The European Union and the rise of collaboration

Brigitte Alfter

Leap in time to the autumn of 1998 and until mid-March 1999: For the Brussels press corps and the European Commission, those were dramatic months. Would the power struggle between European Commission and European Parliament lead the Commission to resign? Would the accusations of nepotism, unveiled by a network of Brussels correspondents, have political consequences? In March 1999, the European Commission under Luxembourgish Jacques Santer did indeed step down, forced by the European Parliament and the findings of a special committee.

This case from the late 20th century is worth understanding for several reasons. Jacques Santer considered himself and his cabinet “a victim of the international press” or rather of “a certain part of the press, that which plays investigative journalism American style rather than fulfilling its mission to inform” (Meyer 2002, p. 115). Initially, a team of correspondents from Britain, Germany, Luxembourg and France had met in cafés in the EU quarter of Brussels to exchange notes and documents on the allegation that a commissioner had given a lucrative position to a personal friend. “For a long time no other media would pick up on the case, ‘it was the Brussels press corps against the rest’and it was ‘the Nordics versus the French’”, according to one early member of that group (Alfter 2019, p. 72).

At the time, Scandinavian and British journalists kept pushing for more transparency and Nordic-style access to documents, for example (Meyer 2002, p. 138), and even the perception of what constituted a breach of norms varied according to country. What British, German and Swedish interviewees considered a clear case of nepotism was seen as a private matter and “essentially about romance” by a Southern European interviewee, or it was framed as part of a political plot by Northern EU media against Southern EU countries (Meyer 2002, pp. 138-139).

Here I will address journalism as an expression of the underlying mindset and of the role of journalism in a given society. Then, I will describe journalism practice, including how to trace those responsible, which topics are investigated and which methods applied to do so, citing several investigations. Finally, I will introduce the recent trend of cross-border collaborative journalism.

‘Investigative journalism’ in a European context

So is there investigative journalism in and about the EU? Is there a European investigative journalism?

The first question can be answered with a clear “yes”: There is thorough, elaborate investigative journalism in and about the EU. Professional journalists seek to get as close as possible to what really happened or what is really going on.

The second question, whether there is a European investigative journalism, is more tricky. Though English is widely used, the continent is divided not only by language but also by media, research and storytelling traditions; legal and ethical standards and practices and general freedom of expression conditions. Dutch editor Dick van Eijk in 2005 tried to compile an overview over the status of investigative journalism in Europe ahead of the 3rd Global Investigative Journalism Conference of 2005. “If anybody ever thought that there is something like ‘European journalism’, he or she should be cured from that after having read the 20 country reports. Journalism traditions vary widely in Europe, and so do traditions of investigative journalism,” he wrote afterwards (van Eijk 2005, p. 227).

Nevertheless, cross-border collaborative journalism was developed predominantly in investigative journalism networks, and the will and capacity actually to work together indicate that journalists indeed do agree on what constitutes “a good story”. “The criteria as to what constitutes a viable investigative project and what does not appear to be similar throughout Europe” (Tillack 2013).

Journalists investigating in Europe

Mapping investigative journalism in Europe and even just attempting an overview of such a diverse mosaic of languages; practices and academic, literary and journalistic traditions appears to be an impossible task. The quest has been attempted twice, van Eijk (2005), as mentioned previously, and - more narrowly focusing on the investigation of fraud with EU funds — Smit et al. (2012).

In the following, several aspects of investigative journalism practice in Europe will be addressed, followed by selected examples.

Investigating in Europe — where to find the villain

Any journalist - be that on the local, regional, national or international level — will have to understand power structures in order to follow money flows, paper trails or otherwise find information, in order to hold those in power to account, in order to understand who may be responsible and who may be capable of finding solutions.

Many will think of the European Union Institutions in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg when pondering investigative journalism in Europe.

Academics study the Brussels press corps covering the European institutions (typically in all three cities) and reporting via international, national, local or specialised media. Investigative journalists as well as the European Ombudsman and civil society groups repeatedly complain about opaque decision-making processes and administration. Yet, while investigations about the European institutions may be scarce, there is a steady flow of information from the institutional level to national and local levels. The information flow the other way round, from citizens’ experience back to Brussels decision makers, looks more like an unsolved challenge.

