Today I attended my first midday briefing press conference at the European Commission. I had watched some of them on the live satellite feed before, but never had the opportunity to attend one in person. I've actually been to a lot of events and meetings in the European Quarter this week, and the coolest part is how each of the chambers is so high tech (like the hemicycle of the European Parliament building, pictured right). In the Commission's press briefing room for example, each seat has headsets for listening to the translators, who all have separate booths lining the outside of the room. Each seat also has a microphone which you can use to ask a question to the spokesperson, and when its your turn your seat lights up. The future is here!
The subject which took up the most time at today's briefing was particularly relevant for me. Yesterday the EC circulated a memo to staff telling them to beware of spies seeking to infiltrate the European Commission, which is the EU's executive branch. The note warned to be wary of non-EU nationals, and reminded them that spies could come in any form, even a "pretty trainee with long legs and blonde hair."
Despite the memo writer's obvious talent for amusing self-parody, what has caused some controversy is that it mentioned journalists in the list of people to be wary of; a list that also included lobbyists, IT experts and private agencies. At today's press conference, a reporter named Lorenzo who represents the International Press Association voiced the association's displeasure that journalists, who have a mandate to discover hidden information, would be included on this list. He demanded to know why the EC was telling their staff to be wary of journalists because they were seeking information.
The spokesman and the reporter seemed to have a good relationship so it wasn't a tense exchange, but it was clear the reporter was not happy about the memo. The commissioner insisted that the memo wasn't criticizing journalists for seeking information, but rather EC workers for possibly giving out classified information too freely. He then pointed out that recently the current commission relaxed decades-old limitations on who in the EC could speak with the media. Apparently before these rules were relaxed only official spokespeople of the EC could speak with members of the media. The spokesman said this was unprecedented for most national parliaments, but I know that's not the case in Washington or London (any member of congress or parliament can speak with the media whenever they like) so I think that was a bit of hyperbole on his part.
He also mentioned that the EC's accreditation process was one of the most liberal in the world and does not involve security checks. So far this hasn't been my experience, as I am in the process of trying to get accredited and am finding it quite difficult. I have to first become a member of a journalists' union, so I just hastily applied for membership in the NUJ, which comes with a cost of 15 pounds a month. Then I have to show that I have been a working journalist, with pay stubs and published articles, for the past two years. Then I also need to bring letters of reference from employers. Getting my press accreditation in Washington did involve a quick security check, but it was far less cumbersome than this process in whole.
So it was an interesting first day. The midday briefings take place just down the street from my French course and happen just after my class ends, so I'm going to try to pop in at least three times a week to see if anything interesting comes up. Who knows, maybe I'll even ask a question one of these days. It will be worth it just to be able to use that little microphone!