Sure, the timing is off, but promotional films like these will be used as of today to promote Belgium in view of its upcoming EU presidency.

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Leave it to the Guardian to put BHV into perspective. For once and for all, the Belgian government collapsed over this issue:

The cause of the collapse is the vexed issue known as BHV, shorthand for the electoral district encompassing Brussels and 35 surrounding municipalities. In a political system that assiduously insists on votes being cast purely on linguistic lines – you can’t vote for a French-speaking party in Flanders and vice versa – Brussels is the bilingual exception.

BHV is the sole electoral district of 11 in Belgium where you can choose between Dutch- or French-speaking politicians and parties. The 35 municipalities on the outskirts of Brussels are Flemish, but increasingly populated by French-speakers moving out of the city while still voting for francophone politicians in Brussels. The Flemish parties have long agitated for an end to the exception and the strict enforcement of linguistic apartheid, while francophone politicians lobby to create a new corridor of French-speaking territory from Brussels through surrounding Flanders to Wallonia in the south.

Ian Traynor, The Guardian

In the news today: Belgium bans Islamic veil, the country is at war and oh yes, the government has fallen. Again.

Story update (4 March 2010): Nigel Farage has been disciplined by EU Parliament President Jerzy Buzek for his remarks against Van Rompuy. However, he refuses to apologize to Van Rompuy and instead basks in his new found notoriety to the fullest. It’s called making a name for yourself.

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Critical discourse moments are socially relevant events that raise public awareness on particular issues. Take Nigel Farage’s vicious toast of EU President Herman Van Rompuy today in the European Parliament.

A “damp rag”? A “low-grade bank clerk” from a “non-country” who’s “the quiet assassin of European democracy and of European nation states”? Yowsa. Critical discourse moments do not come much juicier than this.

Source: BBC News

This is a précis of a research interview conducted at the Brussels newsdesk of the Financial Times (8 Feb. 2010).

“It would be easiest if you could come to my office”. And so I travel to Brussels to meet the Financial Times’ Brussels bureau chief. “Oh, he’s out I’m afraid, but Stanley is in” says the secretary. “He’s our Brussels correspondent. Perhaps you can interview him?” Ah, serendipity my friend, how have you been?

Stanley Pignal is a business reporter who made international headlines (and landed himself a FT contract) by unmasking Jérôme Kerviel as the rogue trader who cost French investment bank Société Générale a pretty penny. I introduce myself and tell him I have a research interest in the media representation of Flanders. He responds by outlining how the FT covers Belgium.

In addition to covering the major political and financial stories, the FT occasionally publishes a survey of Belgium.

When asked how the FT covers Flanders, Stanley says:

Commenting on his own coverage of Belgium as the paper’s Brussels correspondent, Stanley notes that he’s “written maybe three of four stories about Belgium”

Interestingly, one of the longer stories was on the (ongoing) Belgian-Dutch dredging dispute (“how complicated is it to actually take care of this river?”):

Conversely, notoriously complex news stories like BHV are simply “not of interest”:

Other stories that make the cut have to do with employment in Flanders:

Despite a stated concern about media coverage by the Flemish government, I was surprised to learn that the Flemish government do not view foreign media as a high priority, as opposed to the federal government:

Mud-filled, “corpse-clogged” trenches and desolate, gloomy grasslands, inhabited by dairy cattle and blood-red poppies.  The sound of big guns, the smell of  gunsmoke, the fear of bombs and mustard gas.  No man’s land.  Carnage.  Wargraves.  The unreal contrast between a peaceful, even drowsy rural landscape and the nightmarish, even hellish mudbath during the First World War.  At first sight, it turns out to be one of the most striking representations of Flanders in the British press.  This particular image was, among other things, established by one particular poem, written by the Canadian military doctor John McCrae in 1915.  His eyewitness report would become world-famous:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below. / We are the dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow / Loved, and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders fields.                                                                                                                                                                                                   Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw  / The torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

