Why Are We Here?

The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter today puts its finger on a sore spot: Why have an EU Summit right now at all?

The whole idea of inserting a third summit each year was part of the Lisbon strategy, intended at boosting EU competivity, a (traditionally) unsigned editorial notes. However, it has turned out that the EU manages to boost its capacity for increased competition power perfectly well without the politicians telling people how to do it, thank you very much, and the spring summit is increasingly becoming a bit of a yawn generator. Even Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, concedes on his blog that “this meeting with the European Council will possibly not go down in history as one of the very biggest”.

However, Dagens Nyheter fumes (to the general amusement of my Swedish colleagues here at the EU Summit press room, who have spent the morning speculating who actually wrote the vitriolic editorial in question – the writer was more or less officially identified as Barbro Hedvall), the EU cannot back down from holding spring summits now, because that would be seen as a loss of prestige and – more importantly – a source of speculation about why the leaders wouldn’t want to meet each other, especially who didn’t want to meet who.

I’m not so sure I agree with the criticism. After all, it is never a bad idea that people – especially at high levels – get together and talk. Even if they currently may have little to talk about, there might come other times when having an institutionalised forum may be crucal, instead of wasting precious energy on procedure and formalities. After all, that is what the EU is all about – defusing possible points of conflict before they flare up.

And therein lies a PR problem, because it is always difficult to sell to the general public that we have avoided conflicts to the point where they never happened. “What conflicts?” we EU citizens ask, oblivious to the long and bloody history of our part of the world, where war between the people groups now represented at the negotiation table was the norm, not the exception.

I do realise that the bloodless summits require lots of travelling, security arrangements, and so on. But I’ll take that over war every time.

Summit Time, And The Living Is Easy

I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong with Slovenian ham. I’ve just put down two delicious wraps with that and some other stuff in it, and it was lovely. But for some reason, they were the ones that most people here hadn’t touched at all.

In other words: It’s EU Summit time again, and I’m back at the press centre munching free sandwiches, traditionally handed out by the current Presidency so as to avoid insane queues where everybody is trying to pay for their meals. There’s hundreds and hundreds of journalists here, and any attempt to charge money for the food would probably lead to queues the length of Belgium. Where the last in line might get his/her orders in time for the next summit.

The first and second time I visited this event, the catering consisted of incredibly dry baguette rolls with dry chees or ham. Puffs of dust came out as you put your teeth into them. And – they were the only choice.

But that, I understood later, was all due to the presidency of the day, which shall remain unnamed for their culinary crime. Later presidencies have improved the snacks, introduced more variations, and the Portuguese last time offered some quite decent rolls with camembert, which raised my spirits considerably.

The current Slovenian presidency has rightly taken the opportunity to boost interestin its national cuisine, I realised as I just snuck into the press centre to check things out (and, frankly, to get a free snack).  As I said, the Slovenian ham was delicious, and I do hope that my colleagues’ disinclination to try something new and daring doesn’t put this and future presidencies off their attempts to offer something more interesting than air-dried cotton posing as bread.

Let’s see, who’s next in line…. aha, France.  Hmmm. If they do not live up to and beat du pain, du vin, et du Boursin, I shall slam them at their national pride on this blog, eternally shaming them for betraying their proud cuisine. Or something like that.

But first’ I gotta get another one of them ham wraps.

Disgusted By The British Media

Rarely have I been so disgusted by the British media as I have today, and their betrayal is twofold.

To begin with, while the most appalling of unmentionable atrocities are being uncovered at a former orphanage in Jersey, the media chooses not to hunt down the perpeetrators still alive and do their job to investigate what exactly went on or how the authorities could let the cover-up continue FORTY YEARS. Who were the protectors in high places? Who of the highbrass were even involved? And who is going to go out and fight for the poor. poor small inocent chidren?

No, instead, the media is full of prince Harry’s days in Afghanistan.

There we have it: a Royal Life is more valuable than scores of abused ordinary children.

That would have bene enough to make me vomit as it is. But the second thing that makes my stomach turn today is the revelation that the British media has collectively agreed to a massive cover-up of the same prince’s deployments.

And they do not even have the decency to be ashamed of betraying their mission in such a way. Rather, they brag about it.

The obvious question is: What else is being covered up? What else has the media agreed to stay silent on, when its first, main, and last task is to report, disclose and reveal?

I most certainly disagree with the main argument against publishing the news that prince Harry had been sent to Afghanistan: that his life would be in danger. That may be true – but, sorry to say and putting it bluntly, that would be his own fault. Nobody is pointing a gun against his Royal Head and forcing him to go there. If the risks are too big, then by all means stay at home.

But what has happened his time is that somebody whose job it is to be in a public position, has decided to do something that he decides would not gain from media coverage, and has therefore had the media agree to his version and participate in a cover-up.

Am I the only one to see that this principle, once the line has been crossed, could easily be applied to yet another thing, and another, and another? What else wold the Royals like to do that doesn’t hold up to the daylight of publicity, that they would be able to persuade the media to stay silent about?

And why do the Holy Royals have such a privilege in today’s modern world, may I ask? Once again, is the Royal Life worth so much to my fellow Britons, that they are prepared to sell their souls for it?

Today, I feel disgusted to call myself a journalist. And a Briton.

Second Attempt

Time to brush the cobwebs off and get seriously started for the spring semester: this evening, I will attend a prolonged briefing on all things expected to happen in the EU during the forthcoming six months, a briefing estimated to go on for about three hours.

This excellent service is offered twice a year by the Swedish EU representation. In keeping with the Scandinavian tradition of openness and transparency, all their top experts in all policy fields line up to give an informal presentation to all Brussels correspondents for Swedish news media about what can be expected. Yielding notebooks full of almost legible notes, and at least a chance to be prepared for what will be coming up and who to talk to then. And a few good bites to eat as well (I’ll be back on that issue).

