European Institute for the Media

(When EIM Founder Prof George Wedell died in 2020, this is what I wrote in a Facebook post. Putting it here to keep it together with my newsletter writings, as there is a connection).

11 March 2020. Prof George Wedell died last week, and the London School of Economics has an obituary with some background on his ‘distinguished career in communication and education,’ as does the Guardian. I just wanted to add some memories of my own.

Prof George Wedell is on the left, in the EIM conference room.

How did I end up at the European Institute for the Media?

In 1992 I had already finished art school and was about to finish university with a literature degree, and I had no idea what to do next.

I had been sampling all kinds of courses at university and postponing the moment of graduation as long as I could. I edited the magazine for the international student association, went on a student exchange to Boston University, and took an advanced history course there. Back in Tilburg, I took a course on European law offered by Prof Frans Alting von Geusau, all the while plotting my escape from the world of art and literature.

Alting von Geusau kindly put me in touch with Odile Chenal at the European Cultural Foundation, who forwarded my letter, describing a student with an art and literature background and looking for something to do, to Prof George Wedell.

Manchester, Düsseldorf, Europe

I met Prof. Wedell in Brussels for a brief meeting in my best art school outfit. Soon after, I arrived in Manchester as a student intern at the European Institute for the Media, a grand name for a group of academics in a run-down building at the University of Manchester.

I found a place to stay in Longsight. Across the street was the ‘’cricket club’’, a pub where my housemates and I went for big glasses of ‘’lager & lime’’, bingo, and pub quizzes. We even went to the dog races once. It was a world completely new to me on all levels.

My first humble task: organize the move of the Institute from Manchester to Düsseldorf, make lists for the removal company and coordinate the grand opening event seen in the picture below.

I had meetings at the Staatskanzlei with civil servants who had no computers or typewriters on their desks. They dictated their correspondence, and the secretaries who typed it out were on a different floor.

George Wedell, Francisco Pinto Balsemão, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, me in the blue dress at the opening of the European Institute for the Media in Düsseldorf in 1992.

Later, I was tasked with organizing the European Television and Film Forum, an international gathering that would take place in Sevilla, Liege, Crete, Prague, and Lisbon over the years. With meetings all over Europe, I often traveled somewhere twice a month.

Working with Prof. Wedell

For a few years, I worked closely with Prof. Wedell, though he was not an easy man to work with. As a colleague of mine put it, he could be ‘’mercurial and overbearing.’’ He once fired me on the spot because someone else had left a coffee cup in the main conference room just before a meeting. The next day, he pretended nothing had happened, and so did I. I had no intention of leaving.

I stayed with the EIM for five years, first in Manchester, then later in Düsseldorf. (Van Dusseldorp in Düsseldorf, and living on Düsselstrasse, I kid you not).

The EIM did relevant work at the right time: the commercial television market was developing across Europe with new challenges for regulators. The European Platform of Regulatory Authorities (EPRA) was founded at ‘’my’’ TV Forum and still exists today.

Elections were held in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, with the EIM setting up a monitoring unit for media coverage in these countries. I think Prof. Wedell had plenty to be proud of, even though the EIM eventually closed, two directors later, through lack of funding.

Board of Governors

What mattered more, perhaps, is what Prof. Wedell put together, not in research, not in buildings and institutions, and projects, but in people. He pulled together this completely fascinating group of Europeans.

For instance, the Board of Governors. I took the minutes of their meetings, met them at the events I helped organize, and traveled through Europe with them.

The Board was led by Francisco Pinto Balsemão, former Prime Minister of Portugal and founder of the commercial TV channel SIC, Joan Majó i Cruzate, who had been a Spanish Minister of Industry and Energy, and Anthony Pragnell, former secretary of the UK Independent Television Authority. I worked directly with Claude Contamine, a French TV executive who constantly sent me out into the world to the TV markets in Cannes and other events. In his words, ‘’you have to get to know people in this industry’’.

One year I traveled to Slovenia with Sir Frank Roberts, who must have been well into his eighties at the time: Sir Frank had been an advisor to Churchill. In fact, the cover of his autobiography ‘’Dealing with Dictators’’ pictures him at the Yalta conference with Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt.

1945 Yalta conference with Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. Sir Frank is standing to the left of Churchill.

Sir Frank and I had to take a flight, a bus, and a taxi to get to our destination. I listened closely to his conversation with our driver. He was so interested, friendly and curious about learning how the man’s life had changed since the wall came down. He even enquired about the current price of a loaf of bread. There I was, on a bus in Slovenia, observing Sir Frank’s inquisitive mind and taking note of how incredibly friendly he was.

The Team

Anyway, the reason to write this post is to highlight something that seemed logical at the time – but I only really appreciate it now, 25 years later.

There I was, with my arts and literature degree, working night and day to pull together media conferences. Who were my colleagues?

They were a Hungarian lawyer, an American movie buff, a Russian journalist, the former head of news of Sarajevo television, a French army officer, a Ukrainian project manager, someone straight out of Oxford with a classics degree, a French caterer, and of course lots and lots of media researchers from all over Europe.

Most people worked at the EIM for only a few years and then left. We were young, and we became friends. Ildiko and her family took care of me when I was lonely in Manchester. In Düsseldorf, I was proud to become godmother to Elena’s son and flew to Kyiv for his baptism. There were dinner parties, office parties, and leaving parties. We wrote farewell songs, teasing the person leaving. We picnicked on the Rhine banks, and we took a boat trip to Koblenz. We worked for many hours, and we hung out for many evenings.

The EIM team at the European T & Film Forum, World Expo Seville 1992.

Point zero

Facebook and LinkedIn show that some of us went on to do wonderful things – work that strengthens the European media landscape in the way Prof. Wedell must have intended. Others carved out a different path – movie maker, war correspondent, corporate finance lawyer, sports rights specialist, author, and teacher.

Some, like me, continued similar work in a different setting. Looking back you can draw direct lines to what I have done since that first job 25 years ago: putting together conferences and events about the changing media, technology, innovation, and the way we convey the world to each other. But looking back, there are always lines between the beginnings and the present.

Prof. Wedell’s death reminded me of that time right at the start – with no lines at all, and no idea what would come next.

My impression is that Prof. Wedell created point zero for many of us. As a committed European, he was keen to get a really diverse group of people together – but that diversity stretched beyond nationality, it also was a diversity of skills and character. And as a result, many of us got a break and a chance that we would not have gotten anywhere else. We were not always qualified for the work we were hired to do, which somehow delighted us. We worked so hard to prove we could do it.

Whether you came straight out of university or had just escaped a civil war, the formal qualifications were deemed irrelevant. He got himself a motley crew of curious people, and by actually treating us not too well, he also sent us on our way once we had built up some confidence. All in all, he gave us the opportunity to make something of ourselves.

So here’s to you, Professor Wedell – a very late but warm thank you. I am sorry I did not write this to you when you were alive…and my apologies for those cups in the conference room.