- Mar 15th 2010, 21:49 by Charlemagne
THE European Union press pack is in free fall. In 2005, the year I arrived in Brussels, there were more than 1,300 reporters with press badges issued by the European Commission: bright yellow photo ID passes marked with a prominent red P for Press to make sure we can be seen from afar as we skulk in the corridors of power. Back then, I remember being told (endlessly) that in numbers the Brussels press corps was bigger than the Washingon press pack, which I had just left. This year (hat tip my colleague Jean Quatremer), just 752 journalists hold EU accreditation. Almost 200 have left in the last year.
There are several reasons for this, and few obvious ways to change this trend. That has not stopped the semi-official trade union of the EU press corps, the Association de la Presse Internationale (API) from coming up with a bold plan to stop the rot, involving several different demands. API’s ideas vary from the unrealistic to the seriously dodgy, I am sorry to say. The whole issue is to be thrashed out at a special API meeting on Thursday 18th. I will be abroad on Thursday, travelling for work, otherwise I would certainly attend and make a nuisance of myself.
The single biggest problem is clearly economic. The industry that has fed and clothed me for 12 years—being a full-time foreign correspondent—is in desperate straits everywhere. The internet has broken the link between news and advertising, establishing the idea that news as a commodity should be available for free. It has removed the headstart foreign correspondents once enjoyed when it came to knowing “what” is happening on the other side of the world. To simplify, you no longer need to wake up in Mexico City to listen to Mexican radio, watch Mexican television or read the latest Mexican headlines. That leaves journalists trying to make a living telling people “why” things are happening on the other side of the world. That is a good gig if you can make it pay, but the internet, again, is proving a disruptive technology.
Once upon a time (ie, in 1993, when I became a journalist), newspaper editors and managers had to guess what their readers wanted. Those news outlets who really wanted to know could hold focus groups, or pay groups of readers to keep little diaries in which they recorded which articles they began and which they finished (reader traffic surveys). These surveys were always devastating for foreign news departments. It turned out that readers would tell focus groups that they bought X or Y heavy-weight newspaper for the foreign news. But in truth, they rarely started foreign news stories, and almost never finished them. What readers really cared about passionately was the sports pages, interesting pictures, cartoons, the crossword and the TV listings.
The severing of the link between advertising and news had a second uniquely grim effect on foreign news, I believe (I have been pondering these things for a few years now, so bear with me). I think that newspapers in the old days used foreign news to signal that they were a premium product in their markets, which was how they attracted premium advertising.
This is especially true in markets like America, where a biggish city might have one premium daily, and one or two less posh rivals. The premium paper (the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Washington Post etc.) made money promising to deliver the area’s wealthiest readers to advertisers. One way to signal top dog status was to have foreign correspondents in places like Beijing, Mexico City or London. Even if those foreign bureaux cost a small fortune, overall it seemed likely to be a good piece of marketing: like Chanel making a loss on haute couture clothes so it can sell lipstick for four times as much as anyone else. Now, the advertising is drying up, so everyone has less money. The internet makes it easy for a city newspaper to run lots of what looks like reports from foreign correspondents. Look on any website for a mid-sized American newspaper, and you will see acres of “foreign news” that is either licensed from a big media group, or is time-delayed news agency copy.
In a final blow, the internet is delivering real-time information about what readers actually want to read. And in too many cases it is “Reality TV star loses penis to lawnmower”, rather than “10 years on, African conflict leaves lingering environmental scars”.
It is mostly economic pressures that are shrinking the Brussels press corps. But there is a political problem too, as Jean Quatremer and others admit. The malaise gripping Brussels has its echo in a growing sense that the EU project is just not where the action is.
That is true of countries where the EU is rather popular still, such as the ex-communist countries of east and central Europe. With the heady drama of accession and entry now fading into familiarity, correspondents from eastern Europe were already finding it harder to get into the paper before the economic recession hit.