This time I might actually get there; last time I tried was a week ago. I got all prepared and ready and was about to go to the event, when I – for once – was wise enough to take a quick look at the calendar… only to discover that I was one full week early.

It’s nice to be on time and the Scandinavian mentality usually has little time for tardiness, but arriving a week in advance would have been a little over the top.

26,000 Unread E-mails

I’ve decided to start this year’s work by cleaning out some old “sourdoughs”, as we say in Swedish sometimes. One of these is the long-postponed culling of e-mails that have long past their best before date and are now fermenting in my inbox. I currently have 26,844 unread ones.

Don’t stop e-mailing me, though; I usually get round to personally addressed e-mails at once. But I am also the happy subscriber of quite a number of (usually) free news services, press information wires, I’m on every mailing list of as many organisations, companies and insttutions I can possibly imagine being of any benefit to my daily news hunt, and so on. And it only so happens that with many of them, they don’t come across as urgently important, and so I go “oh, I’ll read that later”… and of course I never get around to Later in that sense.

Many are also legible without opening (why do I feel like I’m suddenly trying to defend myself here?), because my e-mail service shows their first few words before you open them. But still, with many of them, you feel that there might be something interesting there… if you could only get to looking them through.

That’s why I feel awkward about unsubscribing: there might be something interesting there etc etc etc etc. And as if to prove that, whenever I think about unsubscribing from a service, of course that very one suddenly yields a big story (after lying fallow for years).

That’s one of the many blessings of being a journalist: you have the constant feeling that you ought to turn every stone, because there might be something interesting there etc etc etc etc. And you always feel stressed if you don’t.

But now it’s tidy up time… and if I know myself, I’ll constantly be interrupted by finding stuff that I should have read and that I ought to just have a quick glance at now that I’m sorting out the old ones and all that. After all, there might be something interesting there.

The Princess And I

Friday’s press conference with the Swedish Prime and Foreign Ministers offered a rare opportunity to chat for a moment with the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria as well.

(I say that with the sort of feigned disinterest that befits a journalist who wants to appear as if he is constantly rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty of this world. The awkward truth is that I spend a lot of time in the privacy of my working chambers at home, but don’t tell anyone, will you).

Princess Victoria has been a virtually constant intern at the various levels of Swedish government, preparing for her forthcoming role as Head of State, and had just spent a week serving at the Swedish permanent representation to the EU. There, she kept a low profile, but was still admitted to the Summit as a minister, and allowed to sit in on even the most sensitive of deliberations.

She was not part of the concluding press conference, merely there as an observer. Consequently, she snuck in along one wall after the press conference had started, together with assorted members of the Swedish delgation, and sat on one of the chairs lined up along the wall around the large conference table around which we journalists and the ministers were distributed. It only so happened that she sat right behind me.

There I was, slumped belly-up in those extremely comfortable chairs designed for hours and hours of intra-community haggling, and as the full truth of the event dawned on me, a few TV cameras were already pointing my direction to get a glimpse of the Princess behind me. With me in the forefront, due to the camera angles likely making me appear even larger than in real life, and with my ‘deployed vehicle airbag’ prominently positioned.

In other words: those TV pictures would have showed the future Queen of Sweden only partly visible, peeping forward behind by my big fat tummy.

I checked – it seemed that the TV people were wise enough not to use those images. I call that professional discretion.

The Economist worries about whatever she was doing there, oblivious to the fact that she as Queen will be chairing the Permanent Foreign Comittee of the Swedish Parliament, and thus has every reason to be well-informed from the start. I don’t, because after the press conference, a few of us of course took the chance to exchange a few words with her. She seemed genuinely interested and started questioning us about how we work at these events, in a way that was either professionally faked or professionally inquisitive. While not being much of a royalist, I must confess to havng had a very positive impression of how seriously she seems to take her role.

However, I do regret missing the obvious question that we journalists shared (but didn’t ask her then either) last time she was a Government intern visiting Brussels: “So, how does the Ambassador take his coffee?”

The Cake Was Awful And The Champagne Was Gone

I promised you an update on the Portuguese fiesta at the EU Summit… Well, easily done: The cake was awful and the champagne was gone.

The feast was to commence at 1430, but it only so happened that France was suddenly announcing its press conference to that very time as well. I thought I might go and get a glimpse and a feel of Monsieur Sarkozy, and in any case I wasn’t going to stay for that long. Or so I thought.

The room was packed well beyond its capacity, the heat from people and TV spotlights reaching corresponding levels, and oxygen had run out already before I arrived. I stood and waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, I the floor started swaying under my feet and I realised I was about to faint, so I managed against all odds to find a free seat. There, I promptly nodded off, only to awake a few moments later to the buzz of a text message arriving in my cell phone and realising that absolutely nothing had happened. An hour and fifteen minutes had gone by and still no Sarkozy. (And no, he hadn’t come and gone while I was dozing).

The text message informed me that there was going to be a press conference with the Swedes immediately, and since I work for a Swedish news organisation, I decided for that to more important. After all, the Swedes usually do turn up on time and all that. So, I went up to the next floor in the EU Council bastion, and waited there together with the entire Swedish press corps for another quarter of an hour or so, before Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s press secretary arrived and informed us that the whole thing was postponed because all the headsofstatengovernment were still in their meeting.

I took a lift back down to the press centre, gleefully passing my French-speaking colleagues on my way, thinking that they’d probably remain sitting there until who knows when, oblivious to the fact that theman they were waiting for still hadn’t risen form the conference table yet. Good time then to have a bite and a sip.

Or so I thought.

