Monday, 28 June 2010

Should bloggers get access badges for the EU institutions?

This question asked by the head of the European Parliament press unit earlier this month is as simple as it is difficult to answer (Stephen and The European Citizen have given their views already).

It is difficult to answer because it is actually a question about why certain people get privileged access to (EU) institutions.

Why does somebody who has a press card easily gets access to the institutions even when she or he doesn't even report about what she or he sees or when he or she reports only tiny bits without much actual research afterwards, or when s/he distorts a story to please a national audience, when s/he only reports about what can be sold for money instead of telling the public what the public should know?

Why can you register as a lobbyist and then have access to institutions like the Parliament without there being a proper definition of what a lobbyist actually is (long discussion, I know)? Why are those who can afford the process of registration better than those who can't afford it?

Why is there no special "scientist access badge" so that people like me who are studying EU politics could work more easily in the Brussels environment?

Why is privileged access to public institutions given only to two categories of people whose professions are in fact hard to distinguish from activities individual citizens or groups of citizens without a clear organisational background are able and willing to do today on their own, namely reporting (=journalism) about and advocating (=lobbying) on questions of special or general interest?

The reason is simple: Old institutions are used to communicate with organisational actors, they hate to deal with real individuals even though in the case of journalistic or interest groups they usually have to deal with a very limited amount of individuals representing these organisations.

Institutions prefer to deal with those who are willing to invest in bureaucracy and structures over those who actually want to do something, because the former are more similar to themselves. Institutions want to deal with institutions, organisations with organisations.

The question whether bloggers should have access to EU institutions is thus actually not the real question, the question is:

Should individuals have access to EU institutions? And if yes, under what conditions?

We have to ask the question like this because there is no clear categorisation of what a blogger is, what a blogger does, how it is done and when, why or with what purpose.

A blogger can be someone like me who writes a blog without the blog being directly related to his/her work, who writes because s/he has fun to write, who follows politics because s/he is interested, because s/he feels s/he can contribute to some discussions as an informed citizen.

Other bloggers may have a more professional interest in writing, using the blog as a medium to publish journalistic texts to earn money with this activity.

A blog can be used as part of the institutional communication, helping the outside world to understand what happens within an organisation beyond stereotype press releases or to influence opinions by being part of an environment of public discussions where you can only prevail if you manage to have your views publicly represented.

A blog can be just a private commentary, involving issues we come across every day, be it culture, society, politics or private issues we want to share and discuss with a smaller or bigger audience, just because we want to and because we can.

Somebody doesn't have to be an EU blogger to write about EU affairs, to the contrary, maybe a national expert in a certain policy field will add a more objective yet more informed view on his or her topic.

A blog can have 100 readers a day who are the ones concerned or the only ones interested or a blog may have 100,00 readers who don't come because they want to be informed but just because it is fun reading the blog.

Bloggers are different kinds of individuals with different kinds of interests and styles and means, and the only thing that is common to them is that they publish on the web in a more or less regular way.

So you won't be able to draw lines to decide on specific criteria to define what kind of bloggers should have access to the EU institutions, but it is still necessary to give individuals with the intent to report about EU politics access to the institutions for a limited time, no matter whether it is for a local school newspaper writer, an international blogger or a scientist who needs to observe certain activities within the institutions for her/his research.

You may need some kind of small-scale body (a "Citizens' Access Unit") in each institution where people can request access for specific purposes, and either this unit will decide on its own or, whenever possible, re-direct the request to other competent people/structures within the institution (e.g. a committee secretariat, a political group, a head of unit in the Commission etc.) to deal with the necessary formalities.

And if this is not possible due to conservative thinking, you have to make at least public what kind of occasions there are already where you can get easy access, e.g. in the case of hearings, seminars or public committee meetings in the European Parliament where any citizen can register and participate quite easily as I have noticed while being here in Brussels.

In the end this is about trusting citizens instead of distrusting them, openness instead of closed up public institutions. And yes there will be one or another case of misuse of this trust, but you also give access to stupid lobbyists or stupid journalists whom you have trusted and who misuse this trust in rare cases.

And beyond this citizen access, the institutions also have to widen the scope of what they call "journalism", allowing permanent access to people who can prove (through previous work, current work, income statistics etc.) that they pursue a journalistic activity.

This kind of professional blogger or independent journalist may be defined by the intention to make a living out of this activity but institutions should end the need to demand that people are registered with some journalistic cartel organisations whose only interest it is to protect newcomers from entering a profession that is undergoing changes, being afraid of loosing to those who are better adapted to today's environment than they are. Journalists should be defined by what they do, not by the fact that they are registered as such with some national or European organisations.

Now this was more some kind public brainstorming than an argued blog post, but my main message is that the institutions need to find a way to allow access to those who are interested in dealing with these institutions, in particular when they do so with the interest of analysing and reporting their work to the outside world, making European politics accessible to new audiences or making European topics public and understandable that have remained in expert circles so far, out of the range of journalists or institutional communication.

The answer how to do that is not easy to give, but EU institutions that are able to decide about budgets of billions of Euros should be able to decide how they will allow individual access to their premises - but it seems it is easier to deal with big money than with human beings for them.

Picture: I took this photo in a European Parliament hearing for which I simply applied with an email sent to the political group secretariat. With the badge I received I was able to walk around freely in the European Parliament. Many of the participants seemed to have permanent badges (EP staff, permanent representations, lobbyists, not much press).


