Europe is in tumult – but does the public care? Euronews' future is on the line

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Euronews' Brussels correspondent Meabh McMahon reporting at the European parliament

The shattered glass doors of the Euronews offices on the Champs-Élysées, smashed arbitrarily for a third time by yellow vest protestors, are a sign of the fractious state of Europe and the frustrations of a public that feels it is being ignored.

They’re also symbolic of how close this broadcaster is to the story of a continent in flux. Today’s European elections are a defining moment for a media organisation that, unlike any other, pores over the activities of the Brussels political class and the 28 member states MEPs represent.

When the results are announced on Sunday, Euronews will have correspondents reporting from 20 European countries, with live coverage anchored from its newsroom in Lyon and its studio at the European Parliament in Brussels. “Europe is our story…the dramatic rise of nationalism, that’s our story,” says Deborah Turness, who is president of NBC News International and oversees the Euronews editorial operation. The US network is a major stakeholder in the France-based project.

While the news media in the UK sees the elections almost entirely through the never-ending prism of Brexit, Euronews has sent reporters on a 15-country ‘Road Trip’ lasting 10 weeks, canvassing the opinions of provincial and rural Europe. It has embraced a transparent format of showing political interviews uncut and has convinced Andrew Neil to become one of its interrogators.

This is the channel for viewers who want to understand the differences between the different Brussels factions; Jean-Claude Juncker’s EPP, Guy Verhofstadt’s ALDE, Marine Le Pen’s ENF and Nigel Farage’s EFDD. The question is whether such an audience exists.

At a Euronews event in Paris last week, the broadcaster’s chief executive, Michael Peters, spoke candidly to The Drum about the challenges it faces. “It’s hard for us – we can’t replace the role of national media,” he says. This means there is a “huge emptiness of dialogue” because of the failure to engage people in European politics. “No national media speaks about Europe…because they have their own business models and they know there is no audience around that.” The result is an “absolute vicious circle” of disconnection.

But Euronews is determined to “break the wall” of disinterest by offering “new story-telling” that shows the relevance of broadcaster and Brussels alike. “We are trying to cover this election in a totally different way - we go on the streets, we even sleep at people’s houses. We drive to MEPs and take breakfast with them. We can’t go any deeper into society than we are doing.”

Turness, who formerly ran ITV News and was president of NBC News in New York, admits that previous European elections might have been “something of a bore” to viewers but this campaign is “unlike any that we have seen before”. Euronews examines not just the implications for Brexit but the rise of right-wing Vox in Spain and the struggle between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in France. “So many of these races are national referenda,” she says. “That’s why we are fielding so many correspondents to make sure we drill down on those national stories.”

Since 2017, Turness has been repositioning Euronews as a genuine rolling news channel with 17 hours of anchor-led live programming in its daily schedule. Founded in 1993 to be a European rival to CNN, it previously showed blocs of post-produced news agency video on repeat. The revamped service is funded by Egyptian telecoms billionaire Naguib Sawiris (the majority shareholder), NBC and a consortium of European public broadcasters.

After being in charge of the iconic Today, Meet the Press and Nightly News strands at NBC News, and having introduced formats including Good Morning Europe and Raw Politics as new fixtures at Euronews, Turness wanted a radical approach to coverage of the elections. Using the umbrella brand “Your Voice, Your Choice”, it has tried to bring the audience onto the channel.

A nightly show Your Call allows viewers to phone, Skype or Whatsapp their views, with the show being hosted in a radio studio and shot on webcam.

Road Trip to Europe began in Setúbal, Portugal, on 18 March and has continued east through small towns and villages to Romania, the Czech Republic and Wroclaw, Poland, where reporter Vincent McAviney (ex-ITV News) explored the rise of the right-wing All Polish Youth and interviewed Poland’s only openly gay politician, Robert Biedroń.

A recurrent feature of the road trip has been an inflatable red sofa, from which interviewees have been invited to express their views on Brussels. Euronews’s France correspondent Anelise Borges (ex-France 24) says she was initially “a bit sceptical” of deploying a gadget but came to see its value as a platform. “It was about providing a physical safe space for people to express their opinions.”

As she headed through Portugal, Spain and France, Borges encountered similar patterns. “There was a brain drain of youth leaving rural areas because they can’t find opportunities. Entire villages were becoming ghost towns,” she says. “That’s one thing we saw in all three countries.” She found a commonality in “a lack of trust in traditional politics – pretty much everywhere we went”.

