Voter abstention and the success of anti-Europe parties were two key trends of the 2014 European elections. Since the first direct elections for the European Parliament, a reciprocal relationship has emerged that affects the commitments of politicians, the media, and the voters. This prompts the question of to what extent the media have influenced the events of 2014.
The crucial role of the media in the democratic electoral process
Within liberal democracies, a wide array of news services is implicitly understood to be a crucial requirement underpinning political freedom and rational policy making. In our society, the press occupies a position of fundamental public responsibility. Yet, this position could be in danger of being undermined from several sides, even within Europe. Targeted interference by political players is one example, but in our westernised societies two other principal dangers also apply. The first is of a financial nature: journalism is liable to succumb to economic pressures and become a consumer product. In an environment, in which the value of a news item is dictated by viewing figures and in which the media at times display an aggressive and power-hungry understanding of their own role, journalists can be rendered incapable of delivering fair, fact-based and multidimensional reports of political events. The second issue concerns the public, where, it is fair to say, political apathy is not uncommon and a penchant for scandals and affairs often gives journalists little scope to portray politics from a different angle (Wolfgang Donsbach).
Trends in the European elections 2014
The objective of this article is to find out whether the press fulfilled its obligations to the public during the 2014 European election campaign. To this end, we conducted an analysis of the media’s role in those countries in which the election results reflected the three most important trends observed during the European elections:
1. The increase in right-wing extremism across Europe, such as in the United Kingdom, where the strongest party turned out to be the anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP), gaining just over 27 per cent of the vote.
2. Six European countries that went left (The Guardian), such as Spain, where this election marked the beginning of a new era and the end of the two-party system (“Bipartidismo”). Although the conservative party Partido Popular gained the most seats, the left-leaning parties (Izquierda Plural, Podemos and Primavera Europea) emerged as the true winners.
3. In Germany, the supremacy of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – irrespective of losses – and the relative success of the anti-European group Alternative for Germany represent further important trends in this election.
Traditional media are still decisive during democratic elections
Although each of the three European countries that we have selected for this analysis is characterised by a different media landscape, they still share some general commonalities. Despite the hype surrounding online and social media usage, classic ‘off-line’ media, such as TV and daily newspapers, still remain the most influential providers of election information. The same applies to the Internet, where the websites of traditional media outlets, such as bbc.com, spiegel.de or elpais.com, dominate in terms of providing political information (digital report from the University of Oxford, Ofcom research, BITKOM/Forsa, AIMC/EGM).
Europe still has no presence on prime time TV
Without doubt, TV remains the most important source of information. Televised debates on the European elections started as early as the end of April. “Until now”, so Martin Schulz, “the election campaign had been boring, but with a television debate it has become much more eventful”. For the first time ever, Ska Keller (European Green Party), Jean-Claude Juncker (European People’s Party), Martin Schulz (European Socialist Party) and Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party) participated in a live debate on Euronews on April 28th. With an estimated audience of 939,000 viewers, however, the average reach of this broadcaster is limited, especially if you consider that more than 500 million people live in the EU. Alexis Tsipras, top candidate for the Party of the European Left, had declined the invitation, saying: “we’re talking with the people of #Europe not in the studios but face to face in Athens, Rome, Paris, Dublin, Madrid, Vienna, Frankfurt #EP2014”. When he finally did yield to the wishes of the TV studios, he was to experience a bitter disappointment …
Eurovision organised the only transnational TV debate of an exemplary standard. However, despite successful online petitions in Germany and the UK, this programme was shown on only two low-impact ‘special interest’ channels of the BBC and the German ARD/ZDF network (the Parliament Channel and Phoenix TV, respectively). The Huffington Post remarked “Eurovision Debate: The Most Important Presidential Debate You Didn’t Even Know Was Taking Place”. Reinhard Bütikofer, Chairman of the European Green Party, chose the following words to comment on the decision of Germany’s two public (!) broadcasters: “This is an arrogant decision and it undermines all efforts to strengthen the European Parliament”.
In Spain, the Eurovision debate was also merely picked up by the low-impact news channel “Canal 24 horas”. This happened despite more than 75,000 Spaniards signing a petition in favour of a prime time transmission of the transnational debate on the public TVE1 channel. In terms of viewing figures (1,836,000 viewers), Spain’s most impressive head-to-head debate on TV, broadcast by TVE1, took place on May 15th between the top candidates of the two leading national parties, Arias Cañete (PP) and Elena Valenciano (PSOE). The focus of this event was national politics, just as it was for another televised debate involving six political parties, the “Debate a seis Elecciones. Europeas 2014”, which was shown on the same channel on May 19th (838,000 viewers). This debate was not only marked by the absence of European topics, but also by an absence of our friends, the Greens. At least they were able to participate in another discussion forum televised by a private broadcaster, “LaSexta“, with a reach of 1.6 million viewers. Incidentally, this turned out to be a highpoint for the left-leaning politician Pablo Iglesias of the “Indignados” party (Podemos).
