The Myth of the Shrinking EU Press Corps

1250 px ©European Parliament--Pietro Naj-Oleari.jpg - Filming

Remember all those scary stories about dwindling press numbers in Brussels a few years ago? Well, turns out they were wrong. Far from falling, the number of journalists accredited to the EU has actually risen over the past decade – from 929 in June 2004 to 1022 in September 2013, according to unpublished European Commission figures.

The error seems to have arisen when several journalists reported that the number of accredited correspondents had fallen to 752 in March 2010, prompting a spate of lurid headlines. “The media is deserting Brussels,” shouted the normally reliable ‘Coulisses de Bruxelles’ blog. “The incredible shrinking EU press corps,” screamed The Economist’s Charlemagne column, noting that the EU press pack was in “free fall.” And in an article entitled “As the EU does more, fewer tell about it,” The New York Times claimed the number of accredited reporters in Brussels had dropped by more than one-third since 2005.

The stories fitted neatly into a questionable narrative about plummeting correspondent numbers internationally and the growing irrelevance of the EU in a world dominated by the US and China. “The malaise gripping Brussels has its echo in a growing sense that the EU project is just not where the action is,” wrote David Rennie in his Economist blog. The media reports also sparked a furious reaction from the International Press Association in Brussels, which accused the EU institutions of bypassing journalists in their bid to communicate directly with the public.

The problem is the stories were based on dodgy data – as European Commission officials vainly tried to point out at the time. “These figures are wrong and have been cleaned up from an early database, making it look as though there had been a very large drop,” said Pier Soldati, the Commission official then in charge of press accreditation. Indeed the executive body’s own statistics from March 2010 note there were 935 accredited journalists that month and, as in all years, the figure increased throughout the year as reporters filed into the Berlaymont building to pick up their prized yellow passes.

The second mistake journalists made at the time was to compare the abnormally low number of accredited journalists in early 2010 to another, larger list of accredited media that includes interns, temporary pass holders and mainly Belgian cameramen, sound engineers and photographers. There were about 1300 on this list in 2005 – the year most reporters compared the 2010 figures with.

I have been taking a long, hard look at journalist numbers in Brussels recently as part of research for a book chapter I’m writing with Professor George Terzis on EU correspondents. I have also been preparing material for a Clear Europe course on understanding and influencing the Brussels press corps I plan to give on February 20. What I have discovered is that far from decreasing, the number of accredited journalists to the EU rose rapidly from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, grew steadily from 1995 to 2005 and has remained relatively stable ever since (see Clear Europe graph below.)

Evolution Press Corps Size

Copyright Clear Europe

 

In 1976, when the then European Economic Community had nine members and few tangible powers, there were only 259 journalists accredited to the European institutions. By 1987, after the entry of Greece, Portugal and Spain and the signing of the Single European Act there were 480. Another leap forward occurred in the early 1990s with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the accession of Sweden, Finland and Austria. In 1991, there were 520 foreign correspondents. By 1995, this figure had increased to 783.

The EU press corps witnessed further growth in the late 1990s and early 21st century as a dozen mainly former communist countries negotiated membership. By the time 10 of these states joined in May 2004 there were 929 accredited journalists to the EU. This number peaked at 1031 in April 2005 and has since remained stable, with 992 in June 2006, 1006 in November 2007 and 971 in August 2008, based on European Commission figures.

The enlargement process might have slowed down since and plans to create a United States of Europe shelved, but the economic crisis that has gripped the EU – and in particular the Eurozone – since 2009 has actually proved a boon to journalists who once struggled to convince editors that Brussels mattered. Indeed, recent figures show that contrary to press reports describing EU reporters as “An endangered species?” the number of accredited journalists has gone up slightly since the start of the crisis – from 962 in April 2009 to 1022 in September 2013. By contrast, there are about 1500 foreign journalists accredited in Washington D.C. and London – puncturing another lazy myth often peddled by EU cheerleaders that Brussels has the largest international press corps in the world.

There is little doubt that the Eurozone crisis has helped keep EU journalist numbers relatively buoyant while media organisations have been shedding foreign correspondents elsewhere. But the fact remains that as long as Brussels remains the headquarters of the European Union and NATO and these institutions keep growing in size and importance, then reporters will continue flocking to the Belgian and EU capital.

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