Tuesday 11 November 2008

European communication (IV): What is "important"?

This article is a reaction to Martin Westlake, the Secretary General of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), who has also joined the world of Eurobloggers quite recently.

I first wanted just to write a comment to a recent article by Martin, but when the comment became too long I decided to dedicate a full article to this question. To a certain extend, it also an indirect reaction to Martin's article on the notion of "importance", which was addressing a comment of mine to an earlier article.

But let me first cite the article from Martin titled "Well-informed, misinformed, disinformed or over-informed?" which I am referring to (with additional links and line-breaks):
Over lunch in Paris yesterday, I chatted with Beatrice Ouin (French EESC member/Employees’ Group). She is a trained journalist and communicator and has for many years given communication courses to trades unionists. Recently, she started teaching younger people, around 18-20 years old.

As an ice-breaking exercise, she asked her students to list the most important events of the past six months (she then intended to ask them what ‘important’ meant). They all listed the Chinese Olympics, naturally, but not a single student mentioned the Irish referendum result.

In the past, we might have said that it’s because of the newspapers; because they don’t cover ‘Europe’ sufficiently. But these young people almost certainly don’t read newspapers on a daily basis. They probably get their information on the hoof, from the web. The internet is a wondrous thing but it raises fresh challenges for communicators.

Beatrice recently authored a Committee opinion on the EU’s communication challenge (reconciling the European and the national levels). You can read it here. It’s well worth a read.
My main argument: The problem of European political communication is that it is not filling our attention on a daily basis because it focuses on the wrong notion of "importance".

There are ("important") mediated European events like the referendum in Ireland, but after its failure, the discussions about the future of the EU go back into intransparent structures within the Council working parties, EP committees, Commission divisions etc. and they come up to the surface only from time to time, e.g. when the European Council meets and discusses them.

A good indicator for the failure to keep up debates on important questions like the Lisbon Treaty is the fact that the European blogosphere is not discussing its future these days, at least not to the extend it did when the Irish were heading to the polls. The reason is that the most relevant political disscussion on this matter take place below the radar of our attention, in meeting rooms and hidden offices.

For "digital natives", those of us who have grown up with electronic media, issues become important when they are able to focus constantly our attention. But in order to receive our attention, they need to be constantly interesting and understandable.

However - as it is mentioned in the EESC comment on the EU's communication strategy - European language and presentation of news are not interesting enough to catch our attention for more than a glance (see my remarks on the report of the EU ombudsman's report or on the Court of Auditors' report) - not even if we are more intrigued by European politics than by the Olympics.

In other words: The European Union is not able keep its topics on our daily agenda, we are not seeing it between the important "European Days of Public Attention" and the even more important "30th anniversary of the European Public Attention Strategy".

This lack of communicative follow-up after really "important" decisions, a follow-up that reminds us ("citizens") that these "important" decisions have "important" positive or negative effects to our less important daily lives, is the most striking problem of Europe.

Because if European politics and policies are important, they have to appear in our daily life. And since we are consuming diverse electronic media every day, the European reality needs to appear on our screens and earphones on a daily basis. Consequently, as long as Europe and the European Union do not focus their communication to become interesting for diverse medias and diverse audiences, there won't be much attention or interest.

A further problem worth mentioning: The most important reports and documents contain the heaviest Eurospeak instead of raising attention through lively language, concise summaries or pointed conclusions. Thereby, possibly interesting stories become boring administrative problems instead of raising interesting political debates.

The importance of European issues is therefore not really defined by the question "Well-informed, misinformed, disinformed or over-informed?" but rather by "Interesting or not interesting?". And it is not by coincidence that this sounds like "To be or not be", because the question of perceived "importance" (i.e. relevance) is existential for the European project, not more, and not less!

And as long as the EU's information are boring and discontinuous, the answer of most will remain:

Not interesting!


Anonymous said...

I read this article with great interest, Julien. But if I may paraphrase Henry Ford, you can be interesting to some of the people some of the time, but you can't be interesting to all of the people all of the time. National governance is not continuously interesting, but it is tacitly accepted. The same cannot be said about the EU level of governance. Maybe an important consideration is the fact that 'Europe' remains a process on a journey, to echo Shonfield, to an unknown destination... In any case, keep up the blogging! Martin

Julien Frisch said...

But if you look at national political debates, they permeate our dailiy life much more intensively than European debates can. That is what I demand from European politics, to permeate into our daily lives.

You cannot interest everyone at every time, that is true, but you can interest many at many times. And especially if the destination is unknown, you will have to tell people why they should even join the path.

Our interest of following what is going on in Europe has to be raised constantly, if not we might turn around and just look for the paths we have been going before. National politics are such paths. As a new path with unknown destination, Europe has to show that it can be different but still interesting... Not for everyone, but for as many as possible.