With next year’s European Parliament elections looming over the Brussels bubble, the age-old question remains – how can we hold politicians to account, especially in times of transition? Nobody better to answer than question than Emily O’Reilly, who has sought transparency in both her past life as an award-winning journalist, and her present as the EU Ombudsman. Taking the reins of moderating a #BrusselsCalling debate for the second time – and first in-person – on 29 November, she was joined by reporters Aoife White (POLITICO Europe), Stanley Pignal (The Economist), Lisa O’Carroll (The Guardian) and Henry Foy (Financial Times). Please find our key takeaways below.
01 The (social) media revolution.
Practical challenges of journalism as recounted by the Ombudsman – such as having to track down the sources and scouring through library in search of files – have been largely improved by technology. But technology has also introduced many obstacles to accurate reporting, and it is a journalist’s responsibility to overcome them. Aside from the omnipresent social media misinformation, Lisa O’Carroll notes that the platforms create echo chambers for users. Poorly managed social media platforms then become a breeding ground for hate speech and a space where disconnected voters find refuge in populist politicians. Aoife White agrees that populism works well on social media – it is a very clear branding message. But despite having a direct line to their electorate through social media channels, one rarely sees politicians confronted with opposing views in a direct manner – “it’s very easy to hide in the ivory tower,”White quips.
02 The truth seekers in a post-truth era.
This ties directly to the role of a journalist as White defines it: making sense of huge amounts of information and knowing which is – and is not – valuable. She notes that hiding unfavourable information in plain sight is a strategy often taken by political institutions, with Stanley Pignal agreeing – “there is no better form of encryption that whatever you say in the third hour of your podcast”. Politicians take different approaches to journalistic quests for data. Pignal compares a controversial French President Macron to cautious Commission President von der Leyen, who is known for not saying anything “out of her lane” and shunning press conferences. O’Carroll admits that she finds von der Leyen’s lack of media missteps impressive, though highlights that the European Commission’s delayed response when soliciting information can be frustrating for a reporter.
03 Platforming the bad guys.
Sometimes, you need to press hard to get the truth out, which was true Henry Foy’s experience with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president’s 90-minute Financial Times interview was going as expected in the first hour, only for him to lose his cool in the last 30 minutes. Ad-libbing and angry, he sent a clear message. Foy impresses that for a long time, Western audiences thought that Putin’s speeches criticising Europe were directed at a domestic audience, when in fact he was telling the world his true thoughts and plans all along. Sometimes, Foy emphasises, you have to give even the “bad” people a platform to be able to honestly criticise them. Looking back, those are the moments when history is made. Looking into the future, Pignal is convinced that the 2020s will be remembered for the Russia-Ukraine war and its consequences – enlargement being one of them.
04 Turning the bubble inside out.
Asked about the relationship with reporters from outside the EU, Aoife White admits that journalists are also a part of the “Brussels bubble” and consider it their home. For those on the outside looking in, reporting from the heart of the EU allows them to understand how things work. However, it is
dangerous to think that the bubble has taken a life of its own. O’Carroll mirrors this sentiment, saying that national capitals might not understand Brussels well, but one has to remember not to “drown in the bubble”. To that end, it is worth expanding your horizons by reading and listening to national outlets, so as not to get lost in the political jargon. Foy credits his success as a journalist in Brussels to his colleagues from the outside, whom he speaks to every day. With the view that most key decisions are still taken in the capitals like Paris and Berlin, the EU media crowd should not get lost in covering Brussels as if it is Washington DC, he concludes.