In politics, whoever can better influence the international media to push forward their views has the upper hand, say political communications insiders. And this isn’t just the case during election campaigns: in the European Union, decision-making power depends not only on the size of a given player’s economy, but also on how it deals with international media.
It’s no secret that in Brussels lies a well-oiled media machine, which can distribute information to all major media outlets across the continent in a matter of hours. The machine, which has risen in influence since the financial crisis broke in 2008, operates on the basis of maintaining the anonymity of journalists’ sources that feed it; one of the sacred principles of journalistic ethics.
However, here this principle of anonymity is also used to protect the Brussels media machine itself and ensuring it remains hidden from public view. No journalist in the Belgian capital is prepared to risk their job to expose how the system works, thus preserving a ‘code of silence’ around it.
The most influential group in the Brussels media machine is made up of the euro zone’s ‘hard core’ bloc. This means the Permanent Representation of Germany, located in Brussels, and assisted by political and financial satellite countries of Germany: Spain, Portugal, Slovakia and the Baltic states (among which, Latvia currently holds the EU presidency). France and Italy have clearly less influence and access in this system.
In terms of collection and distribution of news, the main players in the system are the three major European-level media outlets: the agencies Reuters and Bloomberg, and the Financial Times newspaper. Whatever this group reports, all other media outlets in Europe rush to reproduce. Thus – intentionally or not – articles published by the group are spread widely.
Information that enters the Brussels media machine comes from three sources: people working inside the EU bureaucracy who monitor critical meetings (interpreters as well as civil servants), the politicians themselves (or their aides) and senior officials of the European institutions. These sources are used to satisfy the need for timely, exclusive coverage of news events, which makes journalists extremely competitive in pursuing information on what is discussed during these meetings.
The most common means of communication from these sources to journalists is SMS. When it comes to more detailed leaks though, journalists from the three main media players (together with others from mostly German and British outlets) are invited to an unofficial press conference and briefed. This has been the case for the past few months.
In these meetings, the person doing the briefing is very often an official that also works at the European Commission’s Spokesperson’s Service. Of German origin, this man sets aside EU etiquette as well as the theoretical neutrality of his professional position.
A recent example that highlights how well this system functions was in Riga, during the recent Eurogroup meeting. On April 23, Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis participated in a dinner with his colleagues, in order to prepare the issues for the forthcoming meeting. Everything proceeded normally. But the following day, the media ‘revealed’ highly aggressive rhetoric against Varoufakis from his colleagues during the Eurogroup meeting itself.
That same senior official of the European Commission, moments after the conclusion of the Eurogroup meeting, invited eight journalists for the ‘established’ daily informal press conference. “There was a lot of anger towards the Greek delegation,” a Brussels-based journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, told us. “When we asked about Mr Varoufakis’ position in the meeting, the official said ‘The guy lives on another planet’, and made derogatory gestures. This isn’t something we’ve seen before – neither from EU officials nor this particular person.”
An identical ‘update’ was given by two further EU officials, one working for the Eurogroup and one from a diplomatic mission of a Southern European country. “They were equally aggressive; trying to present Mr Varoufakis as an ‘alien’”, said the journalist, who was present during these discussions. “When we got to the heart of the matter concerning the Greek economy, the ‘sources’ refused to say any more. They just blamed Varoufakis.” These briefings were followed by tough statements from various ministers, echoing the German government’s point of view.
This specific information about the events of the Eurogroup meeting in Riga was published in all three aforementioned major media outlets, giving the impression of a war-like atmosphere at the meeting and breaking the unwritten rule of maintaining a professional distance from harsh words. Following these events, the Greek delegation decided for Varoufakis to not attend the planned dinner on the evening of April 24, to express his displeasure with the way his colleagues treated him and Greece. However, the ‘aggression’ from ministers, EU officials and the media did not subside. On the contrary, Reuters presented Varoufakis as “isolated”, simply because he did not attend the dinner, without asking for a statement from the Greek side. They also commented on Varoufakis’ decision not to wear a tie.
The go-ahead for this latest smear campaign was given by SMS, from a German official to a journalist at one of the three major media outlets. The journalist in question then called some of his sources in Athens in order to warn them what was coming.
During the Eurogroup meetings last February, the Greek government tried to breach the seemingly impenetrable ‘media wall’ being built around it. “The fact that the draft of Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s ‘decision’ was leaked by the Greek delegation, which essentially subverted debate on it, outraged many people in Brussels,” the journalist told us. “War was declared, and from that point on, the Greek positions were repeatedly leaked to Peter Spiegel of the Financial Times,” he added.
“Will Mr Varoufakis be able to survive the pressure?” asked the journalist. “At least Mr Tsipras still trusts him,” we replied.
“Then inform them in Greece, both the government and the people, that they can expect even more of these attacks,” he said.