The disconnect from Brussels also meant an unfamiliarity with Euronews. “They were asking, ‘Are you the channel of the European Union?’,” Borges says. The European Commission has indeed provided the network with millions in funding but Euronews is editorially independent; Eurosceptics such as Farage and Le Pen are frequently invited on air.

Turness says the road trip had highlighted the EU’s failure to manage its reputation. “The overriding theme is that Europe hasn’t been great at doing its own PR,” she says. “While Europe may have delivered an awful lot of good it hasn’t communicated that very well.”

Good Morning Europe host Belle Donati gave European politicians the chance to relate better to the voting public in her Breakfast with Belle series. She visited the favourite Conway café of Brexit Party candidate Nathan Gill, and breakfasted from the tractor of Dutch MEP Jan Huitema in his farmyard in Makkinga. “That is humanising MEPs,” says Turness. “It’s revealing how incredibly smart, wise and watchable MEPs are.”

Getting recognition of this content is another challenge. Euronews has 135 million viewers each month and reaches 400 million homes, enough to make the claim of being “Europe’s number one international news channel”. Digitally, its website registers 15 million unique views per month, plus 60 million on its YouTube channel.

In February, Euronews sought to raise its profile in London (which Peters describes as a “key market” alongside Paris) by hosting a Brexit-themed event at the Saatchi Gallery. Speakers included Farage, Richard Tice, the founder of Leave Means Leave and Kwasi Kwarteng, junior Brexit minister.

Last week’s Paris event featured the European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, Pierre Moscovici, making an impassioned attack on the rise of populism, and Verhofstadt talking about the irrelevance of nation states in the face of growing “empires”, notably China.

Verhofstadt was also the subject of a recent edition of Raw Questions, a 60-minute Euronews segmented interview show that includes questions from an audience and a word association exercise. The former Belgian prime minister disclosed that he prefers wine to beer. It’s a different treatment from the press he receives from The Sun, which recently described him as a “curtain- haired slimeball” and “the most repugnant figure in Brussels”.

Uncut is another 60-minute interview show in which a promise is made not to edit the exchange. As one of the hosts, Neil abided by this commitment even after a light went out as he was questioning former UK foreign secretary David Miliband at Davos on the death of the centre-left. The interview carried on. “Andrew Neil is the best political interviewer out there,” Turness argues. “He is rigorous, fair to everyone, and he is better informed than any journalist I have ever met.”

She does admit that, while Euronews is enjoying growing recognition in media and political circles, the network has much to do in raising public awareness, particularly by using social media to share its content. “If we could access more resource we would get better at doing that.”

Peters – who believes it will become clear within two years whether there is a future appetite for Euronews – says the network faces tough competition from national news channels, especially in France where there are four digital-terrestrial operators. Euronews, he says, can only be a “complement” for national media, not a replacement.

Yet he claims that Europe has “never been more popular” outside of the EU and says it is viewed more favourably internationally than the “three blocs” of China, Russia and the US.

Carolyn Gibson, who arrived from the BBC to become Euronews chief revenue officer, says this optimism is reflected in 30% advertising revenue growth in the past year.

Its client Brand USA, which promotes US tourism, wished to engage with Germans (who most appreciate the American outdoors) and French travellers (who enjoy Americana culture). Euronews produces bespoke channels in nine different languages and brands can customise pan-European campaigns with different creative work, she says. “In each market we can have a totally different button we need to press and if you go out and do a one-size-fits-all advertising campaign across Europe it’s not going to work for you.”

Gibson says the European elections are a commercial opportunity because they give the network a chance to show potential clients how it is unique in the market. “There has never been a more important time to be a European media organisation that is talking about Europe.”

The Champs Élysées office, the global hub of Euronews’ five commercial bases, was just one of many Paris buildings to be targeted by the gilets jaunes. In fact, Borges has established a strong dialogue with these high-vis protestors and her reports, often shot on iPhone, were made into a special documentary.

The yellow vests, along with political Eurosceptics like Farage and Europhiles like the curtain-haired Verhofstadt, are all becoming part of “Europe’s town hall” – the great debate which Euronews seeks to host.

These elections and their aftermath should tell us whether the network, and the EU itself, have a long-term future.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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