Is Europe ready for pan-European media?

In his keynote speech on Friday, Wolfgang Blau, Director of Digital Strategy at the Guardian News & Media group, made a passionate plea for the creation of pan-European media. It’s a topic that has haunted him for many years, he says, and he hopes to find some answers here at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

“How can it be that in the EU, as the world’s largest economy, with more than 500 million citizens, and a high degree of fluency in English, even as Ukraine is on the brink of war… that there still is no pan-European media sphere?” asks Blau.

A decade ago, I was plagued by the same ghost that is now chasing Wolfgang. Back in 2006, I left a well-paid job as EU Correspondent in Brussels for CNBC Europe to attempt to start up a pan-European television channel. My (costly) attempt as a Dutch journalist to create EUX.TV came just a few years too early, and stranded as we struggled to find a sustainable business model.

Fragmentation in the European media landscape is rampant. If you only read American and British media you would think that the EU project is almost on its deathbed, Wolfgang says, but there is a cultural yearning in Europe that has been in existence for several hundred years.

Need to re-articulate

Europe needs to re-articulate itself, he says, referring to Dante, who in the 14th century already wrote about the advantages of a Europe unified under one emperor. In the 17th century, King Henry IV talked about a unified Europe. William Penn, in 1693, first tabled the idea of a United States of Europe. That was more than 70 years before the USA was created.

Penn later moved to America, and helped found the state of Pennsylvania, which has been named after him. In the 18th century, Emmanuel Kant talked of a unified Europe, as did Victor Hugo and others.

The idea of a “unified Europe has always been an object of hate and fear,” says Blau in the historic Sala dei Notari auditorium. “If you as an entrepreneur ponder this idea, you get told off by investors. Isn’t that EU thing kind of over?” he says.

“But the bigger theme is too easily dismissed. Even if the Euro disintegrates the cultural fabric of Europe is not going away.”

Blau points to Eurobarometer surveys, which have been held on behalf of the European Commission since 1973. These surveys still show strong support for the idea of a federation of nation states in Europe. Only Finland and Sweden strongly opposes, while even in the United Kingdom, as in Italy, France, Germany and other countries, there is a majority in favor.

“When the survey is not asking about the EU, but about personal identies, the feedback is suddenly much more positive,” he says. “These numbers are in stark contrast with EU coverage in the media.”

Media are over-invested in nation state

Among the news organizations, national market leaders still think in categories such as ‘domestic’, ‘foreign’. There is no Europe section, and if there is one, it’s generally about EU politics, says Blau.

Importantly, Blau points out that national news organizations in Europe are vulnerable to being over-invested in the national nation state.

“This raises the question: is there undercoverage of European affairs or overemphasis of national issues.”

What’s more, the image of the European Union around the world is mostly shaped by media organisations from the UK and the US, the English-language sphere.

“All of these publications are excellent but it still is an oddity, even a reckless situation. The world’s largest economy has no continental media to shape a European story.”

So what has been done in practice? There was Robert Maxwell’s The European, which struggled and then closed down. The Economist is still the most sold non-German print publication in Germany. There are experiments like The Local, 20 minutes in Switzerland, Press Europe, World Crunch, Euronews (“valuable but no significant scale”) and several alliances, such as the European Daily and the Europa Alliance.

In the end, most of these initiatives aim to produce coverage for a domestic audience.

Buzzfeed and Huffington Post

New international media such as Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post should not be ignored, argues Blau. “You are risking the bigger picture if you ignore these initiatives,” he says.

These new services benefit from having a global scale and an international cultural mindset. “Buzzfeed has a global strategy. For them Europe is a sideshow,” Blau says. “They learn while we don’t.”

In closing, Blau refers to the tumultuous debate back in the 19th century when the idea of Italy as a single country was discussed and dismissed by many. Less than two centuries later, Italy is major country, a G8 economy, with absolutely no one questioning its creation.

“The idea of not having a single European media… this idea will be seen someday as flawed and backwards,” says Blau. “Identities have a tendency to present themselves as eternal and cohesive.”

The discussion about pan-European media is indeed an important one. Why do we on the European contentent give up this space to American and British media?

Based on my own experience I don’t expect this will change soon. Asked if the Guardian is planning a European edition, Blau said the business focus for now is first on developing the new editions in Australia and in the United States. So The Guardian is nog going to do it, at least not soon. Existing initiatives like Euronews and Euractiv still largely depend on EU funding. The Press Europe experience shows that EU funded media are not sustainable.

Blau asks if we are nuts not to do it. Those who have tried – including yours truly – teach us that it is nuts to do it.

As long as national media control and dominate our continental media landscape, Europe is simply not going to be ready for a pan-European media. It may take a generation to change, if at all. And as long as the wider European public does not embrace a European public sphere, journalists and media entrepreneurs might as well continue to sit on their hands.

On the other hand, I would love to be proven wrong on this one.

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