When covering issues on a local or national level, very often journalists are not aware of the international dimensions of a given problem, nor would they know where to turn. An ambulance company declares bankruptcy and halts the service in an entire county. Public authorities rush to find a solution, adding significant amounts to the local budgets. Even if journalists make investigations into the background of the ambulance company and the contract, few if any of them consider addressing the underlying legislation. Many may not even be aware of the European legislation obliging public authorities to offer public services to competitive bidding along a certain set of rules and to ask the obvious question, whether these rules — in force for decades — are still adequate or are adequate for a given service such as ambulances for citizens in a potentially life-threatening emergencies. Further, international agreements in a wide range of fields such as trade, fisheries, labour, migration or defence between nation states or groups of nation states such as the EU, the EEA, NATO, WTO, WHO, IMO, Interpol and so forth significantly influence and overrule national or local regulations. Yet the political level of such agreements, and not least the role such agreements play on local and national levels, are sparsely covered outside specialised media. It is thus a challenge to navigate the levels of competence beyond the local and national in almost any subject - and a particular strength for those specialised journalists who know the territory.

Investigating in Europe — what to investigate?

Journalists throughout Europe have different views on priorities and selection of topics. Even on obviously connected topics like the labour market, panEuropean teams struggle to find a shared storyline (Alfter 2019, p. 111). But this is only part of the picture.

Tracing categories of subject matter, the mapping by Dick van Eijk (2005) shows widely shared interests as well as some differences in subject matter. Classic investigative ‘follow-the-money’ stories or — as van Eijk puts it — “chasing crooks” are prevalent. He categorises them as stories on breaches of law (van Eijk 2005, p. 233). Others investigate breaches of “commonly shared moral convictions” (van Eijk 2005, p. 234) or individual breaches of moral convictions — where “ ‘catching a politician with his pants down’ — literally - is often a big story in the United Kingdom . . . similar cases would not be reported at all in

Scandinavia, the Netherlands or Belgium”, yet in Sweden a politician enjoying “an advantage of a few thousand euro . . . may run into serious trouble” (van Eijk 2005, p. 235).

Investigations into politics, party funding, broken promises and so forth appear to be widespread, investigations into arts or sports less so at the time and investigations into social matters such as poverty or the lives of drug addicts prevalent only in some countries (van Eijk 2005, pp. 235—237).

The 2012 (Smit et al.) mapping exercise covering fraud with EU funds had difficulties in tracing such cases: “When mapping stories on misappropriation, fraudulent use, lost revenue or waste of EU funds, the research team had to throw the net wider than first intended,” Smit writes (2012, p. 34). Rather than only looking three years back in time, instead the researchers almost doubled the time span to search for investigations on fraud with EU funds in then 27 countries. Though the compilation of examples was “relatively small considering the timeframe (5 years in 27 countries)”, the study allowed for some qualitative findings indicating journalism with focus on “individual people or companies” or “on ‘silly* projects instead of structures enabling fraud”, amongst others (Smit et al. 2012, p. 88).

Cross-border collaborations - as described in the following — indicate that, regardless of such apparent diverse views on subject matters, collaborations are increasingly attractive and bridging such differences.

Investigating in Europe — professionalisation of journalism and differences in methods

There is general agreement that the last decades of the 20th and the first decades of the 21st centuries have brought a professionalisation of journalism, not least investigative journalism. The various methods are described, discussed and developed. Beyond journalism education — be that academic or vocational - journalists gather for professional exchange on national and international levels (Alfter 2019, pp. 5—9; Smit et al. 2012, p. 31). Early developments in that field began in the 1970s in the United States, when journalists and editors organised IRE, the Investigative Reporters and Editors, an association to work with the development of investigative journalism. Annual gatherings, peer-training (not least in the field of computer-assisted reporting, freedom of information requests etc.) were among the core activities. In the 1990s, the Nordic countries founded similar membership-based professional groups, and in 2001 and 2002, Germany and Netherlands/Flanders followed. When McFadyen (2008, pp. 138—156) listed a series of methodology considerations, his overview was embedded in an era of professional method development and sharing: entire books are published in various languages about topics such as freedom of information requests, computer-assisted and data journalism and working with whistleblowers or digital self-defence for journalists, as well as investigative journalism methods in general (see, for example, Hanson 2009; Ludwig 2014). This move towards professionalisation is also widespread geographically.

