

She later continues to say that “The European Radio Network and Euronews receive some EU funding because they meet the aim of providing a cross-border platform for news, analysis and discussion and helping to create a European public space for debate and discussion but both have complete editorial independence. Their editorial charter is published on the internet.”

With all due respect to the Commissioner, Euranet and Euronews do not receive “some” EU funding. They receive a LOT of EU funding. And so does Europarl TV (though this is not from Wallstrom’s budget).

The question is one that has stirred endless debate in the Media, about whether a medium can remain unbiased in the treatment of its sponsors, advertisers and supporters. The answer is definitely not ‘Always, yes’. It could be ‘sometimes’, it could be ‘under certain circumstances’, but when money is involved, it does not necessarily have to be a conscious bias that the media are putting out.
Wallstrom’s strong ethical stance that: “The Commission believes a free and independent media is essential for a healthy democracy; It is neither possible nor desirable to ‘buy’ positive coverage in the media and the coverage of the EU in the European media anyway provides clear evidence that it is not the case” simply does not stand.

In a commentary published on EU Observer, Euranet editor,
Richard Walker, tries to make the case that Euranet is independent, and cites the ongoing reports on the Brussels-Strasbourg trek, the MEP expenses, and the CAP subsidies. But for anyone a little bit involved, these only serve as bad examples. The Commission funds Euranet, and it is quite conceivable that that the Commission supports the significant budget cut that would result from maintaining one Parliament seat. Same with the MEP expenses.

Walker goes on to portray the public funding they receive as the element that puts them above and beyond private media – saying that ‘we’ (and this is my ‘we’ representing private media) work with only our profit maximization in mind. So there can be no trust for media, other than the ones that are living off public funding.
This is all seriously wrong. I strongly support the work of Euranet, Euronews, Europapress and even Europarl TV the last two of which have in the past criticized – but their independence is potentially just as compromisable as that of the private media. After all, when the time comes to renew the funding of Euranet, or shift the budget to a different project, its work helping the EU will be assessed.

Walker does ask a good question: “So where does funding you can trust come from?”
Nowhere. It is up to citizens to balance multiple sources of information, and decide what they consider is unbiased and valuable information. I, like Walker does with his own organisation, will suggest that New Europe is the perfect source. But it is simply up to the readers to decide.
A smile comes to my face when reading the very important ‘just’ in the title of Walker’s commentary: “EU-funded media – not just propaganda”.
Moving on to
Open Europe’s response, which is generally not a pro-European think-tank, Lorraine Mullally, the director, strongly embraces the Timbro report. Mullally suggests that the European Commission is not longer acting as a guardian of the Treaties, but as a political campaign group. The extreme polarization here can be seen by the following:
“The EU has even talked about moving to control the EU's image on the internet. Referring to the blogosphere, the commission has lamented the fact that: ‘Because of the many different sources of No campaigners on the internet, classic rebuttals are made impossible.’

The European Parliament's Culture Committee subsequently voted for a report which proposed that the EU should regulate blogs – a proposal which was eventually watered down, but nonetheless indicates a very worrying trend.”

This certainly goes too far in suggesting a massive conspiracy against free-speech which stems from the European Commission itself. To put it plainly, Wallstrom could not have achieved that had she wanted to. Furthermore, discussions and deliberations about freedom of speech are important in society, but not necessarily worrying if they take the ‘correct’ course.

Mullally suggests that “With so much public money at their disposal, the EU institutions are able to propel their own vision of the future of Europe, and also begin to create a monopoly over what should be regarded as the ‘facts.’ The institutions claim to want a wider debate on Europe, but by trying to suppress those who do not support their vision, they are stifling debate.”
But who are the EU institutions, and what are they fighting for? The Commissioners of the European Commissions are selected by the governments of the member states, the Parliamentarians of the European Parliament, and the Ministers taking part in the Council by the citizens of Europe. The rest of the EU-machine is comprised of civil servants who have worked very hard in their life to get to where they are, and are in theory working under the leadership of all the aforementioned directly or indirectly elected officials.
So yes, the public money is being used to propel the vision of Europe which at the end of the day stems from, and is voted upon by the  European citizens. The only conclusion is that those behind Timbro and Open Europe, remain a minority on a Europe-wide scale.

Propaganda vs. Public Service

And so the endless debate between what is information and what is propaganda sets in, with Timbro and Open Europe suggesting that everything coming out of EU institutions and their funded projects is propaganda, and the other end saying that it is simply information.

In our historically charged societies, propaganda is a negative term.

What DG Communication is doing, is providing a public service. The messages are indeed politically charged, as they carry a pro-European message, but as much as I welcome dialogue with people who are anti-Europe, the way forward is unity and growth. And if one country gathers a majority of naysayers, then the country is welcome to withdraw.
Projects such as Euronews, Euranet, Presseurop, EuroparlTV are needed.

They could be more efficient, they could be more effective, the money could be going to more projects instead of few large ones; there’s lots that could be done in a (much) better way – but these projects are not propaganda. The only thing that should be made public knowledge is that they are funded by the European Institutions (when this is the case). Just like advertisers are visible on websites, funding sources should also be visible.

The only problem comes in the anti-competitive environment fostered by these mass amounts of funds given to projects like Euronews – which we (private, independent, EU media, and why not all private media in the EU) are put into the very difficult position of having to compete with for viewers/readers.

I’ll close with a comment made by EU political commentator
Jon Worth on his blog: “There are of course some legitimate complaints – some of the EU publicity materials are really over the top, and some plans are ill conceived (read MyParl.eu). But is all of this any worse than the communications work of a national government? I think not.”