It turned out that the champagne had all been consumed by then, by my thirsty colleagues, in spite of alarge group of them being stuck in the Fench briefing room (and another contingent in the German next doors). There were some sweaty pieces of cake left, which I sampled. Some dried-out excuse for a fruit cake, completely clad in what is best described as something between jelly candy and conserved fruit. It felt like eating dried packaging foam with glazed chewing gum.

Blah.

Sunny Portugal

Portugal is trying to put on a charm offensive after being slammed by numbers for insisting on flying all the EU leaders – and Gordon Brown – to Lisbon yesterday just to put their names on a document.

Or so it seems, at least. The Portuguese Presidency is trying to woo journalists here at the EU Smmit’s Press Centre, where I am writing this, by handing out Christmas presents. Everyone gets a windproof jacket with the legend “eu2007.pt” in large letters across the back, unusually enough, together with a book about Portuguese points of interest. Supposedly intended to make us Brussels-based reportes sit around in the standard Belgian winter weather of fog, dark, and ice water pouring from a grey, grey sky, and dream about an Algarve getaway, no doubt.

Quite unusual for a gift, actually. Normally, the Presidencies at most hand out straps that you are supposed to hang your press badge on,  or something of the same 1/magnitude.

Moreover, this afternoon, they have promised to “close with a bang”, as a text message described it some moments ago.

“The Pres. invites you for a Portuguese Xmas cake and a sparkling frong 14h30 at the press centre/main hall”, the message read.

As far as the jackets are concerned, you could always suspect that they just had an extra stockpile lying around that they couldn’t get rid of before ending their presidency. If the same goes for the cake remains to be seen in a few moments – I shall be back with a report.

However, to prove that I have not been bought by this bribery attempt, let me direct you to this wonderful butchery of the Lisbon signing madness, penned by Times journalist Ben Macintyre, who pretty much saw the same thing as the rest of us watching the event online but who describes it far better than anyone else:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3048452.ece

Happy reading, it’s well worth the extra moments.

Summit Week

As you might have noticed, the top people of the European Union’s member states will convene in Brussels at the end of this week – after flying out on a day trip to Lisbon to sign their names on a piece of paper, taht is.

If they do manage to write all the letters in their own names without piercing themselves to death with their fountain pens or something similar, they will be turning up late Thursday. That means that it’s time to reserve a workspace in the press centre.

Ye faithful readers of this blog know that this isn’t as easy as it seems. At the last few summits, spaces have been harder and harder to get, and at the last one, someone stole mine.

This time I’m going to avenge myself, I thought, and manufactured the most professional-looking sign I could throw together, with my company’s logo and all. I went there some time after 9 am this morning – and indeed, reservations had already started even thpough the workmen were still setting things up – and firmly taped it down. I happened to be there when another group of Swedish journalists arrived in the same business, and decided to join them hoping that the mass effect would be harder to beat (and that we would be friendly enough to keep an eye on eachother’s reswervations, among colleagues and all that). We joked that we should perhaps raise a Swedish flag or something and claim an area as occupied territory, just to be sure.

But I think I’ll follow the example of Associated Press next time. They’ve printed reservation signs on A4-sized stickers, attached permanently to the tables, which means that they have permanent reservations even though the tables in the main press area are folded up and stored away between summits. I saw some that bore visible signs of violent attempts to scrape them off, so the practice may not be all that popular with the press centre staff – but at least it seems to work.

Taking my soldering iron with me and physically enbgraving my name on one of the tables is another thought that has occured to me, but that would increase the risk of the tables being replaced due to damage, and bang goes that smart idea.

Not to mention that I might be reprimanded for it. But then again, I could just make a name up, or write my boss’s.

Olof Palme Suspected Of Paedophilia

Today, I was supposed to write something fun about Christmas. But I cannot. Yesterday, the most hushed-down scandal in Swedish history resurfaced again, and it fills me with such grief. It is a story that is on par with the infamous Belgian paedophile scandal, with the only difference that the cover-up has succeeded in this case.

The scandal in essence is that there is reason to believe that two Swedish Prime ministers during the 1970s, the internationally known Olof Palme, and Thorbjörn Fälldin, were customers at a network of prostitutes which involved underage girls. In other words, should the allegations be true, these men were paedophiles.

And not only them. The investigation – hushed down as it is – involves a long list of top politicians and celebrities of the time. Some 70 names have been mentioned.

The girls, around 14 at the time, have now grown up, and yesterday, they held a press conference where two of them are demanding compensation fron the Swedish state.

But it doesn’t end there. As I have mentioned, there has never been a proper investigation of these matters. Olof Palme lied to the entire Swedish people when he denied that the then head of the Swedish police, Carl Persson, had written to him to inform him that his Minister of Justice, Lennart Geijer, was frequenting prostitutes and could therefore be subject to blackmail – especially since some of the prostitutes were from the Communist bloc. Mr Persson’s note was disclosed in the daily Dagens Nyheter in 1977, but Olof Palme could see from the way the article was written that the paper did not have access to the note itself. Olof Palme very aggressively denied that the note had ever existed and called the whole thing rumours and worse, but in 1991, the note was declassified and confirmed that Mr Geijer was in fact buying sex.

Why Olof Palme put his entire career at stake to lie so blatantly – about something he likely knew was true – remains an enigma; he was murdered in 1986 and took his secrets to his grave. But the fact is that the former prostitutes yesterday repeated that he would hve beneone of their customers. Did he lie in order to protect himself?

Worse still, his Minister of Justice – Mr Geijer – was trying at the time to decriminalise paedophilia (yes, it’s true). Thank God he was stopped, but that further adds to the sleaziness of it all.

Meanwhile, the girls – several of whom have identified top politicians as customers, independently of one another – descended into personal problems and drug abuse, frustrated about the massive cover-up form the establishment. They have never budged one inch from their story; they insist to this day that what they allege is true.