Yet which methods are preferred varies from country to country in Europe, obviously, since legal context and traditions of doing journalism vary from country to country. Though the use of methods surely has developed since 2005 (not least when it comes to data journalism), the overview by van Eijk (2005, pp. 237—244) is indicative. In Scandinavia, for example journalists relied upon documents obtained from government bodies - likely because there was a strong freedom of information law and practice. In Italy, journalists used court documents a lot, whereas it appeared difficult for them to obtain government documents. In France, Belgium and Central and Eastern European countries, informal access or leaked documents were a usual way to obtain information (van Eijk 2005, p. 240).

Not only the use of methods of obtaining information varies, journalists’ views also vary as to which methods are preferable or even acceptable. A survey study of journalists behind the Panama and Paradise Papers revelations of tax avoidance showed congruent as well as differing views on methods in a group ofjournalists that the authors considered rather homogenous, for example, whether an unauthorised piece of material — for example, from an interview — could be published or whether journalists could claim to be someone else when doing their research (Liick & Schultz 2019, p. 102). With methods explicitly named and described, similarities and differences in different parts of Europe can be better understood. On the optimistic side, practitioners can collaborate across borders and supplement each others material.

Investigating Europe — the example of freedom of information requests

Journalists using freedom of information legislation — the right to documents held by public authorities — is a very telling example. To a certain extent, history may provide insights. In Sweden, citizens’ right to access documents held by the public administration was introduced in 1766; today it has constitutional status along with freedom of expression. Other Nordic countries and the Netherlands introduced similar rights from the 1950s to 70s, and the United States introduced its well-known FOI Act in 1966. A later wave of freedom of information laws was introduced after 2000, when Central and Eastern European countries eager to join the EU introduced such laws in the name of democracy. The United Kingdom, Germany and the EU introduced such laws following, not least, pressure from transparency advocacy groups.

Freedom of information laws are a sound - if in some cases and countries administratively cumbersome — way of obtaining information for journalism. Yet it may feel like a revolution within an administration. Imagine an administrative culture where — for decades and centuries - officials have considered it the highest virtue to protect the valuable documents and information from disturbance by the potentially less knowledgeable public. The overall purpose was, of course, to safeguard smooth and efficient working of the political machinery. Imagine, on the other hand, an official in an administration where public insight and, maybe even on a case-by-case level, involvement of the public was considered of the highest democratic value. Also in the latter, some information has to be protected such as business secrets, private personal information or matters concerning security. In the latter system, each document needs to be traceable in a well-functioning archive system, and officials on all levels need to be aware of and follow best administrative practice in case there conies a request for access.

The “weight of tradition” thus should not be underestimated: An in-depth comparative description of the Nordic countries’ (Jorgensen 2014, pp. 33-34) documents how historical differences prevail and influence freedom of information legislation as well as practice even within this rather homogenous group of countries. Translating that to Europe, including the European institutions, tensions and conflicting approaches is inevitable. Anecdotal evidence shows that officials from some traditions consider a freedom of information request an aggressive way of seeking information, a notion that would be flabbergasting in the comparably low-key Nordic access traditions considering requests day-to-day business.

Investigating in Europe — storytelling

Once research is carried out, journalists have to consider how to present their findings. And they differ from country to country. Particularly in cross-border teams, it becomes visible how journalists present findings about the same subject in different ways. “My Romanian version would read like a soap-opera if I translated it directly into English — it had much more context and background atmosphere”, recalls one journalist from an international team. Another recalls “raised eyebrows and gaping jaws” at the “lighthearted approach” by team members from another tradition (Alfter 2019, p. 113).

