Rhetorical Legibility and Political Transparency: An Analysis of the 'Europarl' Web-Site

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

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1. On Hypertext
1.1. Historic Overview
1.2. Defining Characteristics of Hypertext

2. Transparency and Its Relevance for this Case Study

3. Analysis
3.1. First Impressions
3.2. Devices of Orientation
3.3. Composition
3.3.1. The Horizontal Axis
3.3.2. Composition and Ideology
3.3.3. The Vertical Axis
3.4. On the Importance of Links
3.5. Sudden Changes: Fulfilled Expectations?

4. Conclusion



This case study is analysing problems of two scientific disciplines. The text is based on a linguistic approach: Its concern is to deliver a rhetorical analysis of a new media text (or hypertext). By taking a closer look at an example of such texts – a web site –, the value of applying methods of rhetorical analysis to such a text shall be examined. The rhetorical analysis will turn the focus on the strategies which the designers of the web site employed in order to fulfil goals specifically connected to the web site’s origin and contents.

In order to deal with such strategies, their context demands consideration. Analysing the effects a web site’s contents and their representation have on the readers implies a demand to consider the contents themselves. In other words, without regarding what the web site is dealing with, it would be impossible to speculate about the aims which the authors of the web site pursued. This explains the need of an interdisciplinary approach for the study. The web site in question here will be that of the European Parliament (EP)[1]. The reason for this decision is the assumption that web sites designed to inform their readers about political institutions follow goals which are similar to those of images in advertising messages, as described by Roland Barthes:

“Because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible.” (Barthes 1977: 33)

As web sites representing political institutions should follow objects which are dealt with by political science, problems of this scientific discipline demand consideration. The objects might be informing the citizens about the policies of, in this case, the European Union (EU), or winning support for the European Parliament’s position within the institutional framework of the Union. These are only two possible signifieds of the product called “Europarl - The European Parliament Online”. More central to the approach chosen here, however, will be the term of transparency and its relevance for a proper representation of an institution like the European Parliament.

First of all, though, the question to what extend hypertexts (and especially web sites) are different from traditional texts demands clarification. In order to examine this type of texts, we must be able to recognise its characteristics and the chances it offers to both authors and readers.

1. On Hypertext

1.1. Historic Overview

The first call for something like hypertext arose as a result of the decreasing complexity of the world’s knowledge. This complexity caused difficulties concerning the organisation of research. Vannevar Bush argued that there is, on the one hand, “a growing mountain of research” and extending specialisation (Bush 1945: Section 1). On the other hand, he wrote that “our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old by now and totally inadequate for their purpose”. He added that “publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record” (ibid.). This is an argument also offered by Jacques Derrida (1974). He, like Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1960, found the linear arrangement of books too restricted to properly represent the variety of what was thought in their days (both quoted in Schmitz 1997: 15)

Almost 30 years ahead of Derrida’s remark, Vannevar Bush had imagined a new instrument of publishing and exchanging scientific research. The memex, a “sort of mechanized private file and library”, was intended to support selection of information by association (Bush 1945: Section 6). In contrast to selection by indexing, it was supposed to work as an “enlarged intimate supplement to his [= any individual’s] memory” (ibid.). But not only should the memex enable its user to store and to connect chunks of data, its purpose was also to exchange data between different users. Bush pointed out that in order to come to these goals, a new way of tying results together had to be found. This should be done by the users themselves: By building “trails”, every user would be able to gather bits of information in whatever way it suited himself best (ibid.: Section 7).

What is astonishing about Bush’s memex is that it works very similar to today’s personal computers once they are connected to the Internet and equipped with standard software like web browsers. The main conceptual difference is that Bush was not able to imagine the digital way of saving information, which led to certain storage problems he wanted to be solved by using “improved microfilm” (ibid.).

But what does this have to do with the topic, a rhetorical analysis of a web site? The answer is simple: Bush had a very early vision of what would later on become the electronic devices of exchanging information. These devices - e.g. hypertexts and the Internet - allow us to get within reach of large amounts of data within seconds and to build connections among the chunks of data we wish to connect (unlike Bush, though, we call these connections links and not trails). Thus, we are indeed able to select information by association, which allows us to gather information in a quicker, more flexible and more efficient way. These characteristics of hypertext change the way we perceive texts in electronic contexts which is important to have in mind when analysing this kind of text (ibid.).

