On being a British hack in Brussels

I spent the weekend at an event to mark thirty years in Brussels for Geoff Meade, the man from the Press Association, the UK’s news agency. About two hundred correspondents – mainly British, with a smattering of other nationalities – met to celebrate his career and meet old friends.

It was a very good party: tons of good beer and wine, smoking still allowed in the hall (this is Belgium), familiar faces from around the institutions, music and dancing. But also a very British event (and not just because of the curry that was served). There is an old tradition in the Brussels press corps, started by Geoff, of a revue containing songs and sketches, written or adapted by the journos themselves, as if we were all in some end-of-the-pier show (which perhaps we were).

The press pack in Brussels means it is not like other foreign postings. There are about a hundred Brits there, I would guess, all told, at any one time. Some foreign correspondents would not even really regard it as a foreign posting, since it is only a couple of hours from London, the content is mainly important because of domestic politics, and indeed increasingly people try to cover it from elsewhere, more cheaply.

It is a peculiarly intense experience. Covering the European Union means living in each others’ pockets day in, day out, often all day. The meetings go on from early to late and often on into the next day, while officials debate the finer points of the beef support regime, or policy towards the Balkans, or fish. You, the hack, stand outside, dependent on the occassional briefing, your contacts, your understanding of the event, your colleagues, and your imagination (not neccesarily in that order). There is little point in trying to plough your own furrow: you rely on your confreres for advice, input, quotes and interpretation, because no-one can be an expert on everything. That doesn’t mean there is no competition: it is fierce. However, you must compete within the pack. Strong friendships form and endure.

This is not Gaza or New York. The subject matter is technical, political and frequently extremely dreary to everyone but the correspondents, yet also very important, a curious dilemma for the hacks. They share the agony of covering a story that is dull, but critical; and which has been extremely polarised, yet where most wish to show themselves balanced and objective. The desk back home frequently thinks it knows better. For the British press, the politics correspondents in Westminster often take the opportunity to put their interpretation on matters. It is a foreign story because abroad, but really a home story: in US terms, both international and national.

The city is Belgian but the colleagues are international. I had French, Italian, Spanish, German, Irish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Japanese, American, Canadian, friends there, and more I have forgotten. According to Gareth Harding of ThisEurope, “Brussels is home to the largest concentration of foreign correspondents in the world. Of the 1200 journalists accredited to the EU institutions, 1000 are non-Belgian – including over 120 from Germany alone.” They work together, and yet alone: a story about fish, say, may be huge news in Scotland, but hardly trouble the Austrians.

Relations between the groups are usually warm, though, and not just personally. Stories get traded, in odd swaps of quotes, facts, rumours, between national contingents. Paddy Smythe of the Irish Times describes it well: “What is prized in these bizarre rituals is the ability to network and trade stories with colleagues. And so, many were the times when exasperated Irish ministers would wonder aloud what possible interest The Irish Times could have in the latest tiff between Germany and Italy over car subsidies, and the IT would just press on demanding more and more arcane detail for the flourishing market in quotes outside. There I could trade an Austrian bon mot for an “Irish Minister in policy about-turn” scoop. Unbeknown to him, the Minister would have provided it.”

I travelled often when I was in Brussels – down to Strasbourg for the itinerant parliamentary hearings, to Luxembourg for meetings of the council (why it has to meet in Luxembourg for several months a year is beyond me), but also to the member state capitals for summits, and provincial towns where smaller meetings are held. The travel certainly broadened your horizons and showed you the reality of European co-operation (for good and ill), but that wasn’t why we did it. The tense, personal politics meant that you had to be there: for the walkouts, the screaming matches, briefings and counter-briefings.

As Smythe puts it: “The foreign correspondent’s role in the news gathering process at such events is somewhat analogous to the way in which Ronald Reagan earned his living before Hollywood beckoned. In the days when radio broadcasting required a massive panoply of equipment, many college football games would be broadcast using a relay system – the game’s every play, reduced to a series of numbers (qback to wde rcvr – 40 yds, run 20 yds, 2 blocks, tdwn …), was conveyed to the studio by telegraphic ticker tape where Reagan would turn it into the purple prose of a running commentary. “And Fleischman steps back, glancing to left and right, sidestepping the offensive rush. As the bulldozer Murphy closes on him the ball leaves his hand in a long 40-yard graceful ark, hanging in the air, as if defying gravity, for the gazelle-like Jamey Smith’s outstretched fingers …..TOUCHDOWN”

According to one academic, “Brussels journalists play a pivotal role in the European integration process. They act as agents of Europeanization, wedged between complex European issues and national public spheres, privileged in terms of information supply, geographical proximity and social networking.” But the same study notes that though the correspondent in Brussels remains in close contact with their peers in the city, the relationship with home – with the desk, with colleagues – is critical. “While many journalists state that they are in close contact with their home organisation, a number of respondents found that their colleagues at home often neither knew nor bothered enough to engage in real dialogue.”

Geoff’s role in this has always been pivotal. The PA is the UK news agency and all the papers depend on it. Firstly, like all agency reporters, he needs to turn up. Given the schedule and the competing demands, this is not easy, yet Geoff is always there, often into the early hours. Secondly, he has to supply (and satisfy) both the Euro-sceptic Daily Telegraph and Europhile Guardian; and he has. Most correspondents, when on holiday, will happily tell their newsdesks: as long as Geoff is on the byline, take PA. Thirdly, he is a prime source of tradeable news and gossip to other nationalies, and he needs to be trusted implicitly by them too, and he is. Geoff has not an ounce of British chauvinism about him. Yet were he to go native – perhaps the primary sin in the correspondent’s book – his copy would be worse than useless, because tainted. Geoff has curiously remained almost untouched by Europe, in this sense; he is (despite the former comment) culturally British to the core, still obsessed by 1970s prog rock. Lastly, he needs (like Reagan) to imbue the copy with that touch of colour – the olive in the martini – that gives it some flavour, and he succeeds, with brio and wit, but also self-deprecation.

Presence, impartiality, detachment, insight and good, clear writing: these are remarkable attributes, and necessary ones in the good foreign correspondent. Geoff is a prince amongst them.

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