“While the content of news changes every day, form and style assure the ritual function of news”, writes Marcel Broersma (2007, p. ix) in the introduction to an anthology about form, style and strategies of the presentation of news. The anthology is among the first addressing news presentation, and Broersma calls for more research in the field, not least interdisciplinary between scholars from the social sciences, history and literature (Broersma 2007, p. xii). It could be added that for journalists, not least, the international comparison would be helpful to gain a deeper understanding of own and others’ traditions. At the publication of this edition, academic literature comparing storytelling and presentation of journalism across borders still is scarce. The previously mentioned attempts by Meyer (2019) and Grzeszyk (2019), representing social sciences and culture studies, respectively, do give some indications as to the challenges in understanding the differences.

Investigative cases

Given the vast number of investigative journalism published throughout Europe, any selection will be nothing but a glimpse of the vast material available. The examples thus are indicative only to illustrate fields of cases.

In vestigating Eu ropean fu nds

Investigating the flow of EU funds — a classic ‘follow the money’ approach — is carried out all over Europe with varying intensity and frequency. One key case worth knowing is the Cresson case, analysed by Meyer (2002); this case is an early example of cross-border collaboration between Brussels correspondents. Another key case is the so-called Tillack case, referring to German Brussels correspondent Hans-Martin Tillack, who — based upon information from a source whose identity was never disclosed - was able to publish highly critical articles on “allegations of a European civil servant concerning irregularities in the European institutions” (ECHR 2007), more precisely concerning fraud in the Commission’s Eurostat department (Kirk 2005) and on the institutions’ reactions to these allegations. The journalist’s home and newsroom were raided by Belgian police and material, computers and telephones seized. Tillack and his magazine took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where Tillack won (ECHR 2007). Both cases must be considered landmark journalism, leaving a trace on the relationship between journalists and EU institutions. Two other cases are worth emphasising: older and more recent investigations into the EU’s generous farm subsidies and recent years’ investigations into EU funds spent in Hungary.

Since the founding of the EU, large funds have been handed out to individual farmers, agricultural projects and investments and indeed price guaranties in the form of export subsidies. By 2019, the sum of subsidies for the EU with 28 countries amounted to around 60 billion EUR or 51 billion GBP. Research into the actual spending of the EU’s farm subsidies began on a national level in Denmark in 2002. In the early 2000s, two Danish journalists teamed up for an FO1 request on national level to access information on which farmers actually got which amount. Such data would allow them to geo-tag and analyse distribution and the potential effect of the subsidies. Eventually, in 2004, they got access to the documents. They found that the EU subsidies were not supporting their intended targets in Denmark, the poorest farmers. A follow-up FOI with the European Commission in Brussels was turned down and led to the first large cross-border journalism collaboration in Europe, where a loose network ofjournalists filed requests to access the data on the national level and published as information was obtained over the years from 2005 onwards (Farmsubsidy, org 2017; Alfter 2019, pp. 64—66). The wider network of the Farmsubsidy team kept reporting about the topic for years, yet with a loose coordination and intensity waning after 2012. The actual effect of the Farmsubsidy reporting on the public debate is not documented, though its effect on ‘Europeanisation’ has been analysed (Heft et al. 2017).

In 2019, a New York Times investigative team set out to scrutinise European agricultural subsidies with findings mirroring previous articles (Apuzzo 2019).

One of the findings of the New York Times concerned how people and companies with close ties to the Hungarian government were receiving farm subsidies. This story of how lucrative EU funds were granted, via national tenders or grants, to the strongmen around, for example, the Hungarian government, is another ‘follow-the-money’ story. It was covered persistently by Hungarian media, not least investigative non-profit media, over years and years (for examples in English, see Atlatszo 2020 or Direkt36 2020).

Investigating EU decision making and administration

Following EU funds is one classic subject. Scrutinising EU decision making and controlling how EU rules and agreements are carried out is another. There are numerous examples: the internal market’s affect on consumer affairs and business, lobbying, opaque lawmaking and the administration of European legislation counter to agreed-upon rules. One representative example is cited here.