1.2. Defining Characteristics of Hypertext

“The defining characteristics of this new information medium derive from its combination of blocks of text joined by electronic links, for this combination emphasizes multiple connections rather than linear reading or linear organization.” (Landow 1989: 39)

Many ideas and many new concepts of structuring and linking up information followed Bush’s article[2]. The most successful example of this is the world wide web, (WWW), where the “Europarl” web site can be found. Despite all technical differences between those concepts, they had one thing in common which is of high interest for this case study: They were not, in contrast to traditional texts, based on linearity. This lack is in itself the reason why these systems are in their way of functioning closer to the way the human mind works than traditional texts could ever be (ibid.)[3]. As Schmitz writes, computers enable us to illustrate connections within texts and between texts and other media more imminent than it could ever have been the case for traditionally printed texts (Schmitz 1997: 15).

This leads straight to another quality of hypertext which is important for the analysis of a web site: The fact that hypertext documents, although the Internet is text-oriented, consist of more than only text (Pott/Wielage 2000: 17). Hypertext allows authors to combine textual, graphic, sound and video information on one page (ibid.: 18). The computer serves as an instrument which is able to combine a high number of functions which were formerly associated with various media like books, typewriters, telephones, radios and many others (Schmitz 1997: 2). In short, hypermedia as the “amplification of hypertext that also incorporates sound and visual material […] links nonverbal as well as verbal information, and thereby creates more possibilities and more problems”, the most central one being the risk of confusing the readers (Landow 1989: 39).

Linking information offers an “enormous potential” (Landow 1989: 40), as authors can combine arguments, sources and whatever else they like in just the way they think it suits their argumentation best. This potential requires a “rhetoric of linking” (ibid.). For example, authors need to make clear to the readers where a link takes them and how they get back to where they come from – the authors need to offer orientation (ibid). On today’s web sites, readers will find all possible sorts of links: Links leading to advertisements, documents for further reading or related web sites are only three of uncountable examples. The more complex a system like the world wide web is, the more chances for finding information it offers. As every web site is a “semiotic unit” which is structured by “elements of visual composition”, authors should bear in mind the necessity to offer explicit means of orientation to the readers (Kress/van Leeuwen 1996: 185).

2. Transparency and Its Relevance for this Case Study

“The term transparency evokes an image of clear panes of glass through which sunshine (or light) can beam in an unrestrained fashion.” (Curtin 1998: 108)

The web site which will be analysed in this case study is the web site of the European Parliament (EP). The EU itself offered a reason why it is interesting to analyse the site and it pointed out what the analysis should focus on by expressing the aim of becoming more transparent (Declaration of Laeken: 2ff). This intention has been evolved by scientists as well as politicians who have come to the conclusion that the EU and its institutions are struggling with a lack of democratic legitimacy. This includes a lack of understanding by the people of what is done in their interest by those representing them[4]. Thus the members of the European Council agreed, in the Declaration of Laeken, to make the European Union more democratic, more transparent and more efficient (ibid.: 3) – in short, more citizen-friendly.

Transparency is an existential element of democratic government (Grimm 2003: 158). It is a precondition for the citizens’ participation in and their control of decision-making processes: “Without an adequate flow of information even ex post facto accountability of the governors to the people is meaningless” (Curtin 1998: 107). Consequently, we can expect the legislative institution which is by its election via direct and universal suffrage the direct representation of the citizens to properly inform these of what it is doing (Maurer 2002: 192). This is why it is worthwhile to examine the possibilities which are offered to investigate about the European Parliament.

There are various definitions of transparency. Basically, the term is, in the context of political science, translated as an easy access to documents. It also includes openness of decision-making-processes, for example access to institution’s meetings (Declaration of Laeken: 5). However, transparency cannot be granted without providing a chance to understand the institutions, their responsibilities and their specific ways of functioning (Grimm 2003: 158f.; Curtin 1998: 108). The EP web site is without doubt a source which is intended to provide such an understanding, as “the importance of the Internet for access to EU information is profound” (Thomson 1998: 6). Therefore, we should expect to find a web site which is relatively easy to use and to understand and which offers comprehensible links in order to provide a quick access to documents and other information.

