National perspectives are too narrow
– by Hans Dembowski
With and without the extra book sleeve.
A simple book sleeve exemplifies the problem. The book was published in Germany in 2016. It documents conversations two prominent journalists from Germany and France had with the finance ministers of both countries. In German book stores, however, customers only see the names of Wolfgang Schäuble and Ulrich Wickert on the cover, because a separate little sleeve, which displays their faces, hides the names of their French counterparts, Michel Sapin and Dominique Seux. The publisher obviously thinks that the latter two are not prominent enough to drive sales.
When dealing with EU topics, member countries’ media tend to focus on national dimensions. Journalists ask whether their government is getting enough from the EU, but not how the most can be made of the EU. The media hardly cultivate an understanding of the common interests all member nations share.
One consequence is that many Europeans do not know how dramatically views diverge from country to country. What seems self-evident in one, is considered ideologically overblown elsewhere. In Germany, for example, there is a broad consensus that budgets must be balanced, so people hardly questioned the Federal Government’s strict approach to Greek debt problems in 2015. In German eyes, there simply was no alternative.
The British press assessed the matter in a rather different way. Commentators in the conservative Telegraph, the leftish Guardian and the liberal Financial Times agreed that further austerity did not make sense, since what Greece needed was debt relief. Without such relief, they argued, the country could not recover.
Eleven months later, Britons decided to leave the EU in a referendum. The votes of traditional Labour supporters, who no longer appreciate the EU the way they did 20 years ago, made the difference. In the past, they saw the EU as a progressive force that protected welfare-state approaches against budget slashing Conservatives. Because of their disenchantment, Brexit is now under way. In Germany, however, hardly anyone knew that Eurosceptics were not only found among Britain’s right-wing hardliners, but in working-class areas as well.
The importance of marking dissent
If policymaking is pooled internationally, public debate must similarly transcend borders. The question is not merely who is right and who is wrong. It also matters to have a joint understanding of what issues deserve debate and which proposals must be taken seriously. Controversial discussions help to clarify disagreements, assess alternatives, facilitate compromise and perhaps even reach consensus.
Such debate typically takes place in parliaments, and media coverage is then guided by the stance of both government and opposition parties. Parliaments systematically generate alternative approaches to whatever the government is doing. Journalists’ work reflects this in-built pluralism.
The media deal with international affairs in a different way. Correspondents basically report what their own government wants to achieve in negotiations – and what it achieves. It helps that the national leaders speak their language and are keen on their attention.
The downside is that the interests that nations share get too little attention. This is so even within the EU, which has pooled policymaking in many areas, and it proves that the European Parliament is still very weak. EU policies are agreed in non-transparent meetings of national cabinet members or even the heads of state and government. Representatives of the national governments have the final say, and their main concern is not policy coherence. They want every participant to be able to return home with something that can be sold as a success. Accordingly, the European public’s understanding of the EU is extremely fragmented.
Matters are even worse in regard to global institutions like the UN, the World Bank or other multilateral organisations. Two issues matter in particular:
- There is no press freedom in countries under authoritarian rule. Accordingly, there is a lack of serious domestic debate, and most publicly available information is simply government propaganda. A nuanced understanding of complex international issues cannot develop in such circumstances, and public debate has no policymaking.
- Countries are not equal in the media business. One reason is that many former colonies still use the imperial language. In many anglophone countries in Africa and Asia, broadcasters, publishers and news agencies based in London and New York have a huge influence. Domestic media republish their contributions. Paris is similarly influential in francophone countries. Because news of international affairs tends to flow through Europe and North America, however, reporting is often not considered to be impartial.
Global governance approaches are generally assessed according to what they will cost one’s own country. World affairs are thus seen as a zero sum game where one nation’s success comes at the expense of others. The global commons are neglected.
This attitude reflects nation-centred discourse, but it does not fit the global nature of the most important challenges humanity must rise to. Important buzzwords include climate change, war, terrorism, tax evasion, loss of biodiversity, poverty, organised crime and infectious diseases. On its own, no national government can get a grip on these things.
Unfortunately, not even international broadcasters like the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera are engaging in the necessary kind of cross-border discourse. Their programmes tend to reflect the interests of the countries they are based in. None of them is believed to be really unbiased. Broadcasters like Russia Today, moreover, are directly controlled by their government and known to mix facts and fiction.
Germany’s international broadcaster is not up to the task either, and to a considerable extent, the reason is its outdated mandate. Deutsche Welle’s programme basically spreads German views and news. It would make more sense to host truly international debates and include well-argued foreign standpoints. Such programming would certainly find a larger audience, internationally as well as domestically. However, Deutsche Welle is not supposed to target the German public at all because doing so is the job of regionally-based public broadcasters. This setting is rooted in Germany’s institutional order as it has historically grown, but is does not result in the kind of cross-border discourse that would support policy-making at international levels. To have that kind of impact, Deutsche Welle would have to be geared to serving the German public.
The BBC, which is meant to work for both the British and the international public, is doing more useful work. As its management and editorial staff feel some commitment to the entire Commonwealth, moreover, the BBC is also not quite as ethnocentric as most international broadcasters are. Whether that will stay so in Brexit Britain remains to be seen. The Conservatives, who are currently in power, have long been uncomfortable with the BBC’s independence.
Ultimately, democratic governments must not influence media coverage. Freedom is indispensable. Independent newspapers, broadcasters and new agencies must assume the responsibility for assessing public issues accurately and demanding solutions from the right appropriate levels of policymaking. The understanding that national governments, left to themselves, are unable to solve global problems needs to grow. It won’t hurt if political leaders point that out again and again.
Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.