BLOG: How “Investigate Europe” came about

Investigate Europe team, as of July 2016. (Photo: Christophe Garach)
Investigate Europe team, as of July 2016. (Photo: Christophe Garach)

It happened in Ballyhea, a small Irish village in the countryside on the way from Limerick to Cork, where my bias was challenged by a most unexpected encounter.

Every Sunday morning, an old lady, probably in her 70s and around 100 other villagers were rallying against the bail-out of the creditors of Ireland’s bankrupt banks, which burdened the Irish state’s coffers with more than 60 billion Euros of debt to the other Euro zone states, the UK and the IMF.

I asked her what she thought about those Germans who believe they had rescued Ireland from bankruptcy in an act of European solidarity. She looked at me as if I were crazy, then shook her head and shouted: “You have saved us? No! Ireland has rescued Europe. Get that into their heads! Ireland guarantied bank’s debts. That has saved your banks and stopped the contagion. Ireland saved Europe and now we should be rewarded.”

The village of Ballyhea, March 1, 2015: Every Sunday after mass for five years (2011-2016), residents of this Irish village marched trough town in protest against the Irish state bailout of bondholders of Irish banks in the financial crisis. (Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen)
The village of Ballyhea, March 1, 2015: Every Sunday after mass for five years (2011-2016), residents of this Irish village marched trough town. They protested against the Irish state bailout of bondholders of Irish banks in the financial crisis, worth over 64 billion euros. (Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen)

This was the moment when I realised the dimension of mass media’s failure in Europe. Maybe the Euro crisis is one most striking example, but it happens every day: political and economic events and decisions affect the lives of people all over the continent, but most of our fellow Europeans are informed about this by media and journalists who report from a narrow national point of view, disregarding the bigger picture or failing to challenge their own biases.

ballyhea-says-no2So it was in the case of Irish banks and their – mostly German and French – creditors. And so it was also with the alleged rescue programmes for the other crisis countries.  When I started working at my first TV documentary about this issue in 2012, I quickly grew scared by my own ignorance. I wondered how the hell I could research all this complicated stuff in the two months at my disposal to prepare the shots. But when I visited Ireland, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus, I learnt that most of the information I was looking for had already been investigated by colleagues there. Most of it had even been published. However, their revelations about officials’ wrongdoings, corrupt bankers and transnational bureaucrats involved in murky practices had never left their own national realm. My main task became, thus, to ask friendly colleagues in the respective countries for their support, including source-sharing. Most of them were happy to help, not least because, by doing this, their work could add value and improve reporting in other parts of Europe. My job then was mainly to aggregate the information, find common patterns and produce a real European picture. The results were staggering! My understanding of European processes improved exponentially. This enabled me to challenge those in power who were taken by surprise and  it caused them quite some pain to produce an answer.

This is exactly what journalists should do: know more, ask better and hold those in power to account.

But as I (and surely many other colleagues) have experienced, on a European level it is nearly impossible to fulfil this task if you go it alone. Usually, one does not have either sufficient resources or enough time or both. So I started discussing  collaborative journalism with colleagues in crisis countries, meeting them in Brussels and at home. Step by step, the  idea was born: high quality European reporting needs not only occasional but  permanent cross border collaboration among journalists from all over the continent. The logical consequence was to try to establish a European team able to tackle complex European issues and publish simultaneously in as many EU countries as possible.

This, nevertheless, is not exactly how most editors and publishers usually want their reporters to operate. So it took some time to find the colleagues who have enough experience, are available and have the guts to take part in this experiment. It took even longer to look for donors who believe in our concept and are ready to fund it with no editorially strings attached. When members finally got together for a kick-off meeting in Brussels, something fascinating happened: we noticed how different the journalistic cultures we come from are. But by sharing our stories and family history with each other, we also realised, at a very personal level, that our common values are much stronger than our differences.

Of course, this is still an experiment and a leap of faith. Journalists are trained as lone and competitive wolves who protect their sources and the exclusivity of their findings. Now we must learn to think and work as a team and share our sources and results in order to create the synergies needed for credible regional journalistic results. Currently we only have funds for a six-month pilot phase to prove that our concept works.

We may fail. But I am proud to take part in the trial.