The question if the web site fulfils these criteria is but one question this analysis is trying to answer. The other question is whether there is more to the web site. For example, does it try to manipulate the readers, to propagate political opinions or to win their acclamation for the EP? Such strategies will not present an assumption to begin with. However, they might occur in the analysis and will in such a case not be left unmentioned.

3. Analysis

The first step of the analysis will be to describe the starting page of “Europarl: The European Parliament Online” and to mention the expected functions of the various links (see App. 1). Following this general overview, there will be detailed examinations of specific problems. From what has been presented so far, it is worthwhile to try and find out to what extend the web site fulfils the expectation of a clear view which Deirdre Curtin formulated in a different context but which fits in here perfectly (see 2).

3.1. First Impressions

On the first glance, the web site looks fairly clearly structured. On top of the site, there is a general marker containing several features. There is the title “Europarl” which serves as a link (comp. 3.2). It also contains a little pop-up-menu enabling the reader to search for certain topics (“Find…”) and 13 links. Two of them are named “President” and “Political groups”. The remaining 11 links are intended to enable the reader to switch the web site to one of the EU’s official languages[5]. This general marker will remain mostly identical as long as the reader remains on the “Europarl” pages.

Below, we find an indicator in the shape of an arrow and the word “Europarl” again. This semiotic device was designed in order to give orientation about where the readers are and therefore it will also change a little once another “Europarl” sub-site is opened (comp. 3.2).

Following, there is what will here be called the verbal centre of the page[6]. Underneath the words “European Parliament” (which serve as a headline of the whole page), four categories are introduced on the left and in the middle of the site, each of them accompanied by an arrow-like icon: “Press”, “ABC”, “References” and “Activities”. These headlines are links, indicating the priorities according to which the contents of the page are arranged. The sub-categories which are listed below three of the four categories (“Press” being the exception[7] ) are links, too (e.g “Members of the European Parliament”, the first entry below “ABC”). Their type size is a little smaller but they are also underlined and in the same colour – blue - as the four headlines. Following these links takes the visitors to sections of the web site where specific information is dealt with.

But there is more to be seen on the starting page: There is what will be referred to as the virtual centre. In the upper middle and on the right hand side of the page, there are eight links in two groups of four which are specified by icons: “Who’s Who”, “Your Europarl”, “Observers” and “Fundamental rights Human rights” are in the first group. The second contains “Citizen’s Portal”, “The Future of Europe”, “Enlargement” and “Freedom, security and justice”. As they are highlighted by icons, it may be assumed that these links lead to information which is especially important in some way or another.

Furthermore, on the very right hand side of the page, there are devices allowing readers to switch to the languages of those countries which are candidates for membership in the European Union. Below these, in the lower right hand corner, there is another arrow-like icon, pointing to the top[8].

3.2. Devices of Orientation

This arrow, tiny as it is, is a very relevant link. It allows the readers to return to the page they come from by following it. As it offers orientation, it is as important as the link named “Europarl” which is included in the marker on top of the page. This link presents the possibility of returning to the home page from any of the “Europarl” sub-sites. Another equally important device is the little arrow combined with the word “Europarl” mentioned above, which also makes clear to readers “where they are” after leaving the home page (Landow 1989: 43): After opening one of the Europarl sub-sites, words are added in order to identify the page the readers are on. For example, “Who’s Who” and another arrow will be added to “Europarl” whenever readers open the “Who’s Who” page[9] (see App. 2). Serving the same purpose, the general marker on top of the page changes its colour according to the topic of the sub-site the readers have opened. However, it will remain the same or very similar in shape.

“Disorientation, then, arises when readers find themselves within a hypermedia system and feel that they do not know “where” they are and also when they are within a particular document and do not know how to return to a document read earlier or how to find one they expect exists or would like to exist. (Landow 1989: 43)

This passage underlines the significance of a neat and consistent style for hypertext-documents. It also shows why the elements mentioned above are so important: They are part of the “house style” which has been adopted for this web-site and which makes it recognisable as the “Europarl” web site whatever sub-site the readers are looking at (Goodman 1996: 41). The design of the link markers and the typefaces are further examples of the consistent house style which labels the “Europarl” web sites.

The verbal centre of the page provides a coherent overview to the readers, pointing out what is available on the different sub-sites and the way the information is arranged: “ABC”, “References” and “Activities” are intended to make clear to the readers that by following these links, they will find information on questions about the structural organisation of the EP (or on who is associated in what kind of way with the EP), information on why it is doing what it is doing (e.g. what its members are mainly concerned with) and finally on what the members of the EP are doing and how they are doing it.