In Germany, two head-to-head events between the two top candidates, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, were broadcast during prime time. One was shown on Mai 8th on the ZDF channel (reaching 1,790,350 viewers), the other on May 20th on the ARD channel (reaching 2,254,600 viewers). Although not representative, the format of the ARD programme facilitated highly informative exchanges between the two candidates. It offered an opportunity for 175 members of the public, who were present at the studio, to put open questions to the candidates. This format proved to be very successful and may serve as a template for Spanish broadcasters. To many members of the Spanish public, the events televised by the Spanish public broadcaster TVE 1 came across as ‘disinformation’ debates. In advance of these debates, the participating parties had made numerous time and content demands of the broadcaster, with the evident outcome of hampering any discussion. The speaker for the ICV, Joan Coscubiela, commented that the “PP and PSOE would like the viewers to fall asleep in front of the TV. They want to avoid having to talk about the true challenges that we face in Europe”.
The only German programme to comprise a relatively large and representative debate panel, for example including Rebecca Harms, the top candidate for Alliance ‘90/The Greens, was televised by the ZDF channel on May 22nd at 20:15 (“Wie geht’s, Europa”; reaching 1,405,520 viewers). In contrast, no multi-party debate made it onto prime-time TV in the UK. The two wide-reaching debates shown on the BBC were only between Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) and Nigel Farage (UKIP). The conservative leader, David Cameron, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, both declined to take part in the debate. The TV duel resulted in sensationalist, headline-grabbing statements that appeared on the front pages of many daily papers the following morning, such as “Mr Farage claimed EU immigration had hit the “white working class” the hardest.” On June 9th, the Green Party of England and Wales and 38 Degrees handed in a nearly 50,000 strong petition against the media blackout of The Greens on the BBC. As an activist for the Green Party in England, Amelia Helen Womack, noted: “during the European Election, the BBC fanned the flames of the UKIP fire”.
Biased, unfair and sensationalist press reporting
In the run-up to the European Elections, the printed media in Spain and Germany often reported on the alleged growth in Europe, making numerous positive prognoses about the Spanish and Greek economies. Particularly, when the US ratings agencies Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s were raising the sovereign debt ratings of these two crises-ridden countries. Only very few journalists investigated the background to these developments, asking how these two countries were able to become “more competitive” again in such a short period of time. The conservative wings of the national governments in Germany and Spain, in particular, benefitted from this. It enabled them to legitimise their austerity policies and gain the most votes during the European elections in Spain and Germany.
In addition, not all of the political parties or their candidates were given the same opportunities to be heard in the media. A random sample of Germany’s printed media (345 daily and weekly newspapers and 680 specialist magazines; Genios database) taken from the “hot phase” of campaigning, May 1st to May 25th, shows a breakdown of how often they were mentioned.
The reason for Martin Schulz’ strong media presence in Germany is that Germany is his home country – a card that his campaign team played aggressively during the final push of the EU election campaign. The SPD were clearly able to profit from this media attention: for the first time in a long while the German social democratic party had been able to win votes again. Another factor that led many German journalists into temptation was the type of sensationalist reporting that is driven by a desire to increase market share. How else can you explain the relatively high number of references made to the anti-European party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) (mentioned 1,120 times)? The printed media reported about a minority party (with no members in the German Bundestag) nearly as often as they did about Alliance ‘90/The Greens (with 63 members in the German Bundestag). For comparison, another minority party, The Pirates, were mentioned 233 times.
With regard to the anti-European party UKIP, we are dealing with an even greater case of sensationalism in the British press. UKIP was given significantly more attention by the British opinion-leading media (510 daily and weekly newspapers and 298 magazines; LexisNexis database) than established popular parties. UKIP’s coverage was completely disproportionate to its representation in the UK parliament: it has no members of Parliament while The Greens have one.
In Spain, the ruling “Bipartidismo“, or two-party system, also enjoyed the support of the Spanish press during the European election (random sample: 53 daily newspapers; LexisNexis database).
PP and PSOE were able to voice their opinions the most often. Nonetheless, the strength of social networks shone through in Spain (whether ‘online’ or ‘offline’). In this European election, Spain’s public clearly declared itself against the two-party system; as a consequence the two parties no longer form a joint majority in the EP.
The purpose of this analysis is to serve as an initial approach. It is not a scientific content analysis that has been validated by human coding, but purely an electronically generated enumeration of references made in the most important German, British and Spanish printed media that has been created by means of an automated database. In the future, of course, it would be interesting to find out how journalists evaluated the individual parties and politicians, i.e. not only in terms of the quantity of reporting but especially also terms of the quality.
Journalism is not a consumer product
In the run-up to the European election campaign, a discussion paper from the European Policy Centre contained the following optimistic statement:
“The proposal to have EU-level political parties enter the 2014 campaign with ‘top candidates’ for President of the European Commission could personalise and Europeanise the elections, raise the salience and stakes of the EP vote, and thus reverse the familiar pattern of low turnouts.”
Unfortunately the media failed to make the most of this opportunity, of this chance to foster the development of a ‘European public’. Just as we have seen for the broadcasts of the most important transnational TV debates, many journalists still consider the European elections to be a topic of marginal interest. The news reports about the 2014 election failed yet again to bear any relationship to the relevance that the EU has in our daily lives. My plea to the journalist of Europe is therefore to truly increase voter participation – and that means to increase media participation – in 2019! And, as we are on the subject, I also plead for a more impartial and less sensationalist approach to news reporting next time. “After all, journalism is not a consumer product, but a cultural asset!” (Charles Ritterband).