Thursday, 17 June 2010

A Euroblogger's report from the EPP Summit

When the Euroblogger enters unknown territory, she or he doesn't know whether he or she is walking into a gold mine or a mine field - and my participation at the EPP Summit ahead of the June European Council meeting was such a move into unknown territory.

But let's report from the beginning, starting on Tuesday evening when I began to write this blog post.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010, 23h11

The EPP has invited me to come to the their pre-European Council summit on Wednesday in Meise near Brussels. I'm not a journalist, I am a blogging political scientist, and so I've no clue what my role can, will and should be. I'm not even sure why exactly they want me to be there and why they trust me - I've just met their spokesperson Kostas Sasmatzoglou once over a beer.

But I have agreed with pleasure to go to the summit because the scientist in me finds it fascinating to watch such an event from as close as possible, the blogger thinks it is worth trying to write about this from a different perspective, and the editor expects that it is definitely worth having (euro)bloggers at this and other comparable meetings, showing that a coverage beyond classical journalism is possible without being in competition with the journalists (I'm not going to fight for the best pictures or quotes, I promise!).

Yet, while I'm writing these words - it is still Tuesday evening, one day before the meeting - I'm not sure what I should do and write, how I should prepare, what I should take with me.

Should I go in a suit and adapt myself to the people I'm going to look at or should I go in street wear to make clear I'm a blogger, I'm different - I'm a rebel? I don't even know how journalists go to such an event or whether they actually care. I'll probably go in a suit...

So far all I know is that tomorrow at 5.15 pm I will enter a bus organised by the EPP in front of the European Parliament and this bus will bring me and some journalists to a place near Brussels that is called "Bouchout Castle" where the EPP leaders will meet to prepare the European Council meeting on Thursday. And I know that some of the participants of the summit are among the most influential people in EU politics (and beyond).

The main questions I have are:

How close will I get? Should I just stay and watch? Will a story come to me or will I have to find my story? Should I be overly critical to show that although I was invited I still keep my independency and critical thinking as a blogger? Will there actually be something worth criticising or will I rather just see the staging of a political event without being able to actually observe anything of value?

No answers yet, hope to find them tomorrow.

Wednesday, 00h07

Okay, so the EPP meeting is scheduled from 19h30 to 22h00, the Party of European Socialists' (PES) prime ministers and leaders are meeting from 19h00 to 21h00 and, surprisingly, the European Liberals (ELDR) don't have anything on their agenda.

Too tired to search more in detail, will do that tomorrow.

Wednesday, 11h13

Did some research to see how some of the less known EPP leaders look like.

Then I saw on Twitter that Barroso held a speech in front of the European Parliament talking about the upcoming European Council. I was shocked by the bad quality of the text, so I interrupted my search for photos of EPP leaders from Malta and Lithuania to write a blog post about that speech.

If this blog post about the EPP summit would end up too uncritical, I'd at least have something where I could argue that I was at least somewhat critical about one of the main EPP leaders today. Oh, and to underline that I should remind I was one of the supporters of the Anyone but Barroso campaign and I criticised the choice of Jerzy Buzek as European Parliament president. For the protocol.

Wednesday, 13h35

Tried to find some in-depth background on the substance of the upcoming European Council. Not much really, beside the draft annotated agenda. Thankfully, Grahnlaw who also complained about the lack of background notes did some preparatory work for us here, here and here. The press is focussing on the Merkel-Sarkozy meeting yesterday.

Wednesday, 13h49

I realise that while Buzek, Barroso, van Rompuy, Juncker and Merkel are on the provisional list of participants, Sarkozy isn't. (I hear later that day that Sarkozy doesn't come since Wilfried Martens became EPP President. I don't know whether that is true.)

Now continue looking up not-so-prominent EPP leaders, including opposition politicians who won't be at the real summit tomorrow. I realise I wouldn't even recognise Yves Leterme. Luckily his country won't exist for too long.

Talking about Belgium: What would happen if an EU Presidency country would split up during the presidency. Would we have two presidencies then?

Wednesday, 15h21

Finally, the official invitation letter to the European Council and the long-awaited background note have been published by the Council communication services.

Wednesday, 16h12

Did some necessary reading while following Spain-Switzerland in the background. Now thinking about what I should take with me to Meise. Thought about bringing my laptop but it'll probably be more disturbing than helpful, although I'd look more like a blogger.

