A notable feature of this election campaign is how media coverage seems to favour populist groups and parties, mostly from the right, but also from the left, and how little stands out from centre-oriented parties and groups.
At a conference in Paris about the upcoming European elections, four panellists were discomfited by this remark, though some in the audience appreciated the point.
One panel member put it down to the work-load of MEPs. At first this response looks absurd: surely the work-load of centre MEPs is the same as for populists? Yes, but it is a question of priorities, as Luuk van Middelaar explains on page 225 of his excellent new book, Alarums & Excursions. He explains why, to be effective, MEPs must establish negotiating influence within the giant coalitions that make up the European Parliament. This is not trivial and leaves little or no time to maintain a media image.
The implication is that, if your MEP features in the news a lot, the chances are that he or she is not advancing or protecting your interests in Brussels.
But that is not to say that MEPs are not accountable to their electorates. Europe is arguably the most transparent democracy on the planet. To find out how your MEP has been advancing and defending your interests, visit VoteWatch Europe. https://www.votewatch.eu/search.php
Another response was to blame the press. Shoot the messenger. Perhaps, but surely not the whole story, we’ll come back that.
Alessandro Fusacchia showed that we can do better than that.
Simple but fake trumps true but complex.
The populists’ message, false as it is, is eminently simple and easy to communicate. People will always prefer simple explanations, things you can see and touch. Arguments you can capture in a headline or a sound-bite. It is much harder to explain complex causes and effects – especially if they build up over time and demand complicated solutions that may take a long time to yield fruit. As Claude Juncker is said to have said: “We all know what to do. We just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
Easy-to-communicate trumps viability – and what could be easier to communicate than no policies at all? And guess what! Populist candidates are launching campaigns without even pretending to have policies – dismissing them as something they can work out later
Many of us would agree with Mr Fusacchia’s diagnosis, but he did not propose a solution.
Yet this question cannot be left hanging, and, given the inseparability of election campaigns and media, I was keen to learn what a mainstream news provider has to say about it.
So I paid a visit to the offices of Agence France Presse (AFP) in Paris and asked David Williams, Chief Editor for Europe. You can listen to the interview in our podcast. Along with other well-regarded news organisations, AFP sees itself as more than a mere profit-generating machine. David believes that the media have a duty of care – both morally and legally – to provide news that is both relevant, accurate – and balanced. He observed that, while populist news may be easier to report and perhaps in some senses more news-worthy, there was not necessarily more of it, so achieving balance is not too hard.
Not all media organisations are as principled as AFP of course, and not all media are subject to the legal and regulatory constraints applied to traditional media. For those that aren’t, it is a slippery slope from biased coverage to mis-information – fake news, in the current jargon. Making fools of their supporters.
And news comes from many different sources, including social-media platforms and news aggregators: platforms that serve, among other things, to transmit news from other sources. This makes spreading fake-news easier than ever. Unlike with a newspaper or a television station, you may not know where your news actually comes from. How do you know you’re not being duped?
All this is especially important as the EU elections approach:
being bot-duped is the same as having your vote stolen.
So how can you avoid being duped by some bot-machine dumping fake news on you?
The new cool is knowing your facts.
David says that, to stay one step ahead of the bot-machine, you have to be a bit smart and a bit sceptical. And you can do that with the help of AFP Factual www.factcheckeu.info, https://and www.france24.com/en/fight-the-fake, part of a new breed of free fact-checking services that help you to spot lies – online and offline, so you can stay informed and in control.
Sophie Nicholson works in the European forensic journalism te at AFP Factual. She showed me how they dig in to things like rumours and made-up “news”, spotting the lies in stories based on half-truths, the tell-tale signs that an image has been doctored or taken out of context. Its hard work and you have to keep your wits about you.
How does Sophie and the rest of the team do it? Like all professional sleuths, they use whatever resources they can get their hands on. They cooperate and share what they know with other serious news sources, for example through www.factcheckeu.info. And they don’t hesitate to correct their mistakes. Having tools to make sure you’re not being duped is hugely welcome – and the more people use them, the more useful they become. And yet. This did not answer my question completely. The workload argument holds when Parliament is active, but it takes a break in the lead-up to elections, when MEPs have time to campaign. Even allowing for the fact that, in doing the job you elected them to do, they get less practice in pacing the media than less conscientious populists do, you’d expect to see a bit more of them than you do.
Populist and mainstream may get equal coverage, but it doesn’t seem that way. So we’re interested to see what you think..
If you are happy to oblige by completing this two-page questionnaire about what you’re seeing in this election cycle, you would be doing us – and your fellow readers – a big favour.
No personal information – just what you’ve seen and heard recently.