The whole thing has resurfaced from time to time in Sweden, but has just as regularly vanished from the headlines again and led to no repercusisons at all. Only one person has ever been tried and found guilty, Sigvard Hammar, a marginal figure who was a TV journalist as well as a paraplegic and thus less into the circles of power, who also openly admitted abusing underage girls. But he was sentenced for procuring, not for abusing minors.

There is much more to say about this disgusting, nauseating, stomach-turning, sinister, evil, deprave, vicious mess. How Dagens Nyheter’s source, criminologist Leif G W Persson who worked for Carl Persson at the time, found not only his desk but his entire room emptied the day after Dagens Nyheter broke the story. How the cover-up in 1977 was orchestrated by people involving the then Chief Constable of Stockholm, Hans Holmér, the same police officer who later made a complete mess of the murder investigation of Olof Palme – for whatever reason. How Thorbjörn Fälldin before the Swedish Parliament in 1977 stated that the entire list of suspects must have been false simply because his own name was on it – and how the Swedish nation chose to believe him.

And how an unknown number of young girls had their lives ruined by the men in power that were supposed to provide their ultimate security.

So, will there be a proper investigation this time? At present, it doesn’t seem likely. The story has already been moved to the back pages, and it seems that the whole thing will once again be ground down into the bureaucratic machinery.

Nukenight

I really like Newsnight on BBC 2. It’s a very competent programme indeed. In fact, you can watch the latest programme here.

However… I didn’t know its journalistic effervescence was of such a dimension that Britain needed to protect its atomic weapons from the show. But judging from this little gem for a headline on the BBC News website shown in this screenshot… it seems that the Ministry of Defence has had reason to lock up its nukes whenever the Newsnight team was in the neighbourhood.

Maybe someone did go ballistic about that thing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after all.

This Blog Would Be Illegal

This blog would be illegal. Not only in countries like China and Burma, where the totalitarian regimes utterly restrict personal freedom of speech. But in Italy, a Western democracy, if proposals put forward by premier Romano Prodi are adopted.

Yes, the very same Romano Prodi who used to be the President of the EU Commission.

He has now proposed far-going restrictions of Italians’ right to blog, which in a nutshell means that you will have to be registered, pay taxes, work for a publisher and under the supervision of a profesisonal journalist to have the right to blog.

This is utterly and obscenely outrageous.

I am a professional journalist and my blog would perhaps pass the test. But I would openly refuse to comply with such a ridiculpous law, because it is a blatant, naked and arrogant attack on the God-given right that forms the very foundation of any democracy anywhere: Freedom of speech.

Any democracy anywhere requires the right for people to freely form their opinions, in order to participate. It requires the freedom to advocate any standpoint, in order to form an opinion in others, and it requires the freedom to take part of any standpoint, in order to form an opinion of one’s own. It is the fundamental right given to us at birth, manifested in such a way that we are born with the capacity to speak, and the capacity for learning languages.

Blogging on the Internet is nothing more than an extension of your right to speak out with your mouth; it is the 21st century equivalent of standing on an overturned soapbox in a street corner or handing out leaflets.

Yes, it comes with a lot of rubbish, but it the quality of what is said would be the criteria for whether or not to allow freedom of speech, then the politicians would be the first to be forced to shut up.

Perhaps what upsets me the most is the sheer arrogance of the Italian plans. This time, they do not even bother to try to hide behind some alleged reason, be it the fight against terrorism, indecencies om the Net, or whatever the excuse for the day is. This time, they are openly sending the message to the citizens – or, should I say, to the subjects: Freedom of speech is not a right for the common man, it is a privilege for the chosen few.

What insolence!

Why not just go the whole way and do away with democracy altogether? Why not return to the feudal system straight away? Is that what is on the agenda in the long term?

You may wonder why I rage against something that is going on in a country where I do not live. I admit, I have not even been to Italy. But a loss of freedom anywhere is a loss of freedom everywhere.

Moreover, remember that Italy is a country on my doorstep. It is a founding and powerful member of the Europan Union. And the proposal, as I said, is being put forward by the previous EU Commission President.

What guarantees do I – or YOU – have that the same proposals won’t be put forward in our countries next time? What guarantees do we have that the next step won’t be attempting to introduce the same laws in the entire EU?

If you think this sounds ridiculous, remember that it would be easy for an Italian blogger to put her or his blog onto a server in any other EU country to try to circumvent this law from hell. That would easily give the Italian the government the excuse to start pushing for an EU-wide application of it, in order to uphold the Italian legislation. And then the police could soon be knocking on YOUR door because of something you have written on your computer.

If you agree with me that this is a terrifying perspective, straight from a book by George Orwell less than two decades after the fall of totalitarian regimes in Europe, then protest now.

While it is still legal. 

Ghosts In The Machine

One of the more eerie things that happen whenever EU ministers meet is the Commisson spokespersons’ habit of suddenly materialising in the press room, seemingly out of nowhere. You’re sitting there by your computer, deeply immersed in one important world problem or another (such as whom to poke next on Facebook), and suddenly you glance up and there they are, surrounded by a group of journalists frantically taking notes.

You quickly get up and join the crowd and find yourself getting a number of bits and pieces of inside information from the meeting itself, which is held behind closed doors. The Commission spokespeople are present at the meetings, and can therefore give tell you exactly what is going on. Those spokespeople who have worked as journalists themselves before switching jobs are the best, since they’re used to verbatim note-taking. Their information is one of the reasons why it is always better to cover the councils on location, rather than trying to do it from home.