Decided to just take something to write, a small digital camera, a bottle of water and a book in case I need to wait somewhere without being able to do something else. You never know...

Wednesday, 16h43

Dressed up, ready to leave.

I look conservative in a suit, don't I?! Think I might fit in well then. Decided just to take something to write and the camera. Don't want to carry a bag around.

Wednesday, 17h00

The bus is waiting on the parking opposite to the European Economic and Social Committee. The journalists waiting mostly wear normal clothes, only some appear in a suit. I feel slightly overdressed, but not too much.

Wednesday, 17h30

The bus is leaving and I'm told by one of the EPP people that I'm going to receive a "VIP badge" at the venue. Until now I'd thought I'd be like all the other journalists, but apparently I'm not. I'm glad that I chose to wear the suit and that I didn't take my bag. But I feel slightly uncomfortable, especially towards those journalists travelling with me who probably won't get these privileges.

Wednesday, 17h55

We are still in the bus, passing by the Royal Parc in the north of the city. In my head the thoughts are turning whether I should be glad to get a real view behind the scenes or whether I should feel guilty. I decide to feel glad. Kind of.

Wednesday, 18h10

We arrive at the entrance to the castle and walk towards the venue. It's a perfect day to walk in the parc, sun is shining and it's neither too cold nor too warm.

Wednesday, 18h25

When we arrive at the castle, the journalists have to wait in the line to get checked and receive their badges. After I ask how I would be handled, I'm led inside the castle where I receive a green badge that allows me to walk around freely and to access the whole venue except for the meeting room of the EPP leaders. In that sense I'm now on the same level as the EPP leaders' advisors, which meant I was able to walk along with the politicians on the stairs to their room.

At one point I was walking 50 cm next to Silvio Berlusconi who was then stopped by the security because they didn't know him while I had been walking up and down several times already. How often will that happen in a lifetime: Berlusconi is stopped by the security while the blogger keeps on walking...

Wednesday, from 18h30

During the next hours, I hang around in the advisors' room and in the press area on the ground floor, taking pictures, starring at important people arrive in big cars, listening to prime ministers' advisors speak about politics and football, watching journalists do their work, seeing communication people spin communication, talking with journalists and EPP people, thanking Roberta Alenius for the good communication work of the Swedish presidency (did anyone notice the Spanish Presidency on the web?).

Most fun I had talking with a group of medical staff who were at the event in case of an urgency and who also were allowed to access the advisors' room to profit from the buffet. Since they didn't know, I explained the nature of the event, who was expected and why they were here. Whenever a limousine with someone important arrived I tried to tell who he (no women except for Merkel...) was.

My favourite reaction from them was when I told that this summit was actually a meeting of the European centre-right and one of them said: "What, this is the Right? Then I will eat more food from the buffet." That seemed to be a good punishment for the Right from someone who didn't sound like a fan.

Wednesday, around 20h00

The "family photo" is taken (EPP twitpic & flickr).

Wednesday, after the family photo

Afterwards the leaders disappear into the meeting. Until 21h30, you don't hear anything from the conference room except the very general tweets from the official EPP Twitter account (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here).

Then, at 21h30 Jyrki Katainen, EPP Vice President and Vice Prime Minister of Finland comes to the press - many journalists had already left after they got individual interviews form the arriving EU leaders and the family photo - and gives the remaining press crowd an intermediate briefing about the state of discussions.

I only understand that he is more optimistic than before the meeting and that there seemed to be some agreement on more transparency (I think it was on transparent stress tests for banks). Some journalists directly inform their home bases. Must have been incredibly substantial, but I cannot notice but that Katainen doesn't sound like a Vice Prime Minister but rather like someone who talks to the press for the first time in his life.

Wednesday, 21:45

I'm told that the bus is already there. For a moment I think whether I should stay, listen to the final press conference and then try to get home on my own. But since I don't expect anything spectacular to happen, I walk back to the bus.

Wednesday, 22:15

We leave. The journalists sitting in front of me in the bus transcribe the briefing from Katainen some 45 minutes ago. Another journalist joins them and gives them some background information he has heard from someone important.

Wednesday, 22:35

We arrive at the parking where we left five hours ago. It is still quite warm and the daylight is almost gone. I walk home.