Marjory said...

Hi Julien, your comments (“brainstorming”) contain much to which I want to react.

Though a lot of your musings are interesting, not all of them have a direct bearing on my original question. But you do rephrase that question and even partially answer it when you say: …”allowing permanent access to people who can prove (through previous work, current work, income statistics, etc.) that they pursue a journalistic activity.” These are the sort of criteria we use to give a permanent access badge to freelance journalists – proof of work (work that deals mainly with EU affairs) and of payment for that work in such a manner that it’s clear that journalism is the applicant’s main professional activity. I have the impression, however, that for many bloggers such as yourself it would be difficult to meet such criteria.

Which brings me to the reason why permanent accreditations are given out. Your assertion that only journalists and lobbyists have a permanent accreditation is in fact incorrect: MEPs, civil servant staff, technical staff from outside companies – they all have a permanent accreditation. The reason is that they need to work in the Parliament on a regular basis.

On the issue of giving access to all citizens, you point out yourself that at the European Parliament “any citizen can register and participate quite easily”. I am therefore somewhat taken aback by your assertions that “old institutions (…) hate to deal with real individuals”. As I said above, freelance journalists (not belonging to an organization) get a permanent access badge while other individuals can have individual access. Also, journalists who do not work regularly in Brussels and cover the Parliament regularly, can come in individually and on an incidental basis if they can show a national press ID.

So, my question remains what should the criteria be that would make it possible to give EU-bloggers a permanent accreditation.


Julien Frisch said...

Thanks a lot already for clarifying some of the issues - it's important to make it most transparent of what the criteria are to get access.

And yes, naturally MEPs, assistants, interns and technical and other staff have access, but they are part of the institution's functioning, not outsiders. Journalists & lobbyists are definitely just second-order actors regarding the functioning of the institutions (which doesn't say they are unimportant).

The problem is that Parliament is just one example of an EU institution (your question concerned "EU institutions" in general, not just the parliament), and it is no surprise that as a body directly responsible to the citizens it is more open than the Council or the Commission. And not to talk about the Court (there are a number of brilliant legal bloggers) or the different agencies (many of them outside Brussels).

To report, for example, from the European Council, you need to have a national press card, and only if such a thing doesn't exist in your country you may come with a special letter from an editor in chief. So for a blogger even to get a one-day or two-day access is impossible in this case, which I thought would apply also for the Parliament (this is why I assumed you wouldn't allow totally independent journalists).

But even for the Parliament it is not totally obvious how to get access - applying for a public hearing is one thing (and this is rather just known to Brussels experts and not widely communicated), but already applying to participate in a seminar and clarifying whether one can report about everything that is said is not so obvious.

And last week I've been writing to the official email of a committee to ask whether I could participate as a scientific observer (not as a blogger) in the next meeting and six days later there is still no response... As somebody who knows one or two people around the EP I'd finally find the right person to address my request to, but what about people who do not have the contacts?

What my post actually wanted to imply is that having thought about the issue, it seems very difficult to me to come up with any criteria for permanent access badges for bloggers beyond the category of "quasi-journalists" (which is only because professional journalism is already a privileged category for permanent badges).

Anything else will create a new hierarchy, a small elite of people who fit into some criteria that can only be very arbitrary and that will be prohibitive to newcomers - and maybe newcomers would be the ones who could have a fresh view on EU politics, who would like to go into specific issues that haven't been covered elsewhere yet.

One of the great things of the blogosphere compared to classical journalism is that it is (in principle) much more open for new people, that it allows creative newcomers to get quite an audience in a short time and to develop an expertise (including the ability to report) and to become relevant voices among a group of readers.

What I wanted to say is that maybe you don't need special permanent badges for (EU) bloggers to the European Parliament if you make clear that somebody who tries to make a living from writing an EU blog can still be registered in the category of a freelance journalist and that other bloggers can easily register for single events.

But maybe this only applies to the Parliament, while there are no similar categories of events within the Council or the Commission, the agencies or the Economic and Social Committee or the Committee of the Regions, institutions that prefer to only (if at all) let official lobbyists and accredited journalists into the halls.

Andreas said...

Institutions, including those at European level, should be accountable for their actions at all time. The default should NOT be that individuals have to prove that they have a right to be here, it should be that institutions have to prove someone does not have a right to be there.

Bloggers are subjected to the same laws, press laws are applied to them as much as to newspaper journalists. Maybe we should just make our own bloggers id, similar to national press ids, so that there is something that the procedures can cling to?

"Ah look he has got a bloggers id, good enough!"

After all, it's the same with national press ids. Nobody looks into the criteria used for these being handed out, and let me assure you, they are not as sincere, reliable and honourable as asserted!

Here are some first attempts at a blog id from 2006.

Linda Margaret said...

You may find this article interesting, 'Culture MEPs call on EU for more European online conversation',

It's funny. It talks for three or four paragraphs about how the EU wants to engage more directly with Europeans. Then the final sentences note that amendments to allow citizens to directly elect anything more than an MEP were voted down.

The EU, like many institutions as you point out, wants direct engagement but not direct participation from participants that may not understand/misinterpret the institution. They want more control over the spin of a story, which is more easily done if you understand the media that does the spinning. Till the EU knows how social media works, they will be less likely to engage because they are uncertain how best to engage and represent themselves. Institutions, governments and politics rightly fear the media, and they tend to do their research before they allow new media to participate.