However, you can’t help but wonder exactly where they come from. They literally seem to crawl out of the woodwork (or concrete, rather), or materialise out of thin air. Do they have a Star Trek-emulating beamer, able to just zap them into any place? Or are they in fact astral bodies? Are they at all present at the meetings, as I have assumed so far, or are they just invisibly hovering around the delegates, reading their notes or perhaps even their minds? Are they spying over my shoulder as I write this? Or do they only manifest themselves when enough journalists collectively start longing for some news? Are we thus able to invoke them on other occasions too?

The latter would be of a particular advantage, because they’re never there otherwise when you really need them.

Playing With The Travelling Band

The travelling band commonly known as the European Union this month has its minsterial meetings in Luxembourg again (yes, indeed at the ghastly Luxembunker pictured to the right), and I will be playing along Monday and Tuesday as a reporter at the Agriculture and Fisheries council. (I wish I were playing with a real travelling band instead, especially when reading about old friends doing exactly that, but that’s another story.)

On Tuesday, the ministers are supposed to discuss fisheries, a common source of discontent not only because the ministers consistently fail to agree on quotas small enough to actually give fish stocks a chance to survive, but also because there has been widespread pirate fishing that compound the problem.

Notably from Poland, where the government has openly said that it does not intend to do one whit about it, because it believes that the fears for fish stocks are exagerrated. In short, they are allowing themselves an unlimited quota on the expense on every other nation around the Baltic. Marine harvest state terrorism is a concept that one is tempted to use.

However, don’t expect the Polish delegation to receive more than a symbolic thrashing about it, because Poland held general elections on Sunday and it seems that there is a huge possibility that there will be a change of guard there. And then, the process has to start all over again, with a new government which can always claim that it shouldn’t have to live up to the previous one’s agreements.

In the meantime, the EU is rattling its sabres (all two and a half of them), insisting that it will take deterrent measures against fishermen who can’t keep their tackle under control. Draconian measures are being considered, including a black list – a piece of paper listing of offending vessels – and a ban on selling catches that have bene landed outside the quota.

I bet the Pirates of the Baltic are quaking with fear.

Baaa-d

I was going to write w few short lines for Foodwire today about the troubles Greek farmers are currently having to find new goats to use to produce Feta cheese, which under new EU rules can only be produced in Greece. They need to get new animals, because many of the old ones burned in the widespread forest fires there this summer.

As I said, I was going to write something intelligent about this but I couldn’t get my head around it – all I could think of was that grilled Feta sounds rather tasty, especially with some decent roasted meat. I’ve never knowingly tasted grilled goat, but maybe it’s as good as lamb.

But then I felt very ashamed of myself, because the fires claimed a number of human lives. Under the most dreadful of conditions, that is. My colleague Patrik had the hardly enviable assignment some time ago of going there and reporting on it all on TV, an experience from which he returned both shaken and stirred. TV images can never convey the full horror, he told me.

It’s all too easy to forget that there are real people on the often ghastly news images we see every day. Real lives are being ruined, real people lose loved ones. Many of us in the media subconsciously turn their feelings off, distantiating themselves from the truth behind the lines – with a devastating effect on their ability to report in a way that brings the reailty over, I believe.

Others let it affect them to the point when they cannot take it anymore. Only yesterday, I heard an interview with a journalist whose task it was to sort and edit TV footage from various horrorful evets around the world every morning.

“I often cried at the news desk”, she admitted, and eventually decided to quit and spend the rest of her life trying to do things that would make people happy instead. She felt that the news simply could not do that.

I have the deepest sympathy or that. But, then again, if the world never hears of those things, will anyone ever decide to help? However – with too much horror stories, we all choke, turn off, and descend into aid fatigue. Where do you draw the line?

That is just one of the many delicate decisions we journalists face every day. In my case, it contributed to skipping the goats story: forgive me, but I did not want to take the focus away from the people.

But maybe I was wrong – maybe that would have helped to convey the extent of the disaster.

Investigate, But Not Us

Margot Wallström, vice president of the EU Commission, today writes in defence of us journalists, and our right to do our job to act on behalf of the general public without risking our lives, on her blog (read the full entry here).

Very nice. Indeed, Ms Wallström is usually generous with media access herself, being one of the few Commissioners to have a blog and inviting those of us who work for Swedish media to regular press breakfasts.

However, the very first comment to that post on her blog pointed out how the Commission acted only a few years ago, when Stern Magazine correspondent Hans-Martin Tillack did just that, and examined the EU itself. He was arrested by police and his material seized for reporting on fraud within the EU statistics office Eurostat, a blatant violation of all fundamental freedom of press characteristics and an abusive behaviour unworthy of the emerging semi-federal superpower we call the European Union. Adding insult to injury, the EU’s own court ruled that the Belgian police raid of course had noooooothing to do with complaints from EU institutions (read the full story here; note that that verdict came only a year ago).

So how can Ms Wallström advocate press freedom, when she happily participates in such an atempt to silence an ‘unruly’ reporter, the commentator asks, demanding (again) an apology from the Commissioner.

We shall see whether or not such an apology will emerge. I must remember to ask her personally next time I meet her.

Liar Liar

This is the face of a man who seems to be about to lie himself out of a job.

It became only too clear on Thursday, as fresh new information about his – EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen’s – affair with his chiefof staff Petra Erler became public. German media have quoted a party colleague saying that he confessed the affair to her, and you can find a picture of Mr Verheugen and Ms Erler hand in hand here. Click here for another picture of the two, which is said to depict Mr Verheugen leaving Ms Erler’s home in the early morning of August 2 this year.

And yet, the Commissioner has the NERVE to maintain the same story as always: I have nothing to say… my marriage is a private business.

Excuse me, Commissioner, but while your MARRIAGE may be private, your RELATIONS with your STAFF is not. Especially if they turn out to have affected their appointments to their jobs.

That is something I and several other journalists pointed out to the Commission’s spokespeople at Thursday’s press conference, only to be met but the usual stonewalling, a number of variants of the old “No Comments” line.

