What’s the one thing people know about the European elections due to be held between 4 and 7 June? Yes, you got it: that there is likely to be a record level of abstention, with as little as 40% of eligible voters bothering to cast their votes. How do you know that? Because that’s ALL you’re ever told about these elections by the media… Any media in any country as far as I can tell. Am I alone in thinking that if the public were sometimes actually told something ELSE about these elections they might actually sit up and take an interest? As it is, the principal message that anyone is receiving is that these are elections not to be bothered with – or at least that nobody else will be bothered with, which comes to the same thing.
(I thought about linking here, but there’s little point – just find pretty much any article on the European elections.)
It’s sad, and it’s a great disservice to the public. The European Parliament decides things that are important, including to real people. It will be elected, and it will continue to exercise its considerable powers, whatever the turnout. So constantly telling people in effect there’s no point in voting in the election is a bit like telling them there’s no point in democracy, that it’s not worth having a say in deciding who governs you, just live with whatever you get, who cares?
Are you telling me that where there is power and money in spades, and people elected to dispense them, there are no stories to tell?
However, something tells me that people who read this would probably number themselves in the enlightened 40%, so this is not about why people should vote, but about why the reporting of the elections in mainstream media seems to focus on the turnout question at the expense of pretty much all other questions.
Too much like hard work…
Hypothesis 1: it’s laziness. Europe is complicated, and most political journalists live in comfort zones of national politics where the issues, processes and personalities are familiar to them and to their audience. They can use shorthand, frame their stories in terms of instantly recognisable conflicts and players. EU elections involve a bit of research, a bit of explanation, some departure form the home ground of domestic politics. So, find a nice easy story (turnout) or, if pushed, talk about the elections as if they were national elections (which is another way of divorcing them from their true meaning and significance).
Looking for an angle?
Hypothesis 2: it’s hard to find a good story. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps the complexity of EU politics makes it difficult for the most sincere and hard-working of journalists to find stories which will engage their audiences. No point in pretending otherwise, EU politics provide relatively little of the kind of conflict – guys in white hats, guys in black hats, last minute showdowns, nail-biting parliamentary votes (actually there are some of them), soaring rhetoric across the dispatch box (UK reference, sorry), careers destroyed by improbable indiscretions – which is the stuff of day-to-day political reporting. All true, but, come on, are you telling me that where there is power and money in spades, and people elected to dispense them, there are no stories to tell?
Hypothesis 3: the pack instinct. Let’s face it, there is nothing the media (and, yes, media audiences) like better than to kick a man when he’s down. Yes, turnout is a worry, so let’s make it all the elections are about – see how much worse it can be made, because there’s nothing like the faux shock-horror of picking over the bones afterwards, tut-tutting and pontificating over the decline of democracy or the “irrelevance” of Europe to normal people (the familiar lie). On the upside, perhaps we finally have a genuine pan-European political phenomenon here..!
Hypothesis 4: the whole point is to talk turnout down. Sure, there’s no doubt that some media coverage actually aims to reduce turnout, possibly in the hope that high abstention rates will delegitimise the whole EU system. This is a motive which is at times actually quite explicit. But, hang on, the European Parliament, as I observed earlier, will be elected and will exercise its powers. Surely the best way to oppose the EU system as such, if that is what you want, is by electing people who will do the opposing from within? Alternative scenario: low turnout could mean an unrepresentative vote, allowing protest, fringe and extremist parties to gain access to the European Parliament (this is gradually becoming a secondary story tacked on to the turnout reporting), but it is hard to see why the mainstream media would pursue this agenda, unless it be for the Schadenfreude alluded to above.
If politicians seemingly can’t be bothered to campaign on the European elections, why should journalists make the effort to go beyond the turnout story to examine the issues?
Failure of politicians
Hypothesis 5: don’t blame the messenger. Just as political journalists are mostly locked into their national systems, so (usually) are politicians. Where I live, in Belgium, you would be hard pushed to know there is a European election coming up (yes, I did say “in Belgium”), as the letter box bulges with election literature relating exclusively to Brussels regional elections due on the same day as the European elections. One is tempted to wonder whether, if the politicians seemingly can’t be bothered to campaign on the European elections, why should journalists make the effort to go beyond the turnout story to examine the issues? (Except for the usual reason that journalists should always challenge politicians’ assumptions.) I suspect the story is not dissimilar elsewhere, even where there is no coincidental election and voting is not compulsory – are political parties campaigning a European election on European issues? (Or are the politicians just caught in the same trap as journalists – hyopotheses 1 and 2 above?)
Hypothesis 6: turnout is a worry and probably will not be high. OK, this is a valid story about the EU election. But all I’m saying is that it is not the ONLY one.
But wouldn’t it be great to prove the commentariat wrong!
So there you have it, some possible reasons why so much reporting of the European election focuses exclusively on one aspect. (Pace the many valiant souls who know this thing for what it is and struggle daily with home news-desks to tell the real story – I salute you!) Maybe you have other suggestions as to why the real story is so difficult to get out?
I just can’t help wondering if the worm may actually start to turn, if people will maybe start to wonder whether the wool isn’t being pulled over their eyes, whether there is actually something decidedly fishy about being told day after day not to exercise one of their most fundamental democratic rights?
The extraordinary growth we are seeing in traffic to the EP website and the lively interaction on Facebook and other social media suggest that there are plenty of people out there who are taking an interest.
But up against the power of the media, we are but a paltry affair in the European Parliament’s communication service. Our elections communication campaign – duly denounced as scandalously expensive – is ridiculously small, less than a drop in the ocean, a David-against-Goliath scenario. But there should be no apologies for the fact that at least some-one is trying to tell people about what these elections really mean, and encourage them to vote – however they want to vote – and not allow themselves to be sweet-talked out of one of their most important rights.
(Interesting, and doubtless more professional, musings on the European elections and the media in this recent publication by Mostra (a Brussels communication agency – worth a look)