TV to wake the European Consciousness

Article published on April 22, 2003
community published
Article published on April 22, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The European public sphere remains largely incomplete. The mass media are a powerful catalyst for its completion. But the EU has hardly made a media splash.

Television, the mass media medium par excellence, is a privileged field of expression reserved for governments who through it can reach a large number of citizens and inform, even direct, public opinion. This is true of the Member States (MSs) but evidently not so for the EU, for which TV show often leave the most incongruous of slots. The idea of the EU as a powerless victim of media is not however wholly convincing for European citizens. Europe cannot extricate itself from the democratic principle that it must inform and communicate with the public. It must find a way of addressing the masses.

Not what to think, but what to think about

The question of the influence of media on society comes up again and again as technology allows mass communication from which nobody can hide any longer. This is the case with TV. If TV programmes are a priori a reflection of the societies in which they are immersed and are vehicles of shared values, then televisual content is also a tool for framing public opinion.

Historically, the study of the effects of mass media on populations has known several periods. At first, the televisual message was considered an almost all-powerful form of persuasion. Specialists use images like hypodermic needles to inject viewers with their ready-made opinions. Following this, numerous media studies relativised the effects of mass media. They insisted on the individual's capacity to rationally consider televisual content.

Finally, the view is that whilst TV does not entirely prescribe what to think, it does at least direct thoughts towards certain subjects and therefore exerts a kind of framing of reality and social preoccupations. Politicians obviously try to use this tool: certain electoral victories in Europe appear to owe a lot to media control. Things are very different for the EU, which is progressing painfully through an almost hostile media landscape.

Why doesn't the EU get on TV?

Europe is seldom on TV, too seldom no doubt if we take into account the results of Eurobarometer (the results of surveys carried out by the Commission to gauge and analyse public opinion). Among answers to the question "Where do people get information about the EU?", TV comes first (69%), followed by daily newspapers (47%), the radio (29%) and then the Internet (14%) . From this point of view we see a certain immobility of the EU, or at least the impression of immobility. In fact the need to use mass media has been a recurring recommendation in parliamentary reports for at least the last 10 years. As early as March 1993 one such report read: "up until now, communications from the Commission have essentially been based on leaflets, whilst the public targeted receive most of their information by audiovisual means. On average, each citizen spends 31/2 hours per day watching television. Viewing habits are unlikely to change in the near future and, consequently, it is the habits of the broadcasters which must change if they wish to establish an effective contact." In the meantime, the EU had taken the Internet option, with a certain degree of success. But the media question persists.

Indeed, it must be recognised that great obstacles remain in the current European audiovisual climate. The MSs national channels were born and grew up in parallel with the national contexts that surrounded them. That goes for the written press as well as for radio. From which we can easily imagine that competition between national and European politicians to get on TV often goes the way of the former. Moreover we can see that the producers of MS's channels remain very timid in their European programming. They invoke the fact that the EU isn't 'sexy' enough and would risk a fall in viewing figures. Must Europe accept being deprived of TV?

Towards a European channel?

Since national media are in the final instance fairly closed to the messages or representatives of the EU, but also more generally to the idea of a European culture, the EU is exploring different ways of investing in the small screen. First off, they will continue to develop privileged links with national producers in order to consolidate the portion of viewing time currently dedicated to Europe.

For others, like Jacques Séguéla, Europe is a product. The famous French publicist is sure that a good advert, aired in all the MSs in the 11 official languages of the EU would lead to an affective link being formed between the EU and its clients - sorry - citizens. "I love you Europe!" shouts a child at the end of the clip. The cherry on the cake, next you have to telephone to win a trip!

So to cut a long story short you end up thinking that the best thing may be to create a European channel (or even several). A kind of Europa TV, the channel of an eventual Union public service which would be viewed across the borders of the MSs by all European citizens, in all the languages of the EU. Europe by satellite is an embryonic version, only broadcast on the Net. Arte or Euronews are also opening up the way to this kind of channel.

The creation of a real European channel would be an important symbolic measure. Concretely it would probably be hoped for that this tool would serve not only to give information on EU politics, but also to promote inter-cultural knowledge among the European peoples. A message that is too institutional would risk a counter-productive effect. A channel dedicated to the European institutions would be viewed as an instrument of propaganda more than a source of information.

The dilemma remains for the EU: the European institutions want to be transparent but, without making a media coup, they risk becoming completely invisible. How can a European political project come to fruition without a mass media that allows it to inform, to share its political, historical, cultural raison d'être with its citizens? How, eventually, could this unique channel be protected from a tendency towards propaganda? And what do the Member States, proud sovereigns of the cathode ray, think of all this?

1)See Standard Eurobarometer no. 58, March 2003

2)Reflections on the information and communication policy of the European Community. Report of a group of experts presided by Mr Willy De Clercq MEP, March 1993, p. 17. TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: This quote and title are NOT official translations, which were unavailable to the translator at the time. They are translations from the French version of the report.

3)On this subject, see the interview published in this dossier with Mr Niels Jorgen-Thogersen, director of communication media and services Directorate General at the European Commission.