Conclusion (Thursday, 2:30 am)

It was indeed fascinating to see such an event from as close as I was allowed to watch it, to walk around freely and to see all these different people work around such an event. It is important that people like me don't just take a look at EU politics through the limited windows of the web but that we go and see and smell how these things feel like in reality.

But let's face it: I didn't witness much substance. I didn't see much politics, I wasn't dealing with arguments, the world didn't get better because I was there.

At such an event you can get the obligatory 20 seconds of video material for the evening news, you may be able to have a background chat with an advisor or to grasp a glimpse of power rushing by and disappearing in the maze of endless meetings and discussions, materialised in a photo or two (or three).

As a blogger, I don't think I could have actually contributed much more than by writing this report. Anything else I could do would be classical journalism, just online and just without money. And I'm not a journalist.

In the end, blogging needs to cover what is not yet covered instead of just following the crowd - and "big" events like EPP summit are occasions where the media will come for sure.

Bloggers need to take a closer look behind the scenes, scenes that are not just made for the purpose of looking nice but that are actually hiding things that need to be revealed. Bloggers should go to events where journalists can't go because they wouldn't be able to sell the story or because they don't have the time to participate or because they don't have the competence to understand the substance or the background.

I realised today again that I am not a journalist, and I don't feel like becoming one.

I'm not interested in fighting for background information or a line I can quote. It's not enough for me to have a nice picture shot and then disappear. It also doesn't satisfy me to get to know details that I'm not able to write about afterwards, at least not by quoting the original source.

That doesn't mean that bloggers - citizens writing for other citizens - shouldn't be invited to such events. To the contrary: I am still convinced that looking at (EU) politics with different eyes than the ones of professional journalists can add layers that make democratic processes more interesting, more rich, more colourful.

If you don't have to sell a story, you look at profanities with less interest and you listen to details with more care. If you don't need to reach out to the rest of the world, you can actually chat with the medical staff and discuss with people who are actually concerned by the big and small politics that are produced and reported during these events.

Being at such an event as the EPP summit and having the privilege just to watch closely, to listen and to see the others rush from task to task shows you how much of politics is just a lot of hot air, done with a lot of professionalism and usually with a good bunch of enthusiasm, enthusiasm that is necessary for democratic processes but that is maybe too often stuck in rituals than in real substance.

And so a long day ends, another day where the life of the euroblogger Julien Frisch has been enriched by new impressions, new acquaintances and new ideas - things that I would never have seen or done hadn't I started this blog almost two years ago. Big thanks to the EPP for the invitation!

All pictures were taken by me. You are free to use them under Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0).

Update: Below you find the video the EPP produced about the event.


Mathew said...

Another very interesting exploration of the differences between blogging and journalism. Not sure I agree with you on all the points, but I always enjoy your posts exploring this particular theme.

It begs a question, however. You write:

"Bloggers need to take a closer look behind the scenes ... [at] things that need to be revealed ... where journalists can't go because they wouldn't be able to sell the story or don't have the time ..."

It's great if bloggers have the time to do the investigative work that journalists now no longer do.

But isn't there a downside if our society starts relying on a volunteer force for investigative work, and relegates journalists to press release multipliers?

After all, some bloggers may be self-motivated, but others may be politically motivated, paid by spin-doctors under the table, or worse.

A brief history of journalism shows what that looks like, and it ain't pretty.

Julien Frisch said...

My argument was rather that civil society needs to fill spaces professional journalism doesn't fill for different reasons instead of trying to do better what journalists are already doing pretty well.

And I didn't say anywhere citizens should do "investigative journalism" which means something different than to just go to areas where journalists aren't going. Real investigation needs money and contacts and time and support - demanding individual citizens to do that is an illusion (while one might ask whether some civil society organisations couldn't do that).

mathew said...

Don't take my comment the wrong way. What I should have perhaps mentioned is that journalists are not doing the investigative work that they used to, as any analysis of media would show.

It's just not financed any more, and in many cases journalists ARE press release multipliers. Estimates vary, but most people in PR would tell you that PR is 'behind' well over 50% of all newspaper stories.

And a lot of the rest are written like the ones written following the event you went to - based on briefings from spin doctors on the spot, a la "here is the story".

Why? Because - as you mention - "they wouldn't be able to sell the story or don't have the time ..." for any other sort of stories.

So, I would dispute the idea that they are doing investigative journalism "pretty well". But I'd also dispute the view put across by some that it is all fault of the Internet, or of bloggers. No easy answers here.