3.3. Composition

In contrast, it is difficult to make sense of the combination of the verbal centre with the virtual centre of the web site. To begin with, the setting of priorities seems unclear. If it is in fact appearance which assigns coherence to a (screen-)page (Schmitz 1997: 16), then this assumption has not been taken into account properly here. It is neither unambiguous what the actual centre, the most salient part of the web site, consists of, nor of what nature the relation between the verbal and the visual centre is. To put it simple, the following question arises: What is more important – the icons with the links on the (upper) right or the topics which are divided into headlines and sub-headlines on the (lower) left? This can lead to confusion among the readers as they might be unsure about where to direct their attention.

It has been found that “composition […] relates the representational and interactive meanings of the picture to each other through three interrelated systems”: Information value, Salience and Framing (Kress/van Leeuwen 1996: 183). These principles of composition allow the authors of “composite visuals, visuals which combine text and image” (ibid.) to award certain degrees of meaning to elements of the page and thus to exert some control on the reader’s attention. Kress and van Leeuwen state in their definition of an integrated text that “the parts [of a page] should be looked upon as interacting with and affecting one another” (ibid.). It appears worthwhile to take a look at the system of information value and to examine the ways in which the parts of the “Europarl”-web site affect one another. As examples, especially the relevance of Left/Right and Top/Bottom structures are of interest to this paper, although Kress’ and van Leeuwen’s approach goes much further (ibid. ff.).

3.3.1. The Horizontal Axis

Kress and van Leeuwen point out that placing items on the left or the right of the horizontal axis applies different meanings to these elements: “The elements placed on the left are presented as Given, the elements placed on the right as New” (ibid.: 187). This means that on the left of the page the readers usually find what they already know, what is “[…] familiar and agreed-upon […]. For something to be New means that it is presented as something which is not yet known, or perhaps not yet agreed upon by the viewer, hence as something to which the reader must pay special attention. Broadly speaking, the meaning of the New is therefore ‘problematic’, ‘contestable’, ‘the information “at issue”’; while the Given is presented as commonsensical, self-evident” (ibid.).

Applying these results to the “Europarl” web-site means that the visual centre of the page presents the New and the verbal centre presents the Given. This approach gives a first explanation of the confusion mentioned above: The very middle of the web site is divided into two parts, a visual one and a verbal one. The visual part is the group of links with items on the top, the verbal part is the number of links listed below the headline “Activities”. This arrangement makes it difficult for the readers to differentiate between the verbal and the visual centre of the web site, thus between the New and the Given. It also indicates the relevance of taking a closer look at the vertical axis. But let us return to the horizontal axis first and start with what should unquestionably be the New on the right of the page:

Two of the four links on the right of the page stand for events which are yet to come in the development of the European Union: “The Future of Europe” and “Enlargement”. They are accompanied by icons which underline the meaning of these expected events. “The Future of Europe” is joined by the number 2004 which indicates that the very near future of the EU is dealt with here. Definitely the year 2004 will be a decisive one for the EU; the two outstanding problems which will have to be solved then are the integration of ten new member states and the decisions about the establishment of a constitution for the EU (Leinen/Duhamel 2003). The icon placed above the link called “Enlargement” is the “15+” logo which was designed as an indicator of the upcoming enlargement of the EU. This group of elements is completed by the links named “Citizens’ Portal” and “Freedom, security and justice”. Both of these are also highlighted by icons. Although it is not so obvious on the first glance, it makes perfect sense to place these elements among those representing the New: Both organising contact to the citizens and creating an area of freedom, security and justice are major objects of the Union which have not been fulfilled yet (ibid: 7ff; Monar 2003: 31).

However, there seems to be less good judgement in the formation of the second group of icons and its choice of topics. In contrast to the aforementioned group, “Who’s Who”, “Your Europarl”, “Observers” and “Human rights Fundamental rights” do not build a coherent group and it is unclear what is new or problematic about some of them. It makes sense to assign salience to “Who’s Who” by highlighting it with an icon and by placing it in the middle of the page as it presents an important link. Following it takes the readers to an overview of the institutional organisation of the EP – a who is who of the European Parliament. Although this is commonsensical and self-evident to a certain extend, it seems still advisable to provide a quick access to knowledge about who plays which role around the EP. The same counts for “Your Europarl”, where readers can enter passwords and User Ids in order to get to customised pages[10] (see App. 3). It is a conventionalised feature of web sites to make an easy access to this kind of pages available. Thus, it is an understandable decision to offer this quick access, more so when considering the fact that people with customised pages might want to start their research on the “Europarl” web site from “their own” pages.

