Slip sliding away

I’ve been a bit lax about the blog this week – I was out of the office at the beginning of the week, struck down by the lurgy. Still, no excuse really. And today is my last day in the office before Christmas. I’m taking some extra time in the New Year, so won’t be back at my desk until 14 Jan, though I am on duty over Christmas, so am hoping it will be quiet! I was on duty over Christmas a few years ago (2003 f I remember well) and got woken up the first day by someone from Bloomberg asking if the Commission had a comment on the discovery of BSE in the US. Cue a day of totally manic rushing around, TV interviews and a phone semi-permanently clamped to the side of my head. The funniest thing was that I had got dressed very quickly and not really taken notice of what I was putting on, until the TV cameras turned up and I realised I was wearing a T-shirt that said “Regret nothing, Deny everything”! Had to cover that up pretty quickly!

Anyway, best wishes for Christmas and New Year to my own version of Mrs Trellis of North Wales, and I look forward to taking up the keyboard again in 2009.

Local hero(es)

I attended an interesting meeting this morning at the Westminster Media Forum, on the future of local media. I missed the beginning, and am not sure what the rules it was done under, so won’t go into too much detail about who said what. But it was extremely interesting. It focused on issues of delivery (there was a fairly mind-blowing session by some top bod at Ofcom about spectrum allocation, which was liberally sprinkled with acronyms!) and also content. There was someone from an organisation called mysociety.org which is definitely worth knowing about. A source of information for any journalist, but especially ones looking at local issues. Another speaker raised an issue that I think is very topical: How will the rise in User Generated Content, on-line information etc impact on the “watchdog” role of journalists – the role they play in holding public authorities, businesses and others to account?

It did get me thinking (you’ll be surprised to hear…) about the terms we use. Like here, you might conceive of a hierarchy of local/regional/national/European. But so many things that we deal with are regional or national stories without ever being national. Not just in terms of the work with do with local bodies to fund local projects, but also thinks like fishing quotas, or electronic identification of sheep or ship dismantling. That was why I wanted to go along to the event, and why someone in our team will from next year be looking at developing our services for local media.

We had our Christmas reception last night, with lots of the people we’ve worked with during the year there. For the press section that meant our media monitoring people, the Foreign Press Association, the Association of European Journalists, past team members (both recent and longer ago), people from the Arsenal Double Club, working journalists (Brian Hanrahan added a bit of celebrity to the event!),a couple of guys from the National Theatre. I also met some new people – a researcher working on a European project, a nice Dutch woman from a think-tank and a somewhat over-exuberant architect! It was a really pleasant evening, and also crazy to see how many people there are working in this fairly niche area that I just don’t know!

Music is my radar

I got tickets for the Blur gig in July – yippee! One of the benefits of being an O2 customer – you get priority bookings for gigs at the O2, or ones they are involved in. It’s how I got Metallica tickets for March, which I’m going to with my brother – ROCK!

I had my first ever OU tutorial last night, as part of my Spanish course. It was a little chaotic, but certainly good to be with others, and getting feedback on accent, pronunciation and so on. Afterwards I went for a beer (or two ahem) with one of the other students – great to get out with new people and spread my social wings, so to speak.

A colleague introduced me to Google Reader today. A little slow to catch on I know, but a very useful tool. One of the reasons I was recruited to this position (I think) was for my interest in “new media”, and we will be working on improving our services to journalists and the public through web-based media, as well as continuing our support to papers, TV and radio. But as so many of the articles I linked to yesterday said (or implied), the boundaries are getting increasingly blurred. So we in the Commission need to address that more directly. Anyway, if anyone has any decent blogs to suggest, send me the link!

