by Peter Preston, chairman of the Preparatory Committee
Most journalists in Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond instinctively look to the USA: to New York, to Washington, to Hollywood. To the world of Watergate, Apple, HuffPost and Oscar. They define themselves, sometimes unconsciously, by the standards and achievements of what they see there. And thus they underestimate the job that they’re doing for the communities where they live and work. So this Brit pauses for a moment to think about the global players here at home, racking up hundreds of millions of unique visitors every month. Think of the Financial Times and the Economist wherever there’s business to be done. Think of European tech companies – Blendle in the Netherlands, Piano in Slovakia – trying to teach America how to make money on line. Think of Schibsted from Norway, defining media futures in 29 different countries. And then pause even longer, to read some of the journalism that should make Europe itself feel proud.
When newspaper foundations from across the continent launched the European Press Prize three years ago, they hoped they were doing something that might, in time, have a Pulitzer aura to it: a benchmark of recognised quality. Perhaps that’s still part of the mix. But my job with the prize, chairing the committee that orders translations and reads everything, gradually reducing the latest crop of entries – 346 of them from 36 different countries this year – down to a couple of dozen or so, sparks a rather different realisation.
Simply, this Europe, our Europe, is already one of journalism’s treasure troves (often disguised by language, tradition, national borders). But if you piece the news and the views together, creating a pattern of experience, then an unexpected Europe suddenly surfaces: a Europe of spiky comment and relentless investigation, a Europe that pays scant obeisance to Brussels and declines to suffer fools or knaves in office gladly.
What are the great press stories of the last twelve months? One of them – a dominant theme – is the joining of digital forces to voyage far beyond anything Woodward or Bernstein could imagine. It was the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, 64 reporters and data analysts in 26 different European countries, that pounded the terminals and the pavements – and showed, in damning detail, how Luxembourg provides both a president of the European Commission and the tax shelters that multinationals love. (It’s the same ICIJ which has started 2015 by stripping away the secrecy inside HSBC Switzerland and tipping hundreds of tax evaders into plain sight).
It was another band of ten from six separate countries who joined forces to compile the most heartbreaking of “migrant files” – men, women and children from Africa and the Middle East lost at sea on their desperate treks to reach Europe. Reporters from four countries produced the definitive chart which shows how money and influence flows back and forth from the office of the seemingly eternal president of Belarus. And, tellingly, on a smaller scale, there are investigations that rock the fabric of governance systems in the Balkans and beyond.
And it’s here that national perspectives become a kaleidoscope. British politicians, at election time, may rise full of fury over rich men who’ve slipped a few hundred thousand to a rival party – and saved themselves a little tax or bought themselves a modest knighthood along the way. But these are, frankly, the kind of scandals that stop short at the frontier – because, over that frontier, other consuming horrors take over. The latest EPP investigations show us how Russian money in need of laundering finds its way to Moldova, because a bank there claims restitution for supposed bad debts, then passes to Latvia en route to a wider Europe: how the long-standing prime minister of Montenegro took the high road to EU membership, then fell in a ditch when reporters snapped at his heels: how Bulgaria still swims in a murky sea of corruption: how the Kremlin habitually funds right-wing politicians far and wide in order to stir maximum dissent: how mobile phones are a licence to print money if you’re big cheeses in Azerbailjan: how even the church has ways of making a profit in Armenia.
These aren’t tales of petty skimmings. They are revelations that shake the fabric of national politics and shout for Brussels intervention (unless, as can also be documented, Brussels is part of the problem). Their handicap is that they emerge, after much brilliant digging, in one out of the 47 countries that the Council of Europe calls home. But they still shake the world in ways that American state and city politics can’t. Trouble in New Jersey or Houston is one finite thing; trouble in Greece – like trouble across the other Balkan states, Archduke Franz Ferdinand – is rather different.
None of this means that reporting Europe doesn’t look out beyond its borders. There are vivid, revelatory filings from Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. But it’s when one bit of Europe reports on another that eyes open widest. Last year a brave young Russian journalist won the main reporting prize for his stories from Crimea; this year another Russian correspondent, Elena Kostyuchenko, is the most vivid of eye witnesses as a distraught Russian wife searches desperately for the body of her soldier husband, brought back from the Ukraine in a freezer lorry packed with corpses and buried now in the graveyard of bureaucracy. Pieces like this – whether they’re prize winners or not – add something special to the raw casualty figures and raw rhetoric of war on Europe’s eastern border. They show you that there is still fine journalism – from New Times, from Novaya Gazeta – inside Russia. They show you that the Kremlin doesn’t micro-manage some desultory killing machine from Moscow Central. They tell us, east and west, that ordinary, fallible human beings are caught up with the carnage.
Prizes, in their way, are incidental to all this. They are means of showing what journalists from Oslo to Madrid can achieve. They expose the most stunning mobile phone scam in Norway. They follow Colombian army foot soldiers as they murder innocent civilians, then dress them in guerrilla outfits in order to claim a bounty. A Pulitzer tag as a kite mark of quality? Somehow the short listed this year – and, to be fair, the scores of terrific entries waiting just behind – seem to make that a redundant dream. We are where we are – and we can, I think, be truly proud of that.