The heritage of the Great War, and the heroism of the British veterans in Flanders fields  in particular, are deeply embedded in British patrimony.  For example, every year during Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday of November), wreaths of plastic poppies are laid on the graves of war victims as a token of respect for these brave-hearted soldiers.  Many Britons still travel to the West Flemish town Ypres (Dutch: Ieper) and its surroundings to visit the relics of the battle scene in which their ancestors lost their lifes.  Images such as “Flemish fields” and “in the trenches of Flanders” apparently start to lead a life on their own, and are used as analogies or even metaphors in the case of ‘infernal’ war scenes.  The humanly disgraceful circumstances in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, for example.  As Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent of The Independent, writes in one of his columns: “On Armistice Day [a synonym of Remembrance Day, BV] last month, I was struck – like thousands of Belgians in the streets of Ypres – by the lonely figure of 18-year-old Craig Wood as he was pushed his wheelchair towards the Menin Gate.  His legs, blown off by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, stood for all those legless, armless men who returned from Flanders and the Somme.”  Michael White, former political editor of The Guardian, makes a similar comparison in his opinion piece ‘History suggests we should quit Afghanistan, but should we?’: “Except in Northern Ireland and among those old enough to remember the Blitz (the first V2 rocket landed barely a mile from my west London bus stop in 1944) few British civilians can remember the fear of bombs and battle.  It all seems far away.  So did the Flanders trenches in 1914-18, though when the wind was right people in Kent could hear the sound of the big guns.”       

Mudbaths, (battle)fields and suffering.  These  concepts are constants in the description of the Flemish war scene in the British newspapers.  It is certainly an exaggerated and somewhat inappropriate comparison, yet it has to be noticed that these elements also constitute the main ingredients of cyclocross, a sport which is mainly (and – to be honest – almost exclusively) popular in … Flanders.  Marthein Smit and Karolien Knols, a photographer and a reporter of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, respectively, describe the main protagonists of this cycling event as “zwoegende rijders, van kop tot kont onder de modder” (English translation: ‘plodding cyclists, covered with mud from top to toe’).  Coincidence or not?  Are these concepts really archetypes of Flanders?  Are they inextricably connected to the representation of Flanders abroad?  At first sight, it seems so.  

A last argument in favour of the comparison between Flemish battlegrounds and cyclism is this beautiful subdued promotion picture of the Flemish popular newspaper Het Nieuwsblad as a result of the Tour of Flanders last year.  Cobblestones, ominous grey clouds, drowsy rural hamlets shrouded in mist, and so on: they are all present.  Enjoy!

The Guardian ran a ‘luxury break’ competition recently. “You and a friend could experience European chic in style”. This is how the advertorial describes Flanders:

Flanders is one of Europe’s hidden gems. Home to stunning architecture, fantastic art, great food, brilliant bars and chic fashion boutiques, it has something for everyone.

And there’s loads to explore – the Flemish-speaking area of Belgium encompasses such delights as Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Leuven, Mechelen, and Ostend and its coast. If you love city breaks, you’ll love Flanders.

There’s a video demonstrating just how European chic Flanders is. To many people, Flanders is incredibly dull. Jeremy Clarkson thinks so. When I lived in the States, some of my friends thought Flanders was a socialist hell hole. Flanders is also often associated with the right wing reputation of Vlaams Belang. What images, stereotypes, jokes, etc do you associate with Flanders?

In a 2,500 word opinion piece in The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell opens with:

Ever since it was carved by treaty out of the Dutch, French, and German borderlands after the Napoleonic wars, Belgium has been an odd kind of country–short on space, sunlight, and national identity.

This is an interesting read and firmly grounds the media representation of Belgium in political turmoil, linguistic conflict, cultural stereotypes and economic (in)stability.

This picture by Houbi is reproduced under a Creative Commons license.

Flanders in the foreign press: a discursive analysis of the news production process

This two-year research project examines the representation of Flanders in the foreign press. How do European newspapers report on Flanders? Which processes (information flows) channel this news coverage? By studying the production contexts, this project sets out to generate ethnographically grounded knowledge about the media representation of Flemish public  and cultural diplomacy. Methodologically, a combination of corpus analysis and fieldwork is employed. First, we analyze a corpus of news reports from The Netherlands, the UK, France and Germany around a number of Flemish ‘critical discourse moments’ (the credit crisis in Belgium, the 2008 government formation, the nursery killings in Dendermonde). Next, we conduct ethnographic interviews and fieldwork among some of the stakeholders in the news production process concerning Flanders: foreign correspondents, journalists, insitutions and socioeconomic governement agencies.