Brussels is the focus of the day, with the summit going on, so it’s quite quiet here. We did have an announcement today about clawing back around £80 million of agriculture money that has been mis-spent by the UK authorities, mainly for not meeting farm payment deadlines. Are we going to see parity between the euro and the pound? That’d be all very well for friends visiting me here, but it’s terrible news for the many retired British people living in Spain, France and elsewhere in the EU (and I’ll declare an interest – that includes my parents), whose pensions are paid in pounds and are seeing it slip away. What with the low interest rate, the problems in financial markets and now this, it does seem as if past financial prudence (saving, investing in pension funds and all those things we were told we should do) is being punished. Hardly the message we should be sending out, I would say.

You take me up

Reading through This Week, I saw the most hilarious present, for the person who has everything (including a hamster): a little car operated by ham-power. Now, how can that not put a smile on your face! I reckon it belongs on one of my favourite websites  Cute Overload, with pictures of, well, cute things. It’s a real pick-me-up: 2 minutes scrolling through at the beginning of the day can wipe out the horror of a London commute immediately, setting me up perfectly for what’s to come. 

The Week is an interesting publication, a digest of the week’s news home and abroad that does seem to aim for objectivity, or at least balance.  In line with my newly-developed sense of scepticism about information (check where the publishing comes from), I decided to look into who is behind it. Dennis Publishing started in computer magazines and are publishers of Maxim, which does make you wonder where The Week fits in, given the focus of the rest of their stable on the male 18-34 demographic. having said that, Felix Dennis was an editor of Oz, so that may go some way to explaining it.

One of the reasons I like it is the fact that it covers a lot of stories from around the world that rarely get reported here. Have you ever listened to the BBC News on Radio 4 late at night and then caught the World Service? You’d think you were living in two parallel universes! For example, last week hundreds of people were killed in Christian/Muslim clashes in Nigeria, something I just hadn’t heard before. And I have news channels on throughout the working day. Here’s something I don’t understand about these news channels – yes, there’s a 24 hour news culture, but it only covers a few stories a day. If you have one of these channels on for the whole working day, by the evening you are suffering severe deja vu from seeing the same stories and interviews over and over and over again. And yet there are things going on that never make the news that I’m sure people would be interested in knowing. There’s been quite a bit in Private Eye and such outlets about the job cuts at BBC News and the effect that has had on quality, and I think this is all part of the same problem – just not enough people dedicated to doing the job properly.

This came up over in Brussels last week – the example was journalists based in Brussels covering everything the Commission, Council and Parliament are doing, plus stories coming out of NATO, and anything on the domestic Belgian scene (I know a  lot of them had to cover Dutroux all those years ago). So do they have the time to really get into any of these stories? Or do they become dependent on press releases and PR? It might be what I do, but as a reader/viewer/listener, I can’t be happy about such a situation. And the same is true domestically. There’s also the internet effect – rather than writing one article for the paper, correspondents have to write one for the paper, one for on-line, a personal blog, answer comments… There are some really big changes coming up in the media scene, and work for several PhD theses on the future role of journalism, I reckon. I’m enjoying reading Peter Wilby on these kind of issues: his post on Georgia is a real case in point.

Update: Was just reading Time and came across this article on the same subject. Wouldn’t have picked it up without the paper version though…

Update 2: It’s like when you hear a song for the first time and then hear it every where you go: got an e-mail from the LSE just now with this gem in it.

Driving away from home

Great article by Philip Stephens in today’s FT on the euro. There’s been a lot of hysteria in the press, particularly the bits that don’t like the EU much, but this was a good balanced piece. I don’t think anyone wants the UK to join tomorrow (frankly, it doesn’t meet the criteria), but surely ruling out membership for ever on principle, even when it is right, is just as damaging as wanting the UK to join on principle, even when it isn’t right? Some of that famed British pragmatism would be useful round about now.

Finally, FINALLY, my car is in the garage getting the dented wing replaced and I have an immense Audi A6 as a replacement car (reminds me of the – probably apocryphal – story of the GPS system that told a woman in Belgium to “suivre l’A6″ so she followed the Audi that had been in front of her at the lights…).  It’s only taken over 3 months for them to get around to it…absolutely incredible.