At least, we finally got them to repeat Mr Verheugen’s statement that he did not have an affair with Ms Erler “at the time of her appointment”. (No word on whether that happened before or after.)

That means that he has now nailed himself to his story, which is becoming increasingly impossible as details surface. There are pictures and witnesses to tell a different story already, and there will probably be more to come. His wife has publicly admitted that she is leaving him.

(The latter fact made Mr Verheugen’s story even more hollow, as he clung on to the statement “I and my wife have agreed not to discuss this in public”. Well, newsflash: Your wife just did. Doesn’t that make you a liar once again?)

“He won’t survive this”, a German-speaking journalist remarked to me as we were leaving the press conferece. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that Mr Verheugen is lying half a billion Europeans straight to their faces

I and my fellow journalists (and European citizens) do not intend to hold any moral tribunal here. If Mr Verheugen is having extramarital affairs, it technically has nothing to do with his job. However, if he is having an affair or has had an affair with his chief of staff, it most certainly has everything to do with his job. Moreover, it is also a blatant breach of the Code of Conduct laid down not by us, but by the European Union itself.

The Commission’s President Barroso now faces the following choices:

1) Either he believes his Commissioner’s version. Then he is sadly gullible, and risks his own job if proven wrong.

2) Or he chooses to disbelieve him. Then he must sack the Commissioner.

3) Or he knows that Mr Verheugen is lying. Then he is also lying to you and me and everyone else, and equally arrogant in the notion that he or they will get away with it. Then he SHOULD lose his job.

I’m sorry for sounding enraged. But I cannot tolerate the sheer arrogance of someone shoving lies down my throat and expecting to get away with it. And the arrogance – once again, the arrogance – of how the Commissioner has so far responded to the allegations is unworthy of someone whose salary is paid forby me and half a billion other Europeans.

Do the right thing, Commissioner. At least former President Clinton had the guts to confess to his similar extramarital activities, which saved him by a hair’s breadth. If you could at least have the same courage, you might escape this sorry mess slightly less battered than what will probably now be the case.

The alternative is that you risk your job – and the rest of the Commission’s jobs as well.

Fa(r)cebook

OK, OK, I confess. I have fallen for the trend and have now set up shop on Facebook, thus ading to the growing number of employees who are tempted to administer their private Facebook accounts during work hours. A practice which has already prompted several companies to block internet access to the site.

Interestingly enough, I just discovered that one of those is the EU. I mean, I can’t vouch for the accessibility among staff, but here in the Commission’s press room, you cannot reach Facebook even when using your own computer.

Either there has been so much private surfing among staff that the Commission had to do something about it and extended the ban to the Press network by mistake, or I ought to be touched by the EU’s concern for the time efficiency of the media companies we journalists work for.

So, we’ll just have to get to do some real work, then. In an hour, Commissioner Verheugen is to hold a joint press conference about security, but since we are kept busy working, I expect one or two to have thought out some entertaining questions about Günter Verheugen’s active love life instead (see previous post).

Ho hum, this may be very entertaining.

Come On Baby Light My Fire

Thursday’s press conference at the EU Commission revolved largely – after a nice gesture by spokesman Johannes Laitenberger of reading out an official condolence in Italian about Luciano Pavarotti’s death – around commissioner Günter Verheugen’s sex life.

Believe it or not, Eurocrats have such areas of life, too. And in the case of Mr Verheugen, it’s quite a vivid one or so it seems, for he has been rumoured to have an affair with his chief of staff Petra Erler since last year.

Um, not only rumoured: there have been pictures taken of the two of them hand in hand on a beach in Lithuania – naked.

The matter is slightly complicated by the fact that Mr Verheugen is said to have intervened to ensure that Ms Erler was promoted to her current high-paying job (which she accesed on, of all days, April 1 this year). And by the fact that Mr Verheugen happens to be married. To someone else.

On Thursday, reporters again started asking questions abaout all this, against the background that Mr Verheugen’s wife is now quoted to have asked for a divorce. The defence line was as always: Mr Verheugen’s private life concerns no-one but himself.

As commendable as such a stance might seem at a first glance, it becomes very troublesome (to say the least) if private life interests begin influencing professional decisions. A previous commissioner, Édith Cresson, had to resign for doing exactly what Mr Verheugen is now being accused of: employing a lover at a high-paid job, regardless of formal qualifications.

She brought the entire Santer commission down with her. It was the first time a Commission had to resign prematurely.

(“It would have been more of a problem if he had had a relation with the chief of staff of another directorate-general”, remarked a colleague to me to mutual chuckle as we were sitting in the press room listening to the verbal duel.)

Everybody knows that this is potentially Commission-toppling material, which is the reason both for the persistent questions from the journalists as well as for the stonewalling attempts from Mr Verheugen.

This stonewalling yesterday became farcical, as the spokesman maintained that nothing had changed since this summer, when the matter was highlighted last time.

In the middle of the grilling, as questions about conflict of interest and violation of various EU Treaty articles were reaching boiling point, there was a sudden BZZZZZZZZZZZ sound filling the press room: The fire alarm went off.

Everybody started laughing.

“That’s certainly not the first time that happens”, remarked another colleague frostily to explain the reaction; “the same thing happened when they were grilled about the same thing during the summer”.

Creative use of equipment intended to fight hazards stemming from overheating, perhaps. Or maybe an automatic response to the overuse of verbal smokescreens.

Well, at least we weren’t sprayed with any water from the sprinkler system.

Maybe next time… or then they’ll just bring the water cannons in.

The Vulture Crows

Today was a good day. A bit of a scoop with prime repercussions on a local radio station, apart from a few other good items. Nice consolation since it’s been slow for a few days. Maybe I’ve earned my pay today.