In its treaties, the EU emphasises the precautionary principle, aiming at insuring a high level of environmental protection and food, human, animal and plant health (European Commission 2000). Having heard of a particular pesticide well known in the scientific literature to cause brain damage to babies and young children, a group of journalists from Denmark, France, Norway, Belgium, Slovenia, Spain, Poland and the United States set out to investigate. The starting point was to investigate residues on food and question authorities about what was being done about it (Dahllof 2019), a classic big chemicals versus consumers case. Using FOI requests, reports by scientists and administrative bodies, interviews and other classic research methods, the team was able to document that the producer had presented a report to the EU authorities at the time of authorisation which lacked data and included modified statistical protocols. Furthermore, it appeared that the authorities had not even looked at the report. They only did so years later (Horel, S. 2019c). The reporting was noted and quoted by industry lobbyists (Horel 2019a), and as of 2020, the use of the chemical will be forbidden all over the EU (Horel 2019b).

Further examples of scrutiny of lawmaking and administration can be found at 2020.

Investigating topics of general interest

Though not directly influenced by shared decisions, subject matter may be relevant in multiple EU countries or be partially linked to European politics: Tax avoidance has been scrutinised by journalists on a national level as well as internationally (see, for example, ICIJ’s Lux Leaks 2014; Panama Papers 2016;

EIC’s Football Leaks 2018). Taxes are a national competency, yet excessive tax advantages are considered distorting competition and thus EU regulated.

Investigating royal families is another strictly national subject, yet inspired by colleagues in other countries, journalists from different countries have started filing FOI requests and in other ways started looking into ownership and spending of their royal families (see, for example, Koningshuizen. be 2019). Another story within the national realm concerned investigations into the security weaknesses of the Internet of Things — where, for example, digital cameras installed in private houses to protect against burglars or security' cameras in public spaces were used systematically to spy' on family' bedrooms or on public swimming pools (see, for example, Sandli 2013; Svensson 2015; Brühl & Wormer 2016).

The Daphne Project is worth mentioning. When Maltese blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in Malta in 2017, a team of journalists set out to finalise her reporting on alleged corruption in Malta (Daphne Project 2018), thus insisting on finalising the work of the killed colleague — a clear statement from the journalism community'.

Further reading

Any' journalist wishing to follow investigative journalism in Europe will start by learning to read “Googletranslatish” to open the vast field of investigative journalism in Europe. English speakers have the advantage of their language being the working language in many' journalism contexts. To gain familiarity with investigative journalism, collections of cases can be traced at the meeting places of investigative journalists in Europe.

One such meeting place is Dataharvest - the European Investigative Journalism Conference (Dataharvest 2020). Grown out of the project and open to all journalists since 2011, the conference has gathered a growing number of journalists from all over Europe; the programme thus gives an insight into what is going on in Europe. The programme includes, however, only' cases of potential relevance in other European countries, be that for methodology' or subject matter.

Cross-border collaborative journalism

Since the late 1990s and onwards, investigative journalism communities have emerged in the United States, in Europe and beyond, and collaborations have become more commonplace. Surmounting the competitive mood journalists have been conditioned to work within is a challenge but worth the effort: “you have to haul through that. You have to change your mindset to say' they' are not your rivals, that you can actually collaborate with people. There are ways in which you have more in common than you have against each other. The psychological thing is a big change for a lot of journalists,” says David Leigh, former investigations editor at The Guardian and one of the pioneers in cross-border collaboration in the United Kingdom (Alfter 2019, p. 55). Obvious advantages cited are sharing costs and information and ability to set the news agenda (Konow-Lund et al. 2019, p. 8).

By 2019, cross-border collaboration was well on the way to the mainstream in many countries; journalism schools have started teaching it (see Newsreel; Gothenburg), and academia is picking up on the method (Konow-Lund et al. 2019; Sambrook 2018; Alfter 2016, 2019).


Investigative journalism can be found all over Europe — yet it will not always look the same. Parts of Europe are more influenced by Anglo-American-style reporting and story-telling, while other parts of Europe follow different traditions. Research methods vary according to journalism tradition and context, including legal practice, thus providing the potential for journalists to supplement each other in collaborative teams on topics of shared interest.


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