Friday, 7 April 2006

EU funding journalists to cover European Parliament

BRUSSELS: The European Parliament is subsidizing journalists to cover its parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg, a move that legislators say aims to ensure that the EU’s only democratically elected body is not ignored.

As part of a program dating to the 1980s, journalists from across the EU member states are receiving travel and entertainment subsidies from the Parliament to help defray the cost of covering the legislature when it shuttles once a month to Strasbourg, in Eastern France, from Brussels, journalists and legislators say.

The program is being criticized by some members of Parliament who have themselves recently come under pressure to give up generous perks.

The funding for journalists can include payment of a first-class round-trip train ticket or an economy-class plane ticket to Strasbourg from any of the 25 EU countries and a daily stipend of E100 to cover hotel, food and entertainment over two days.

About 60 journalists from across the bloc are invited to Strasbourg each month under the program, which is administered by parliamentary offices in EU member states. Media organs that have benefited from the subsidies in the past include RTBF of Belgium, RTE of Ireland, ERT of Greece and ORF of Austria, among dozens of others, EU sources said.

Attempts to contact these organizations for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The Parliament also provides television journalists with unlimited use of free state-of-the-art television studios, free sound and camera equipment, and free two-person camera crews that can be borrowed for the day.

“The parliamentary sessions are stultifyingly dull, so the Parliament does whatever it can to make it easier for us to work here, including paying for our journeys and providing plush facilities,” said a broadcaster who has benefited from the program and who requested anonymity. “I would never get my Parliament reports on the air if the Parliament wasn’t paying for it.”

Hans Peter Martin, an independent member of Parliament from Austria and a former journalist for the German magazine Der Spiegel, said the Parliament’s funding of journalists showed that representatives of EU institutions had not understood the principles of free press and democracy. Martin, who has been campaigning to rein in parliamentary perks, came to prominence in 2004 for surreptitiously filming fellow Parliament members leaving Brussels and Strasbourg after signing in for daily stipends.

“The funding of journalists creates the impression that the Parliament is paying for propaganda, and by doing so it harms the ideals of the EU more than any positive headlines they might get out of it,” he said. He added that journalists could not hold the Parliament accountable if they themselves were benefiting from its funds.

Although it is generally viewed as unethical for journalists to accept funding from institutions they cover, analysts said that in countries that rely on public broadcasters, the notion of using available public money to fund journalists may be viewed as acceptable.

Jaime Duch, spokesman for the Parliament, said the funding was intended to encourage EU journalists who would not otherwise cover the Parliament to make the monthly pilgrimage to Strasbourg. He said the Parliament under no circumstances interfered with what was reported. “If we didn’t help them, they wouldn’t come because they have other priorities,” Duch said. “And if we stopped the funding, the journalists would protest.”

One television journalist who regularly travels to Strasbourg using funding from the program said the daily stipend was sufficient to pay for a quality hotel and lunch at an upmarket brasserie, including a glass of Bordeaux wine and a dish of Strasbourg’s celebrated sausages. The neo-classical Hotel Hannong in Strasbourg – popular with journalists – costs about E60 a night if booked on the Internet.

Another broadcaster, who like others interviewed for this article requested anonymity, said perks such as these had prompted journalists to refuse requests by editors to write stories on members’ privileges and travel expenses at the Parliament, a topic of growing interest in Europe. “How can I expose such perks when I myself am benefiting from them?” the journalist asked.

Harald Jungreuthmayer, a correspondent for ORF, the Austrian broadcaster, defended the funding as necessary to generate coverage of an institution that is often maligned and even more often ignored. “It’s part of the PR of the European Parliament,” he said. “The Parliament’s aim is not to put a spin on coverage, but to get any coverage at all.”

He added that he had never observed any attempt by the Parliament to influence coverage.

Other institutions have drawn strong crtiticism for efforts to influence media coverage. The Bush administration came under fire in November when it came to light that the Pentagon had contracted with the Lincoln Group, an American public relations firm, to pay Iraqi news outlets to print positive articles while hiding their source.

The Strasbourg payments are likely to fuel controversy at a time when European Parliment perks are under scrutiny. The Parliament, which spends E200 million a year shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg, agreed last June to reform part of its generous system of members’ allowances, including perks that allow members to be reimbursed for the most expensive economy-class air tickets even if they fly a budget airline.

But perks for journalists have so far remained intact. In fact, legislators confided, some members of Parliament from smaller countries like Portugal and Greece have been lobbying to have the subsidies for journalists expanded in order to ensure that the members receive coverage back home.

The Parliament’s efforts to raise its profile come as the EU is suffering an existential crisis caused by the rejection of an EU constitution by France and the Netherlands. The Parliament shapes legislation on everything from environmental regulations to warnings on cigarette pacts. However, it still remains better known for its generous members’ perks than for its public policy. In the last European elections in 2004, voter turnout fell to 45 percent from 50 percent.

Brussels’s 1,550 journalists, one of the world’s largest press corps outside Washington, benefit from a host of perks and privileges from EU institutions, including free meals and unlimited free phone calls during EU summit meetings and free television studios at the European Commission. At the beginning of every six-month EU presidency, the presiding country invites journalists to a free junket in the capital. In February, Austria, the current holder of the EU’s presidency, invited 62 Brussels-based journalists to Vienna, paying for their lodgings in a lavish Hilton hotel and hosting a complimentary dinner in an 18th-century baroque castle where a soprano sang Strauss operettas – all on the tab of the Austrian government. Media organs had the option of paying for the trip. Only eight opted to do so, according the Austrian representation to Brussels.

“It was a worthwhile investment,” said Nicola Donig, spokesman for the Austrian presidency.

By Dan Bilefsky, International Herald Tribune.

This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.