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|An Open Letter to European Media|
Politico - October 2, 2015
We recognize, don’t we, that Europe — the countries of Europe, the European Union as an entity, the very idea of Europe — is facing the worst collective threats in living memory? These crises — of economics, of public finances, of migration and refugee flows, of the multiple security threats around our borders and even inside our countries — are shared across the continent. But is the European media doing a proper job reporting, analyzing and reflecting the shared, cross-border, cross-cultural nature of those crises? As a former editor of a European publication myself, I don’t think so.
Too often, today’s European media — and the British are the worst culprits, but not the only ones — has been pandering to narrow, national interests and prejudices, and failed to explain the true nature of what has been going on. Worse still, some of the media — and here the British are true pioneers — has been conniving in the efforts of nationalists and anti-Europeans to close down the debate, to muzzle honest reporting by discrediting inconvenient views, and thereby choking off that most European, and quintessentially British, value of freedom of information and expression.
This is harsh, I know. You’ll hate me for saying it. And sure, there have been notable exceptions to this sorry story. But overall, just when our citizens needed fair, balanced accounts of what was going on — whether that be the eurozone debt crisis, the war in Ukraine or the refugee and migration flows across and around the Mediterranean — and accounts that helped them to compare the situations of other EU countries with their own and sought to learn from the differences, too much of the European media failed them. Chiefly, the media failed their readers and viewers by not recognizing that they are European, rather than simply national.
This is not dreamy-eyed Europeanism. I hope no one who has ever read the Economist would think of me as a dreamy-eyed or any other sort of European idealist. Those who drafted the supposed EU constitution only to see the Economist say it should be consigned to the nearest waste bin certainly wouldn´t.
Today’s situation saddens me deeply, more as a journalist than as a Europeanist. After all, I began my career at the Economist 35 years ago as a junior in the Brussels office, and spent the subsequent two and a half decades devoted to international reporting and analysis, the last 13 years of which as editor-in-chief, until I left in 2006. By analysis, I mean journalism that seeks out common strands and experiences between countries while also learning from the differences. When shared crises erupt, it seems to me only natural that journalists and their editors should seek those pan-national, cross-cultural characteristics in their coverage.
My dear editors, can you honestly say that that is what you have been seeking and publishing? It seems to me that too many of you have been hunkering down behind national borders, determined to see each crisis through a domestic lens, pandering to domestic politics. Obviously, such lenses, such domestic political pressures, cannot be ignored. But our job as journalists is surely to put these pressures in a wider context, to illuminate our national debates and preoccupations by drawing on international experiences. That is what too much of the European media has failed to do.
I certainly saw this sort of parochialism last March in Britain, so boastful of being the land of free expression, when the documentary “The Great European Disaster Movie,” of which the Italian Annalisa Piras was director and I was executive producer, was aired on BBC4. It is, admittedly, a polemical docu-drama: It is about the way in which the multiple crises of today’s Europe have developed; about the reaction to them in countries as disparate as Spain, Croatia, Sweden, Germany and of course Britain; and about how they could lead to the collapse of the European Union. What it got in return was polemics heated up to boiling point, with anti-EU papers rushing to discredit the film by labeling it as pro-EU propaganda. The rest of the British media stayed virtually silent, seemingly cowed by the Euroskeptic onslaught.
Such a response was rather surprising, as we understated Brits say, given that the documentary is highly critical of many of the EU leadership and the policies it has been following. Our sin in the eyes of the Euroskeptics, it seems, was to say that the EU is nevertheless worth saving and reforming. That was the proposition they, with media connivance, sought to muzzle or discredit.
This is scarcely promising for the debate that Britain will need to have about Europe during the run-up to its referendum on membership in 2016 or 2017. More broadly, though, it reflects an impoverished attitude to free speech and information that has spread to many European countries as nationalist tendencies have resurged.
Can you, fellow editors, do more to reverse those trends? I very much hope so. Since I no longer have the privilege of a weekly platform, I am trying a different, more bottom-up approach. Annalisa Piras and I are launching an effort, through our small educational charity, The Wake Up Foundation, to generate a pan-European conversation and to help foster the cross-border, cross-cultural awareness that we think has been lacking.
Calling our initiative Wake Up Europe!, from next week onward we will be giving our film away for free to anyone able and willing to assemble an audience, hold a post-screening debate about the future of Europe, and share some of the ideas and conclusions with us. My hope is that people from every European country will seize this opportunity and run with it. Europe badly needs to think, to talk — and to act.