For our #BrusselsCalling media debate on 28 September 2021, Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman since July 2013, travelled back in time to her journalistic past to quiz four correspondents on the role of Brussels media in scrutinising the EU institutions. An award-winning journalist herself, the Ombudsman was the perfect moderator for this special birthday edition of #BrusselsCalling, marking Cambre’s 20th anniversary of working at the heart of Europe. On the panel were Sam Fleming, Brussels Bureau Chief of the Financial Times, Suzanne Lynch, co-author of POLITICO Europe Brussels Playbook, Jennifer Rankin, Brussels correspondent for The Guardian, and Céline Schoen, EU correspondent for La Croix.
1. Brussels media are key to holding the EU accountable
Emily O’Reilly pointed to synergies between the roles of the European Ombudsman and the investigative journalist, noting that both are in the business of influencing. While the Ombudsman’s mission is to influence good administration, the task of Brussels media is to find out who is influencing the lives of EU citizens. Regulations decided at EU level eventually trickle down to member states, affecting European citizens and sometimes the wider world, given the EU’s regulatory role. Recently, the European Ombudsman has focused on ensuring the transparency of the European Council to show the role of member states in deciding EU regulations – something EU citizens may not realise. She said the European Commission, known as the EU’s ‘bureaucratic face’, is often the scapegoat for policies that are unpopular at national level. The Ombudsman’s investigations also focus on lobbying activities around the EU institutions, which is again in the public interest, with Brussels media playing a mediating role.
2. Brussels correspondents have to move with the story
Céline Schoen explained that Brussels correspondents have to be ready to be cover anything at any time, which is the hardest part of the job, but also what makes it so interesting. For example, when she was in Berlin to cover the German elections, she had to write about universal chargers as she knew this would be of interest to her readers. Sam Fleming agreed Brussels is not a place where things neatly divide into subjects. Instead, everything overlaps, and reporters have to be ready to jump onto new topics. Jennifer Rankin said that every day she has to ‘make the choice to focus on something and not focus on XYZ’. Brussels journalists base this decision not just on what is interesting, but also what will spark a global conversation.
3. National correspondents translate the EU for their readers
The panellists agreed that their main objective is to make sense of EU policies and politics for their readers back home. They generally pitch stories to their editors back in their national capitals rather than being commissioned to write a particular piece. Jennifer Ranikin noted that the Guardian is not in Brussels just as a British newspaper but also as a European and international newspaper. National correspondents may be writing for a particular audience, but the focus remains the same, to make EU policies and politics comprehensible and relevant to everyone.
4. Journalists must stay aware of the ‘unconscious EU bias’
Despite journalists’ efforts to diversify their sources, Suzanne Lynch conceded that most people journalists tend to talk to in and around the institutions are true believers in the EU, with the result that, in terms of sourcing, there can be a kind of ‘unconscious EU bias’. Brussels can inadvertently dictate what to write, as objective criticism of the EU is sometimes missing. She said this is something journalists must stay aware of in order to keep the pressure on the EU. Céline Schoen said that while journalists value sources inside the institutions, they always have to triple check their information to ensure balanced and accurate reporting.
5. French presidential candidates won’t be able to ignore the EU
Céline Schoen predicted that the EU will play a big role in next year’s French presidential elections. During his mandate, President Macron has put a fresh focus on Europe and endeavoured to make it more accessible for people. Each presidential candidate election will therefore need to have a clear position on Brussels, she argued. Everybody in Paris has an opinion on what is happening in Brussels, which is why she was sent to Brussels in the first place. The EU and Brussels will therefore surely be a hot topic in the French presidential elections, which coincide with the French presidency of the EU.