"Politicians won’t change until they are scared" says Nessa Childers in the ECPMF interview

Interview Nessa Childers, MEP by Jane Whyatt
Nessa Childers is an independent Irish Member of European Parliament. With the support of the ECPMF and the European Federation of Journalists, EFJ, she organised the Newsocracy conference in Dublin on 3 June, asking the question “Who owns the news?” Ms Childers has campaigned for years for press freedom, in Ireland and in the European Parliament.

Nessa Childers MEP (Photo: Bengt Oberger, Nessa Childers 02, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Exploring the influence of media owners, delegates got into heated debates. One of Ireland’s main players, Denis O’Brien, is currently involved in a number of lawsuits. Speakers including the ECPMF’s Legal Adviser Flutura Kusari and Project Manager Jane Whyatt explored media regulations and thebrole of news journalism in democracy.And the European Federation of Journalists Director Renate Schroeder underline the importance of decent pay and solidarity for independent journalism.

But investigative journalist Gemma O’Doherty criticised the trade union, and the public service broadcaster RTE, for failing to support her in her legal battles with her former employer Independent News Media (owner: Denis O’Brien) .

ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt interviewed Nessa Childers MEP on the importance of the Newsocracy conference and threats to media freedom in Europe.

What led you to organise this and other similar conferences in the past?

Nessa Childers: Witnessing issues of media freedom in Europe in general and resolutions on such topics that we discussed in the European Parliament, I became curious. And just like journalists do, I wanted to ask this question: Why? I never heard anything about the media before. But I became very aware of issues like rhetoric and propaganda, as I was a psycho analyst before I became a politician. Of course they are set in different settings, but I was wondering about the art of persuasion, how to see it and unpick it. So I became interested in that matter.

And then it became obvious that there are serious questions of human rights and freedoms in this sphere – and that we all could become the victims of those. And media freedom affects citizens, but the citizens are often – in many unhelpful ways – not aware of this. So they are imbibing news, not knowing what has been going into the production of it. And journalists in many parts of the world are not able to report freely, their lives are under threat – this is another issue of rights.

So what do you think a conference like this can hope to achieve?

It is raising the profile of the issue. And from my experience in party politics I learned that you never know who is listening: but it’s worth it if one person is listening that has the power to change it. You never know when this would occur –so you can’t stop talking about something for that reason. You just don’t know when that change could happen.

At Newsocracy, there’ve been some very critical voices about the Irish media, especially public broadcaster RTÉ and some newspapers, and claims that they are covering up corruption as part of a “cosy elite”. What can be done about those sort of criticisms?

It is very difficult to do something absolute about it, because you need proof that those things are happening. Otherwise you’ll be accused of defamation. So you would hope that at some point journalists themselves will takes these things on board and do something about it. State broadcasters are often accused of, for example, biased reporting, and you need proof, scientific proof. This would be my next step, to organise another meeting or seminar on media bias. But in this, you can’t be anecdotal, it needs research.

There was academic research presented here which seemed a bit inconclusive. Yet people still have this impression of bias, even though their research does not back it up ...

This is a very good question. I think a lot of people will have assumed that there was more bias than actually being shown by content analysis. So we can’t be assuming anything in either direction. And the question of journalists censoring themselves is another important issue: why they are doing it and if are they aware of it and their own bias. Also, the need for journalists, if this is possible, - it is the participants-observer-dynamic - to step outside their role and ask themselves “Am I reporting something from my own personal perspective? Why am I saying this? Is this what I believe or is it the truth? And even truth is a very elusive thing, as narrative truth is not the same thing as actual truth.

These are very deep things and maybe hard for ordinary people to understand. To what extend do you think the European Parliament can play a role in explaining how the media work?

I am not sure if ordinary people are able to listen to that in any great degree. There are meetings like this that have happened all over the European Parliament. But my experience as politician is that people will only sit upright and listen if anything really goes wrong, if any scandal appears. Only when they feel that their rights are being trampled on in a way that is truly important to them. Politicians won’t change until they are scared – this is a terrible indictment of the political class. And they are afraid of losing voters. So you can go for that weak spot in any member state so that they think “Oh, I’d better not infringe on media freedom any more, because if I do, all kinds of bad things are going to happen to me”. This is enlightened self-interest.

One final point I’d like to make. The EU does not offer protection to whistleblowers within its own employment. Do you think that would be a helpful move, to have a whistleblowers’ charter or an ombudsman?

This is an interesting question. There are so many whistleblowers’ issues I was not aware of. That would be an issue of the existing ombudsman. This is a good idea, but how possible it is to do these things, I don’t know.

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