However, the story in question revolves around the closure of the major employer in a small, remote village where there is little else for those laid off to do. To be frank, it’s a tragedy.

Food for journalists and other vultures.

Yess, Yess, Yesssss!!!!

My new hero within the world of journalism is named Mika Brzezinski:

(Press to play)

I wish more of our colleagues would display similar courage.

(Thanks to Jacob for the tip.)

Someone Stole My Seat!

It wasn’t enough that I went to the EU Summit press centre the day before yesterday and reserved the last available workstation. Today, as I arrived here, someone had taken my place.

I’m not going to make a big song and dance about it – it works to sit on a sofa, too, as long as the WiFi connection works.

I’ll just refer to my nice colleagues here as vultures and leave it at that.

…And More Vultures

Speaking about vultures, I just popped into the Summit Press Centre at the EU Council’s building Justus Lipsius to reserve a workstation.

At the December summit, I went to reserve a place some a day or so before the summit, and then, there were about 30 left. Last time, I went there a little earlier, and then there might have been, say, 20 left. This time, I was almost unable to find ONE. Well, eventually I did, but it was a close shave.

The thing is, you want to be in the courtyard (see image), where all the action is. There are more workstations two storeys underground insome hopeless cellar (basement), as there are a few more spread out in various other areas as well. And that’s what most other colleagues think, too.

Worst of all is that I live in Brussels, but was beaten by a few hundred journalists who are only here for the summit! Seems like I have a few more tricks to learn…

I was here at the end of last week (but then they hadn’t finished setting everything up yet) and could have easily driven past here on Sunday (but then they probably wouldn’t have let me in). But it seems that you have to keep the building under constant surveillance and rush in there as soon as things are set up, providing they don’t jail you for keeping the building under surveillance, that is.

Security is majestical during these events, but I suppose I’ll write more about that later during this week.

Vultures

This week is Summit week, when the European Union’s Heads of State and Government (I almost typed “Hades” instead of “Heads”, now there’s a Freudian slip if I ever saw one) gather to adopt a Constitution taht isn’t a constitution or whatever. And already, the vultures are gathering.

Literally. Flocks of Spanish Griffon vultures have flown north in search for food, because they are unable to find any at home since Spanish farmers have stopped dropping cattle carcasses in the open. A flock was recently seen in Ghent, not to far from Brussels.

So. Why Belgium? Why (almost) Brussels? Why right now, when the Hades Heads of State and Government are here too? Why right now, when flocks of journalists are here as well? Why at the very summit which is desperately trying to, ehrm, revive the EU Constitution?

I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Debriefing

Speaking of strange e-mails from the EU, today I got one titled “VIP CORNER: MANDELSON DEBRIEF ON MEETING WITH CHINESE MINISTER MR BO XILAI AT 15H45”.

No, I don’t know why they have to write everything in capital letters either. (Maybe they have taken the NIGERIA LETTER CORRESPONDENCE CLASS IN ADVANCED COMMUNICATION.) But that wasn’t the strange thing, but the fact that Commissioner Mandelson apparently needed debriefing after meeting the Chinese minister. What, did they expect the meeting to be that traumatic?

Upon opening the letter, it now emerged that it wasn’t Commissioner Mandelson who needed debriefing – now, it was suddenly us journalists who needed debriefing from this, seemingly, very distressing event, Commissioner Mandelson being the counsellor.

I’m not sure why they are so afraid of the Chinese Minister. But maybe they all got scared when he said his name:

“Boo”.

…Oh And By The Way

The Luxembunker showed itself from its worst side today: outside temperatures in excess of +25-30 centigrades meant that the tin can conference centre (literally, I am not joking, the whole place is made out of corrugated iron and wooden beams) where the EU ministers’ meeting is held followed the common natural laws and turned into a baking oven. Having reached a state of lightly to medium roasted, we had to abandon plans for a press briefing with the Swedish Agriculture Minister in the Swedish briefing room, because there was only one oxygen atom left in there, and any attempt to pursue any human activity of whatsoever in there would have resulted in a pile of corpses.

Instead, we used the journalists’ lobby, where we were able to find two oxygen atoms, but little else.

“Phew”, panted the Swedish minister after talking to us for a while, wiping sweat from his forehead, “now I think we’ve certainly used up those two oxygen atoms”, looking just as well cooked as the rest of us.

“And then this is the coolest Council meeting in Luxemburg for the last five years”, a member of the Swedish delegation interjected.

As I said, I managed to get out of there before turning crisp, but if your usual politicians emerge deep fried during the next few days, there’s your explanation.

(I must find myself a nice conspiracy theory to go with that. Someone trying to melt the elected representatives in order to sizzle seize power themselves? Any suggestions?)

Lucky Me

Indeed, I survived the Luxembunker, but I’m not sure the delegations will.

I got home at 23.30, sank down on my couch with my wife and watched a movie, and I’ll go get myself a nice snack and enjoy it in my robe as soon as I’ve finished writing this.

That’s not what the ministers and their delegations are experiencing.

The interpreters at the Agriculture Ministers’ meeting were scheduled to be on duty until midnight, we learned this afternoon. Later, people familiar with the matter informed us journalists, there will be nightly discussions and general haggling into the wee hours, until times probably ujnknown to the rest of mankind, and then they’re supposed to be back at tomorrow’s leg of the meeting starting at 10.00. (I won’t be at Day Two for other reasons, but that’s another story.)

Moreover, since these are ministers and delegations from all the four…teen corners of the EU, most of them have had to set off at who knows what hour this morning – some testified to having rolled out of bed at 05.00. A full 24-hour shift… followed by another one. And then back to the usual soup of urgent issues, parliamentary questions, documents and issues piling up, public visits, meetings with voters, industrialists, organisations, reporters digging their noses in the wastepaper baskets, etc etc etc etc.

