Richard North, 16/12/2018  

When reviewing the media coverage of the European Council meeting just gone, one is treated to narratives such as this from Tony Connelly, RTÉ's Europe editor, which offer extraordinarily detailed blow-by-blow accounts of events.

We have to remind ourselves, therefore, that there is no media presence during the Council meetings. The proceedings are conducted without officials in attendance and, traditionally, such is the level of confidentiality, that interpreters' notes are collected up after each session and burnt. Other than the pre-prepared (and approved) Council conclusions, there are no official records kept of the meetings.

The way business is conducted reflects the origins of the European Council, which were originally intended as informal "fireside chats" between EU Member State leaders, allowing them to discuss policy and the future direction of the Community.

The Council was not part of Monnet's original structure for the EEC – its creation approved only on 14 September 1974, after the UK had joined. Its first meeting was in Paris on 9-10 December 1974, chaired by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, with the UK represented by Harold Wilson and Germany by Helmut Schmidt.

Meetings at that time were very far from the grand ego-fests that we see today, with ranks of shiny limousines escorted by police outriders sweeping up to the front door to discharge their cargo onto the freshly-vacuumed red carpets.

In current practice, the leaders are routed into the building past a fenced-off area, known irreverently in some quarters as the pig-pen. Here reporters (including their television paraphernalia) are corralled and, in terms of contact with the politicians, this is as far as they get, except for carefully managed (and controlled) press conferences.

As the politicians arrive, the reporters call out to those to whom they want to speak, each national corps tending to give preference to their own. The process, officially called "doorstepping", allows the leaders to give "impromptu" briefings to journalists, and for officials during the proceedings to keep the press corps appraised of developments.

In many respects, the procedures constitute the politicians' "revenge" on the media, putting them in their place and reinforcing the already over-inflated egos of the politicians. Corralling them in their pig-pen is a demeaning way of treating the press, and by no means an ideal way of conveying information.

One can see the fixed smile of the media stars such as Laura Kuenssberg (pictured from Cameron days), forced to suffer the indignity of being crammed in with her fellow hacks, although even then she manages to queen it over them, always being found front and centre in pole position, much to the disgust of local correspondents, who never see her between these prestigious events.

Given this set-up, one wonders how even the "stars" such as Tony Connelly manage to record meetings with such fidelity, even to the point where we learn from him that, in one instance, "the EU leaders listened in amazement, and for different reasons", when they were addressed by Mrs May.

However, if they cast a critical eye down any of the narratives, readers will readily discern that they are reconstructed, after the events, entirely from secondary sources.

In the case of Connelly, as with his fellow travellers, we see him using familiar devices, as he places his reliance on sources "familiar with the meeting" or "close to the negotiations". Occasionally, as the distance increases between the events and the source, he will even use sources "briefed on the meeting".

Latterly, amongst certain hacks, we get a hierarchy of sources, and a certain snobbery, where some will only speak to "senior sources", or so it seems. Sometimes, the writers feel the need for safety in numbers, referring to two or even more sources close to negotiations, with occasional support from a small crowd amounting to "several" sources.

To ring the changes, the sources are sometimes identified as "officials", who can also be "close" to meetings, familiar with the discussions or even "briefed on the meeting".

When we drill down into this, bearing in mind that officials are not present in the meetings, we are often not even looking at secondary sources. These may be people who have been told something by politicians who were present at the meetings and witnessed events, in which case before they even get to their source, the information is already second hand.

The higher up the rankings you go, the greater is the distance likely to be from the primary source. Figures such as Theresa May, except during formal press conferences, will not necessarily be speaking directly to reporters. She will attend a "debrief" with her officials after a session, whence a "line" is agreed and a hapless press officer will be delegated to talk to the press.

To be fair to the journalists, who have editors to please and mouths to fill, constructing a coherent narrative from such slender sources is a nightmare, especially given the deadlines, which may not conveniently mesh with the Council timetable.

They are helped to an extent by the press conferences, and a continuous flow of officials and helpful leaders from the smaller states, who visit the pig-pen and keep the journos entertained with tidbits. And then there are the constant, unattributed briefings, often via the mobile, the texted "leaks", unsourced e-mails, and the ever-helpful Twitter.

Through the meetings, there is also the constant flow of press releases from national delegations – and interest groups who may have picked up some juicy tips – while the system is refreshed by news agency feeds from the likes of Reuters and Bloomberg, whose reports often provide the unacknowledged basis for headline media stories, accounting for the sameness in the wording and story structures.

And of course, print journalists keep an eye on the televisions and, at the London end, the editorial staffs won't make a move until they have seen the latest Laura Kuenssberg interview, with her privileged access to the prime minister and other high-ranking politicians.

Broadcast media staff, on the other hand, pore over the print editions of the London papers, and keep the live reports from the Guardian and others up on their computer screens, often lifting the same quotes for their own reports.

All of this accounts for the general homogeneity in media reports. This is not a system where independent hacks are diligently tracking down the news, and then corroborating each other. Mostly, they are all drawing from the same well, governed by the herd instinct and seeking refuge in conformity. They work on the basis that no great reputational harm can come to them if they all get it wrong.

Going back to the meetings and the control exercised, the politicians cannot plug all the leaks but do have enough of a grip to be able to control much of the agenda. As we reported yesterday, it is quite possible to play to the gallery, even running stage-managed confrontations in the expectation that the media will run with them and give them considerable prominence.

There is little dispute in the business that European Councils are vast exercises in the theatre of politics, conducted on an international stage. Generally, the media sees what it is given to see, and is kept away from areas where it should not pry. And largely, the media are happy with what they get. They need the theatre as much as the politicians and cooperate in delivering the drama to the intended consumers.

That is not to say that reports from the front line are necessarily wrong, but one must recognise that the information comes from controlled environments, mostly without independent verification.

Given that it is also open to considerable manipulation by masters in the art, it is not unfair to caution that everything that comes out of the system must be treated with a pinch of salt. Furthermore, in what might seem to be counter-intuitive, the greater the degree of consensus there is amongst the hacks, the less likely it is that the truth is being represented.

In the past weeks, we have seen theatre from most of the main capitals in Europe, and especially London, and we're still seeing it as the politicians feed the beast they call the media. Where the fate of the nation is at stake, it is likely that the first casualty will be the truth. Those who look to the legacy media for it are most probably looking in the wrong place.

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