The reason of placing the links “Observers” and “Human rights Fundamental rights” in this salient area of the page is more difficult to distinguish. The category “Observers” is nothing but a sub-category of “Who’s Who” and the value of a quick link to this sub-category for the readers is questionable at least. Why, for example, is it more important to get to the observers of the EP more quickly than it is to get to, say, members of the EP or the EP’s Delegation at the Intergovernmental Conference on the future of Europe, held in December 2003 (IGC)[11] ? This leads to the problem connected to the decision to make “Human rights…” part of this group: Surely human rights are an important and interesting field of politics and surely many visitors of the web site will be interested in it; nevertheless, it is unclear why it is grouped among the three aforementioned which are dealing with access to the institution and questions of its interior organisation[12].

3.3.2. Composition and Ideology

These problems are related to an attribute which Kress and van Leeuwen assign to the Given–New-structure:

“This structure is ideological in the sense that it may not correspond to what is the case either for the producer or for the consumer of the image or layout: the important point is that the information is presented as though it had that status or value for the reader, and that readers have to read it within that structure […].” (Kress/van Leeuwen 1996: 187)

This statement provides a hint as to why the authors of the page placed a link like “The Future of Europe” where readers would expect “the information “at issue”” (ibid.) and the most salient part of the page: Surely the discussion on the future of Europe is the most important problem within the EU at the moment so why not present it accordingly? Following this argument, it makes also sense to assign the same meaning to “Citizen’s Portal”, “Enlargement” or “Freedom, security and Justice”, as shown above. Offering them as the New to the readers reveals their proposed status as events yet to come, the promise of a better future; however, if this future will really arise remains contestable and problematic at least.

Kress’ and van Leeuwen’s statement is also relevant for the question why “Fundamental rights Human rights” was made part of the visual centre of the home page. It is undoubted that the topic of human rights is a problematic one. It is also well known that human rights are a key issue for the EU and its policies (Declaration of Laeken: 2). Therefore, it is of course a legitimate decision to place this topic in the most salient area of the web site. It is nevertheless an interesting one, because human rights is but one of many key subjects for the EP. At the moment, for example, there are 17 committees in the European Parliament, all of them concerned with different political areas (Maurer 2002: 195). But the environment or agricultural policy are probably simply not as popular as are human rights or interior security, which might be a reason why they are not presented among those in the centre of the web site. Moreover, the catchphrase human rights offers the chance of standing for something “good” without delivering any programmatic statements. This is where Kress and van Leeuwen’s ideological aspect of the Given-New-structure comes in: Placing “Fundamental rights, Human rights” or, similarly, “Freedom, security and justice” in the visual centre, among the New, indicates the relevance the authors of the web site wanted to ascribe to these political fields. The readers have – at least on the first glance - to consider them as if they were that relevant, no matter if they really are or not. On the other hand, it could be argued that this representation of topics is nothing but a reaction to the citizens’ prioritisation[13]:

“The form of a representation cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency.” (Gombrich 1959: 78; quoted in: Goodman 1996: 52)

Whatever is the case, these decisions are critical when confronted with the requirements of transparency because they do highlight certain issues while leaving others in the background. This casts a cloud on the way the sunshine beams through Curtin’s panes of glass (see 2); it influences, in this case, the readers’ perception of the European Parliament.

3.3.3. The Vertical Axis

Many of what could be stated here has already been mentioned in 3.3.1. because the relevance of the topics on the horizontal axis and the relevance of the topics on the vertical axis are highly interrelated. Still, it is interesting to look at the scheme Kress and van Leeuwen developed for the vertical axis of a page and to apply it to the “Europarl” web site. They state that “what has been placed on the top is presented as the Ideal, what has been placed at the bottom as the Real. For something to be Ideal means that it is presented as the idealized or generalized essence of the information, hence also as its, ostensibly, most salient part. The Real is then opposed to this in that it presents more specific information (e.g. details), more ‘down-to-earth’ information […], or more practical information […]. This of course is no less ideological.” (Kress/van Leeuwen 1996: 193)

It is easy to see that those topics which are being presented with the use of icons on the right and the top of the page do not appear on the lower left. The Given/Real-part of the page does not represent the phrases of the New/Ideal-part. In contrast, most of these phrases are sub-categories of the sub–categories presented on the lower left. While the sub-categories on the left/bottom are presenting the Real, the general information, the links and the icons on the right/top of the centre stand for the Ideal and more specialised topics. As stated above, these links and these icons have been chosen to stand where they stand, which adds to Kress’ and van Leeuwen’s findings that the arrangement of pages carries ideological decisions.