The fun thing is that the EU – well, not the Agriculture Ministers, but still – has recently adopted a working hours directive that severely curbs workers’ ability all over the whole EU to work too long hours. Hospitals and other shift-working places have already had to reschedule their staff quite extensively to comply with the new rules.

And yet… the EU ministers fail to apply the working hour rules to themselves.

I raised this issue with one delegation member, who immediately promised that the EU’s new working hour rules would most certainly be applied when her country took the rotating presidency. Or so we hope.

But as I sit here, comfortable and snug in my sofa in my own home with my family close by, I can’t help but think. Yes, their jobs may be well paid. Yes, they may have all earthly power and glory within their area at their command or something like that. Yes, they may even be flying Learjets through the night.

But for all the perks and fringe benefits in the world… I certainly wouldn’t like to trade places with them.

“Converts To Rasta”

This is getting worse and worse.

After writing yesterday’s blog post, today, what do I see? A press release about two companies who have decided to, quote, “convert to Rasta”.

Well, not quite. The full heading reads – translated from Swedish –  “Maritemi AB and Provobis Holding AB convert to Rasta shares.” And, for those of you who thought that our dreadlock friends have floated their faith on Nasdaq or so: Rasta, in this case, is actually the name of a Swedish roadside restaurant chain. (Which does not serve any Ital food, by the way; the name is derived from the Swedish word “rasta” meaning “to rest”.)

That’s probably a fine illustration of how you can derive a totally misleading message from a sentence, if you do not understand the context, the social and cultural setting, the background, and so on. As has happened, sorry to say, with many interpretations of the Bible, as a prime example.

Not least by Rastas, who have founded an entire religion on such misunderstandings.

Jah Provide De Bread

I started this day wallowing in my latest download from iTunes – “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley. (The version with the Wailers. Great tune. Full roots reggae at its best.)

And then came the most surrealistic SMS (text message) imaginable on my cell phone , just a minute ago: “JAH Pressbriefing on Monday 11 June 2007.”

Now, if I had been a Rastafari devotee (which, thank Goodness, I am not), I would have considered this above and beyond a sign from above; rather, something close to an invoked Second Coming.

Especially if I had been indulging in such substances that Rastafaris tend to indulge in (which, thank Goodness, I never have and certainly never will. Drugs are the devil’s work, period.)

However, it turned out to have a full terrestial explanation, rather than the Almighty meeting the press: JAH is an EU acronym for Justice And Home Affairs, the ministers of which are meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. The sender, consequently, was the German EU Presidency, which thankfully bombards my cell phone with information on this and that every day.

An excellent service which I will not complain about, that is. But maybe the EU should consider revising some of its acronyms a bit.

Imagine this message reaching the wrong cell phone: Hordes of dreadlocked pot-smokers stampeeding towards the EU Council building, playing Marley at full blast, dancing and prancing in religious ecstasy about getting to meet their Maker in person. (And imagine the riots when they discover that all they meet are little middle-age men in grey suits. All the ganja in the world wouldn’t have convinced even the most liberal Haile Selassie worshippers that their god had incarnated as a German civil servant.)

I have a small suggestion: Justice And Home Affairs should actually be JAHA. That, in turn, would have been extra hilarious, as “Jaha” means “oh, really” or “so what” in Swedish.

Which, in turn, might have added the extra benefit of being a more accurate description.

The Teletubbies Cometh

Among yesterday’s most amusing moments in my microcosmos was when a Polish journalist asked the EU Commission’s press spokesmen at the daily press conference what comment the Commission had on Poland’s decision to investigate whether Teletubbies are propagating homosexuality.

“Does the Commission believe that the Teletubbies are of a bad influence on young children?”, the Polish journalist asked, audibly with her tounge firmly placed in her cheek.

“The Commission believes in the freedom of the media”, was the short answer, accompanied by roaring laughter from the press gallery.

Because, yes, this idea, which was first suggested by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has been revived in Poland, where child ombudsman Ewa Sowinska was to investigate Tinky Winky’s sexual orientation. The collected evidence for these allegations are:

1) Tinky Winky is purple.

2) Tinky Winky carries a handbag.

3) Tinky Winky’s head antenna is vaguely shaped like a triangle.

That’s it.

It may be laughable, especially when you start asking yourself in which ways any gender is associated with the Tubbies – for all I know, they could all be girls – or whether they are capable of having relationships with each other of such a nature that would make homosexuality, according to its biological definition, possible. But Ms. Sowinska took the whole thing very seriously and was to consult psychologists and their likes in order to reach at a verdict.

Today I heard that the whole investigation has been dropped. Congratulations, Polish taxpayers.

That leaves us Christians as the only ones still associated with this barmy statement. I do not know even where to begin being angry with all this.

Not only because of the very idea of having my faith connected with what is best named paranoid conspiracy theories, and not only because it attempts to curb free speech – even if this had turned out to be a gay lobby agenda, the rights for gays to promote their ideas is still my right to promote mine – but also because there is so much more worse garbage out there which is openly poisoning children’s minds, and where it is evident every day that the children copy what they see – in terms of violence and aggressive behaviour.

In fact, I have even had to remove a channel from or TV because our kids spent too much time watching cartoons that were clearly intended for an older audience, as they began learning violent behaviour from it. It took me about 45 seconds to exercise my right to choose in such a way, without having to call for government assistance. And another few minutes to explain to them why it is bad to hit people. Problem solved.

And therein lies probably the most ridiculous thing about all this. If you are uncomfortable with a flannel doll wearing pink, carrying a handbag, and having a triangle on its head, then, for crying out loud, switch to another channel or remove it from your dial. No-one is holding a gun to your head and forcing your kids to watch it.