I’ve had a great flurry of people from my past getting in touch with me on Facebook – what a great invention that is! Jennifer Sinclair, who was a good friend of mine at university, just signed me up as a friend, and it was great hearing about her new life in New York with her husband and kids. And then today Kim, who I met doing my Erasmus term in Leiden, and who I shared a flat with in London for about 6 months, got in touch. Weird that all this happens as I come back to london – the place I knew lots of these people. It’s as if Brussels was a bubble that I’ve now burst. How different would life have been if I hadn’t gone? But then, I wouldn’t have done all the amazing things I did and met all the brilliant people I met, personally and professionally.

Turn out the light

Funny thing about writing a blog…I didn’t write on Friday because it was so quiet, and then today I’ve only now got round to writing because it’s finally quietened down. It’s a real case of finding the fine line between having something to say AND the time to write about it!

Today has been so busy because we had two Commissioners in town (one being the President) and a group of journalism students who are off to Brussels. One of the team was out all day with Hubner, one managing the President’s press programme, and one was off sick all morning. So I was left holding the fort, faxing the press articles to Brussels, getting things ready for the students and answering the phones. Still, it all worked out in the end and was less stressful than I thought it was going to be. The students are on the train, the president has left the building and I have no idea how Hubner is doing but I hope she had fun!

I like a day when we have a really tangible action-oriented story. Today we can announce plans are going ahead to phase out old-style “incandescent” light-bulbs (a phrase which just makes me think of lots of really annoyed lightbulbs on our shop shelves…) by 2012, to replace them with more energy-efficient bulbs. It is estimated that this will save 15 million tons of Co2 a year. 15 million tons!! If something so simple can save so much, it does make you think about where else you can make differences in your life.  If we all turn appliances off, instead of leaving them on standby, unplug chargers when we’ve used them and switch off lights when we’re not in the room, we can make a huge difference. I guess it’s that Camusian thing of focusing on how individuals can make a difference, rather than abdicating responsibility and expecting others to fix it for us. And you can save money too, something my Scottish heritage always sees as a good thing!

Christmas is coming…

Isn’t it just. I suppose now that it is actually December it’s allowed, but it does seem to have snuck up a bit – where did November go?! Anyway, here’s a little bit of Christmas cheer from the London rep:  showcasing the best in young film talent from around the EU, an interactive advent calendar.

I was just in Brussels for a few days with a group of journalism students who were interested in finding out about how the EU works. It was great to be back and to see friends and colleagues, but there was no regret about the decision to come and work here at the Rep – any regret I did feel was for not being able to see my great friends more often. The students seemed to get a lot out of it, and they got access to some really good people while there, as well as having a day on the streets of Brussels talking to people about the role of the EU in that city.

The run-up to the end of the year is getting pretty packed, with Christmas events, of course, but also getting things finalised here budget-wise, several top-level visits and trying to organise things for a smooth start to 2009.

Melamine – new measures taken

The Commission will take measures to ban the import from China of food for infants and young children containing soya and soya products, after high levels of melamine were recently found in Chinese soy bean meal. Competent authorities in the Member States will have to test all other feed and food containing soya and soya products originating from China before allowing imports. Only feed and food containing less than 2.5 milligrams of melamine per kilo (mg/kg) will be allowed into the EU.     

The Commission was recently informed by the Member States through the Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food (RASFF) that high levels of melamine have been found in soy bean meal imported from China.

 

In 2007, the EU imported about 68 000 tonnes of various soya products or products containing soya for a total value of about 34 million euros. The list includes products such as soya beans, soya bean flour and meal, soya sauce and protein concentrates and textured protein substances.

The Commission initially adopted safeguard measures regarding melamine-contaminated products from China at the end of September. In particular, and in addition to the already existing ban on the import of Chinese milk and milk products into the EU, the Commission imposed an explicit total ban on all products for infants and young children containing any percentage of milk (infant formula, follow-on formula and other products). Furthermore, all composite products containing milk and milk products from China have to be tested for melamine before these can be placed on the EU market.