It is also true of Eurosceptic countries, like Britain. When I arrived in Brussels, six daily newspapers from Britain had staff correspondents in town. Now it is three. Part of it is hostility to the EU: to quote one foreign editor, talking of one of his paper’s most senior figures: “xxx hates the EU so much he never wants to read about it.” Part of it is that too many British newspapers have spent the last five years or so chasing each other downmarket, leaving little room for foreign news that might require readers to engage their brains and think about stories that are important but unsexy, or require empathasing with foreigners (as opposed to gawking at them or gossiping about them). In fact, I think the true situation of British foreign reporting is even worse than it looks: there are still lots of correspondents in all sorts of posts, like Brussels, Paris or Rome, so it all looks reasonably healthy. But ask those same correspondents what sort of political stories they get to write: too often they most easily make the paper with stories about Nicolas Sarkozy’s height, Silvio Berlusconi’s love life, or how much Catherine Ashton is paid.
None of this is to say that non-staff, freelance reporters cannot be excellent journalists. They can and are, but it is often harder for them to get important but worthy stories into the papers than it is for a staffer. Permanent correspondents, paid a fixed salary rather than by the word or line, represent sunk costs: the more their paper runs of their stuff, the better value they represent. A stringer paid for every line that is published faces the reverse dynamic: every piece that editors agree to take represents additional expenditure. Similarly, one of the most important jobs of any foreign correspondent for a daily paper is to calm desks down, when they call in a state of wild excitement about some slab of made-up tosh published somewhere else, and demand their version of the same story. For a freelancer to tell his or her editors that the story is rubbish is not just high-risk, it is also a direct financial sacrifice.
So to return to API, what are they recommending? Well, the details are bit sketchy, but their focus seems to be the fact that for their first five years in Brussels, full time staff journalists can obtain the same special “expatriate” tax status as managers sent to Belgium by any international company. The scheme was devised to placate multinationals appalled by the cost of employing someone in Belgium, a country where taxes and social security costs easily swallow 55% of a middle-class salary, and add 30 or 40% to the employers’ costs. During that five year grace period, those on the expatriate deal keep paying into their home country’s social security schemes (while enjoying access to Belgian public healthcare, if they are from the EU) and do not pay tax on weekdays that they spend outside the country.
But after five years, journalists fall off that expatriate status and become regular Belgian employees, with brutal effects on their take-home pay. (Though you can reset that expatriate status if you leave the country for a while, and return with a new employer, or in a new job).
API’s solution is to propose a special legal status of “permanent EU correspondent”. The list of demands includes:
A special permanent press card that grants access to all EU meetings and summits, saving on the time currently taken up obtaining accreditation (my likelihood rating: reasonable).
They want access to EU meetings without security checks of work or computer bags (my likelihood rating: nil).
They want the children of permanent correspondents to have the right to attend the “European schools” established for the children of EU officials and diplomats. This may be possible, I suspect. But at the risk of making myself unpopular, I think it may be a bad idea. Journalists covering the EU institutions are meant to be critical outsiders. That has got to be made harder by having your children at a school run and subsidised by the EU institutions.
Finally, and this is where the five year tax rule comes in, API talks about seeking a solution to tax and social security problems, “along the lines of” the status recently found for assistants hired by the European Parliament, who used to be taxed according to 27 national systems, but who now enjoy a single contract status under which they pay the same “EU taxes” paid by full-time officials of the institutions. These taxes are much lower than Belgian national taxes. And I think API is suggesting journalists should get something like the same deal.
Now, do not get me wrong, Belgian taxes are brutally high. But rather than wanting journalists to join this town’s grandest Eurocrats in dodging Belgian taxes, I cannot help feeling that it would be better if Eurocrats joined journalists in paying them, in full, so they remember just what high taxes feel like. It has always struck me as pretty indefensible for EU bigwigs to spend their lives lobbying for governments to hand over more money to the EU budget, when they themselves pay rather less tax than many ordinary mortals.
And maybe once everyone is paying top whack, the Belgian government may find it is lobbied to review its free-spending ways (one in three active adult Belgians works for the state, and the Belgian public service is one of the most expensive in the world, in per capita terms).
I am also not sure that the cause of explaining the EU to voters outside Brussels is always helped by journalists who spend whole lives here. Some of these lifers are brilliant and well-informed, and some of them are good friends of mine. Others are so firmly trapped in the Brussels bubble that they have lost all sense of how normal voters think.
Here is a radical suggestion, made only partly in jest. Perhaps the solution is a different rule: that we journalists should all lose our EU accreditation after five years and be forced to leave Brussels, at least for a bit. Not just to reset our tax clocks, but to earn the right to call ourselves foreign correspondents, as opposed to living, breathing pieces of the acquis communautaire.