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April 6, 2021, 9:38 a.m.

Why does so much news about the European Union still come out of London, even post-Brexit?

Even without the U.K., English is still the most widely spoken language in the EU, and that’s led to some awkward arrangements.

We’ve written often about the sense of dislocation brought about by the switch from local, analog news sources to national, digital ones. News used to come from people who lived in your town and shopped at your grocery store; that made it relatively easy to trust what they reported and that their interests at least vaguely aligned with yours. Online, your news more likely comes from national outlets, coastal megabrands within spitting distance of I-95. If you live in Prospect Heights or Adams Morgan, maybe you readily feel represented by those news sites — but if you’re in Peoria or Allentown or Knoxville, it’s easy to feel you’re being reported on more than reported for.

But what if the distant news outlets covering the United States weren’t cloistered in New York and D.C. — what if they were all in, I dunno, Iceland? Or Costa Rica, or Morocco, or Japan? Or what if they were all in a country that used to be part of the United States, but which had recently seceded from the union — and made a big scene of it on the way out? How do you think you’d feel about that?

A version of that scenario is playing out across Europe, which is why I was struck by this column by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic in The Irish Times. He’s writing about various claims about the European Union that were at some point “accepted as self-evident in parts of mainstream public discussion” but were, in the end, “all bogus.”

And it was not that hard to find information that showed you why they were bogus. If you spoke French and German, or had the patience to decipher Google Translate, you could follow debates in those countries and see for yourself. You could seek out data from EU institutions. Or you could get your news from independent outlets that invest in good European coverage.

The problem is that that’s not how most people get their information. In Ireland, a national aversion to learning other people’s languages and a domestic media market in which only a handful of players have the resources and the inclination to treat foreign news seriously makes it easier for misconceptions to flourish. The strong penetration of British media, with their complexes and biases, makes the problem worse. But this is an issue of concern across the EU, where it has proven much easier to get people, goods and services moving across borders than it has to create a single market for news and information. That more than anything else impedes the development of a genuine European public sphere.

The problem has come into sharper focus with Brexit. The media outlets with the widest reach publish in English. That means, with a couple of exceptions, including Irish outlets such as this one, that the EU news that circulates fastest online is produced by publishers and broadcasters based outside the bloc. A lot of that material is produced by informed journalists living on the continent, but the news they produce is still filtered through newsrooms that reflect the frame of reference of their domestic audiences. The effect is that much of the world sees the EU through a distorting lens.

It is an odd situation: Residents of Slovakia, Malta, Italy, and the Netherlands could seek out EU coverage from respected news outlets in, say, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, and Poland. But it’s highly unlikely they speak Bulgarian, Danish, Estonian, or Polish. Instead, there’s a better chance that they speak English — the most commonly spoken language in the EU even after Brexit.

That U.K.-centrism had its own warping effect when it was just another member state. (British newspapers have not been known for their evenhanded coverage of the EU.) But now that they’re on the outside looking in, it’s beyond awkward — it’s almost imperial. (And Europe knows from imperial.)

Other than Google Translate, what are some possible solutions? There have been plenty of efforts, many of them funded by EU dollars (er, euros). European publishers have partnered up across borders to share each others’ work with their audiences. Sites like Euractiv and Voxeurop aim to build pan-European audiences from scratch. There are networks like Euronews, startups like The Local, state-backed efforts like France24 and Deutsche Welle, and English-language editions from the likes of El País and Spiegel.

Annoyingly enough for all involved, the biggest newsroom in Brussels belongs to…Politico, whose base Americanness is unlikely to inspire that hometown-media feeling in Porto or Palermo.

Some have called for more cross-border investigations and data sharing. Others have debated whether there really is a “European” public sphere to serve — or whether the continent needs better media to help invent one.

Wolfgang Blau is my go-to thinker about this stuff, and he’s currently spending some time thinking about how to serve the media needs of European citizens. He wrote down some preliminary thoughts last November, and they’re worth a read. A few teasers:

What is missing most in the EU is not one more English-language general news publication, such as France24 or DW, but more English-language analysis and high-quality opinion journalism, covering European as well as global affairs from continental European points of view…

Firstly, I no longer think we should launch new pan-European publications for this purpose but rather work with existing trusted national publications across the European Union…

Secondly, I no longer think that simply translating already published content from a newspaper’s local language into English or cross-sharing content between the news organisations of different countries will be sufficient…

POSTED     April 6, 2021, 9:38 a.m.
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