In this case, there is the verbal centre on the one hand, providing the readers with possibility to search this web page according to detailed lists of categories where relevant information can be found. Therefore, it stands for the Real and the Given, it is an honest representation of what there is to the European Parliament. The visual centre of the page represents the Ideal and the New – as mentioned above, the promise of a better future is dealt with here and so is the promise of the EP to the citizens to listen to them and then to take action in their interest, to take care of their demands and to fight for a world of security, peace and human rights. Also, the enlargement of the EU and the idea that everybody can have their own “Europarl” are presented as the Ideal. Following Kress and van Leeuwen, it can be assumed that this is the most salient part of the page and therefore represents the “promise of the product” European Parliament (ibid.: 192). This is highly ideological, as Kress and van Leeuwen have pointed out, and it draws a picture of the EP which has only partly to do with the difficult decision-making processes taking place there and the restricted role it plays next to the European Council and the European Commission in the institutional arrangement of the European Union (Maurer 2002: 192 ff.).

3.4. On the Importance of Links

As stated above (see 3.3.1.), the four items on the right hand side of the virtual centre of the page can be seen as presenting the New/Ideal and also the problematic and the generalised essence of the page. However, following the links qualifies this impression to a certain extend. Three of the four links – “The Future of Europe” being the exception - fulfil the analyst’s expectations: They take the viewers to pages which are designed in the house style of the “Europarl” site and which provide information on their topics and various sub-contexts[14]. So do, by the way, almost all of the links on the web site, thus serving “the assumption by readers that links represent useful, interesting, educationally significant relationships.” (Landow 1989: 41).

However, there is one exception: The fourth link on the right is problematic. After following “The Future of Europe”, the readers end up on a page which contains nothing but the 2004 icon and the words “The Future of Europe” in all the eleven official languages of the EU (comp. App. 4). It remains absolutely unclear what is New, contestable or even idealised about this page. In short, it does not fulfil the expectations it evokes at all. Any citizens searching for information on the future of the EU or of Europe and ending up on this page have to realise that they have come to a dead end. This might lead to frustration: “Once confused, readers resent the presence of the link” (ibid.). It also does not give the impression of an institution aiming at providing coherent and transparent information to its citizens. Undoubtedly, the readers’ interests are violated if they are not given the opportunity “to establish a relation between a point of departure and that of arrival” (ibid.: 59). This is even more problematic because of the high expectations which were raised by placing the link where it was placed (see 3.3.1.). All in all, this link is nothing but a confirmation of the assumption that “the number of nodes and links has no necessary relationship to the quality of the information the site offers” (Shriver 1997: 398). It should therefore either be filled with context or be removed from the page.

3.5. Sudden Changes: Fulfilled Expectations?

It is an interesting coincidence that in December 2003, few days after the analysis above was written, the “Europarl” web site was altered significantly[15] (see App. 5). First of all, the new link “Safety at Sea” together with the “Mare”-logo were placed within the visual centre of the site. This is another hint towards the ideological aspect of designing pages which Kress and van Leeuwen pointed out: “[…] The important point is that the information is presented as though it had that status or value for the reader, and that readers have to read it within that structure […]” (Kress/van Leeuwen 1996: 187). Until the link was added, “Safety at Sea” could not be found as a topic of any status on the web site. Placing a new topic within the most salient group must be regarded as an attempt to win the readers’ attention for this topic. With regard to “Safety at Sea”, it might again be debatable what makes this topic important for readers of this web site. Without providing an analysis of the necessity of the link, it should not be left unmentioned that its existence confirms Kress’ and van Leeuwen’s idea of an ideological aspect in the design of pages, which is an important factor especially for the analysis of documents which are providing information about political institutions.

