Europe's attractions

Irish media ignored an Irish story that made it big internationally.


It can't happen very often that a paper with the global status of the International Herald Tribune (IHT) runs what it regards as a big story that prominently features RTÉ, and yet major Irish media outlets essentially ignore it.

But that's what occurred last week, when the paper reported with some excitement that for many years the European Parliament has paid some journalists' travel fare and a daily stipend to get them to Strasbourg to cover the parliament's deliberations. The money is especially aimed at smaller peripheral countries, it seems, and among the media organisations in receipt of such encouragement, the newspaper said, was RTÉ.

As ligs and freebies go, it's not exactly up there with, say, the motoring correspondents' trips to various glamorous photo-op spots for their first look at new car models, or the "gifts" regularly given to fashion journalists en route to the catwalks. The euros-for-Euro-hacks have to go to the European Parliament, god help them, and the cash is €100 a day to cover accommodation and grub, not a sum for livin' large.

Still, it does raise questions if journalists are being fed and watered by the institutions they are supposed to cover. Should audiences be told that RTÉ's judgment about the newsworthiness of the parliament may include consideration of the subsidy?

Parliamentary privilege

Anyway, the Irish Times reckoned the story wasn't worth repeating, because – I was told – it's not news and it's not a scam. The fact that on the very day the IHT ran the story, Irish Times foreign-affairs editor Deaglan de Breadún was in Strasbourg on the parliament's shilling didn't enter the equation. Indeed, foreign-editor Paddy Smyth said he thought the report was a particularly mean-spirited piece of work coming from a rich paper whose ethical code hails from the somewhat different American system, where top papers are careful to always foot their own bills.

In fairness, RTÉ and the Irish Times still must pay their Strasbourg-bound reporters' salaries, so the subsidy is not automatically decisive in a judgment about whether the parliament merits the devotion of a scant resource. For this reason, the papers and broadcasters who think Strasbourg news might bore audiences (that is to say, pretty much everyone except RTÉ and the Irish Times) aren't generally swayed.

All the same, it hardly enhances the EU's credibility if the parliament has to offer sweeteners to get journalists on board, even if it's not onto a gravy train. (There's already widespread popular suspicion that Euro-institutions exist largely for the expense-claims they can generate.) And it hardly enhances journalism's credibility to find out, yet again, that media outlets haven't been entirely transparent about their own internal processes.

Industrial strength

Few institutions have been as successful at getting journalists to buy into the legitimacy of their concerns as the record companies. It's hardly surprising that their agenda carries the weight of doctrine in music magazines, where their advertising pays the bills (and their freebies are legendary). But the indoctrination goes wider – even to Village, where a short report on "online music piracy" in last week's Media pages was a straight recitation of the industry's actions, complaints and concerns.

Thanks to this sort of reporting, few non-techies realise what is going on in the battle between file-sharers and the industry, and are thus able to see behind the condemning language of "illegality". Astonishingly, an industry that is legendary for exploiting artists, and whose middle-man position is essentially redundant thanks to new technology, has managed to cast itself as the indispensable "victim" of millions of ordinary people sharing music and images for fun and love. The incredible technical ingenuity of the file-sharing community, often using open-source software, one route opening as another is closed by court-cases and big companies, is a story of not-for-profit heroism. And it's a story that's easy to find online.

You may not share my unabashedly pro-pirate views. (The 18th-century versions get an excessively bad press too.) But whatever people's views on sharing copyrighted material recorded by millionaire musicians and controlled by billionaire corporations, they also need to be aware that attempts to shut down filesharing are the thin edge of the wedge. This is really a political struggle for control of the internet, and its real implications for our online freedoms are unlikely to be debated in the European Parliament.