Belgium’s public broadcasts: ‘living together apart’ [radio piece]

Going home for the holidays, I took the time to produce a couple of stories on my home country Belgium. The following story was broadcasted on 23 January 2012 on the online radio Monocle 24. Take a few minutes of time to listen!

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(Broadcasted by Monocle 24 on the programme ‘Culture with Rob Bound’ on 23 January 2012.)

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What happens to a federal country when its public broadcasting services drift apart?

Belgium’s two public broadcasts share a large, concrete building called the Reyerslaan, at the border of the capital Brussels. The Flemish broadcasting organisation VRT serves the six million Dutch-speaking Belgians. The French-speaking broadcaster RTBF serves the other four million.

Living ‘together apart’, one could say. The Reyerslaan is split by a language border, running from start till end of the building. In front of the main entrance, journalists smoke a cigarette all together. But when walking in, French-speaking and Dutch-speaking employees go their separate ways. “Luckily we can still share the ashtrays,” a journalist has a laugh at the situation out front.

Tensions between Belgium’s two language communities gradually rose in the last five years. And the media had its share of disagreements. Blaming each other’s coverage of being biased is rather common in this divided country. And then there’s the occasional quarrels, such as the one on the fake news bulletin “Bye Bye Belgium” by RTBF, that stirred up a national debate.

It gets hot and heavy at the Reyerslaan, from time to time.

Deadlock constellation

The widening gap in public opinions -with the media at its core- caused a political deadlock. Following the elections of June 2010, the negotiating parties took 541 days to form a government -a new world record that will not be easily broken.

Politicians failed to listen to one another. But what is to be expected of a country where the public broadcasts cover almost solely news from their own community? Or almost exclusively have their own politicians in the studio?

“We look at what happens in Flanders, but we treat the issues only when it has a big impact on society,” political journalist of the RTBF Johanne Montay acknowledges. “We only select what we think will interest our own audience.”

Political scientist and commentator Dave Sinardet has been studying this media gap for quite a while. He explains: “In Belgium, the competence on media is completely attributed to the communities. Other federal, multilingual countries such as Switzerland or Canada have at least some sort of common structure for its public broadcasting services. In Belgium, this doesn’t exist anymore.”

“You could say there’s some kind of democratic deficit, because of the selection of politicians that feature on both broadcasters. Also, the coverage of one community often shows a simplified image of the other side,” Sinardet adds. “There’s a generalisation and simplification, leading to distorted views of the other community.”

From crisis to opportunity

The political crisis also brought media closer together, though. “When spending long nights in the cold during the government negotiations, we got to know our fellow journalists from VRT a bit more”, French-speaking journalist Christophe Deborsu says.

“In fact, it’s an advantage to work next to each other. We work separately, but we’re not in a state of competition. We can exchange without any problem.” Deborsu personifies this exchange. Since a couple of years, he hops from one side to the other at the Reyerslaan. He’s the expert on Flanders down at RTBF, and the expert on Wallonia for the VRT.

Some journalists exchange mails and phone calls to inform one another on what’s going on at the other side of the language border. “We see more and more cooperation,” Deborsu expresses his hope. “That’s a significant change, compared to five years ago.”

However, the ties remain restricted to personal contacts. “It’s probably not easy to change the structural divide,” Dave Sinardet says. “The logic of these broadcasts is embedded in the way they are organised. They have no structural ties anymore, whatsoever.”

“We could have one restaurant,” Johanne Montay laughs. “I would have no problem eating what the Flemish cook prepares. But then again, how do you divide the costs between both communities?”

Bridging gaps in Belgium is not to be underestimated…

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Monocle 24 is an online radio station, broadcasting international news, features and stories 24/7. With a smooth, classy touch to it. The radio station was launched in October 2011 -all fresh, that is- and is linked to the magazine Monocle. Don’t hesitate to switch on to their online player, or download their podcasts in iTunes. The programmes ‘The Globalist’ or ‘The Monocle Weekly’ would be my recommendations!

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About laurenscerulus

AKA reporter for Deutsche Welle, The Independent, Monocle24... AKA editor @ youropa.org FKA trainee journalist @ BBC World Service, Monocle, De Morgen, MO* FKA foreign editor @ Veto student newspaper, Belgium. FKA student of modern history @ KULeuven | international relations @ UCLouvain.

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