Why the Old Continent still matters

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 29 August 2018

The New Zealand Initiative’s CEO Dr Oliver Hartwich introduces his fortnightly ‘Spotlight on Europe’ column for Newsroom Pro this week. He describes himself as both a Europhile and an EU sceptic, and explains why New Zealanders should care about the continent where the modern world is crumbling.

I was delighted when Newsroom offered me this new fortnightly column. From 2010 to 2016, I contributed a weekly Europe column to an Australian business magazine. It taught me how fascinating it is to shed light on the goings-on in Europe from an antipodean perspective. And from feedback I know that readers had almost as much fun with the column as I had writing it.

All this probably requires an explanation. Because following European politics is a bizarre hobby for anyone in New Zealand or Australia.

Sure, we would know roughly what is going on in Europe. National elections, changes of government and big events still get reported here. But hardly anyone would seriously track the dynamics of intra-European affairs or domestic politics (perhaps except for Britain).

It was not always like that. Look through the newspaper archives of the National Library (now a digitised treasure trove), and you will see that once upon a time our newspapers carried frequent, solid and detailed coverage from Europe. Even regional papers like The Bay of Plenty Times dedicated whole pages to international affairs.

Contrast this with the situation today, and in the whole of the New Zealand media there are only a handful of international correspondents left.

You can take that literally. By my estimates, our news media have only five full-time journalists working abroad. The rest of international affairs in our media is sourced from news agencies or copied straight from British, Australian or American newspapers.

It gets worse. Even where New Zealand, Australian or American news outlets still have correspondents in Europe, they are typically based in London. That places them well for covering UK affairs. It is also easier to send correspondents from one English-speaking country to another. Who speaks foreign languages these days anyway?

The only problem is that 90 percent of Europe’s population does not live in the UK and does not speak English as their first language.

For our poor Europe correspondents this means having to source continental European news second-hand. They can just paraphrase the reports of other correspondents in the British press. They could rely on stringers and freelancers in other countries. Or, if they are lucky, they might occasionally visit the continent. Yet none of these options would enable them to cover these countries in any depth or seriousness.

This lack of insight into Europe may not worry the editors of our newspapers. Since Britain severed its ties with New Zealand by joining European Economic Community in 1973, this country had to reorient itself towards new partners, mainly in Asia. Through inward migration, it has also become more Asian over the past decades. So, in some ways, a declining interest in European affairs is unsurprising.

It may not bother newspaper editors anyway because international affairs have been relegated to a “nice to have” status in our media. Our media spend endless time covering petty domestic scandals, human interest stories and sports for a reason. It is what most news consumers care about.

The hollowing out of serious journalism is an international trend. With few exceptions, what generates clicks gets reported no matter whether it is newsworthy in the true sense of the word. It is the logical consequence of a media landscape going through the transition from print to digital and losing a huge chunk of its prior advertising revenue.

International affairs coverage has been the prime victim of this development, and nowhere is this more evident than in reporting on Europe. It is just not a sexy topic that would excite large readerships. It is complicated, complex and often unedifying. Why would anyone care?

And yet, Europe is still an important part of the world that deserves attention. Not only because Europe created the modern world. It also the place where the modern world is crumbling.

I should put my relevant beliefs and biases on the table from the outset. I am an anglophile, German, Catholic classical liberal economist and academic lawyer. Depending on your viewpoint, that either demonstrates my inner confusion or my open-mindedness. In any case, I can live with both.

I grew up and studied in Germany and Australia, worked in Germany, Britain, Australia and now New Zealand, and have travelled extensively around Europe. I find Europe and its diversity, history and cultures a source of fascination, inspiration and frustration. In roughly equal measure.

I am a Europhile and an EU-sceptic, and I do not see this as a contradiction. A few years ago, I summed up my sceptical optimism and hopeful pessimism in an essay called Why Europe Failed.

So much for an introduction. It is a daring experiment for Newsroom to let me explore the state of Europe for you. And it is ray of hope in our media environment to dedicate more space to international affairs. À bientôt! Bis bald! See you later.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative. This ‘Spotlight on Europe’ column will be published fortnightly.

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