The second change to be mentioned here is found after following the link “Future of Europe”. The link now takes the readers to a redesigned page which was, as demanded above (comp. 3.4.), filled with context and changed in style. For example, the “Europarl” house style has been applied to the page[16]. Most outstanding, the general marker on top of the page has been added so that the page can now clearly be identified as part of the “Europarl” sites (comp. 3.1). Furthermore, there are various topics like “EP proposals” or “EP Delegation to the Convention” (see App 6). Thus, the designers of the “Europarl” pages seem to have become aware of the problem presented above and undertaken some first steps towards a solution. However, the site still appears to be unfinished, which readers will realise when trying to follow what appears like links on the left hand side of the page. In contrast to the readers’ expectations, it is impossible to follow these “links”, although placing the headlines on the page does not make sense without providing them with a function (more so when they are called “Useful links” or “Archives”). This can be considered as another violation of the readers’ interests and it confirms the results of the analysis above: The rhetoric of hypertext makes promises which require fulfilment in order to satisfy the readers’ expectations.

4. Conclusion

In the introduction to this text, the assumption has been made that web sites representing political institutions are a suitable object for a rhetorical analysis. The thought was introduced that similar to advertising messages, they necessarily carry the signifieds formed by certain attributes of the product they present. This combined with the chances and the dangers which hypertext provides to authors (comp. 1.2.), results in the question whether these signifieds are indeed transmitted as clearly as possible by the web site, as Roland Barthes demanded (comp. Introduction). This analysis, as incomplete as it is, has proved that the assumption was right and it has shown some useful approaches of dealing with the question.

Considering that every web site is a “semiotic unit” which is structured by “elements of visual composition”, the authors of the “Europarl” web-site did well in offering means of orientation to the readers (Kress/van Leeuwen 1996: 185). The site is clearly structured and it offers search-tools as well as other means of orientation showing the readers where they are and where they come from (comp. 3.1., 3.2.). On the other hand, the authors also made decisions about the importance they assign to the contents of the page – for example by grouping them, placing them in certain regions of the page or providing them with icons. The coherence of these decisions was, in some parts, not clearly visible (comp 3.3.,3.4). This leads to the problematic impression of disorientation and confusion.

So the readers could have the feeling of being manipulated by the authors. This study has shown that this ideological characteristic is almost unavoidable. It is routed in the nature of multimedia representation of political institutions, the combination of pictures and text and the possibilities of making topics appear more or less salient. Nevertheless, the relevant decisions are still made by the authors. The most outstanding result of this study is that there is indeed helpful criteria for making these decisions as well as for judging their possible consequences.

This is directly connected to the second question which this study was aiming at answering: To what extend does the “Europarl” web site mirror the aim of transparency and does it represent the EU’s attempt to appear more citizen-friendly? This question cannot be answered completely; however, hints can be given: To a certain extend, the web site and its rhetorical structuring contribute to an adequate flow of information between the EU and its citizens, as it enables the readers to find information quickly, for example on relevant policy fields and the hierarchical arrangement of the EP. However, the importance ascribed to certain topics is problematic, as it always carries ideological decisions. Thus, the chance of delivering “clear panes of glass through which sunshine (or light) can beam in an [absolutely] unrestrained fashion” in the shape of a web site informing about a political institution is but a small one (Curtin 1998: 108).


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[1] http://www.europarl.eu.int/home/default_en.htm 21/11/2003

[2] There was, for example, the Xanadu project which started in 1960 (Nelson 2201). Also, there was what is today called the “original proposal of the WWW” (Berners-Lee: 1989). A third example is “The Dexter Hypertext Reference Model” by Frank G. Halasz (1994).

[3] The fact that hypertexts are missing linearity does not only change the way scientific work is organised, it also calls into question “ideas of plot and story current since Aristotle” (Landow 2001: 101) , which is to say that it can have an influence on every possible sort of texts, including fiction.

[4] The question of transparency is but a small part of the European Union’s lack of democratic legitimacy. The core is rather to be found, among others, in the current institutional organisation of the EU. (For further information see, for example, Beetham/Lord 1998, Quermonne 2000, von Oehsen 2003).

[5] Needless to point out, this analysis is concerned exclusively with the English version of the web site.

[6] The idea of a verbal and a visual centre of the page is derived from Goodman’s concept of visual and verbal literacy (1996: 40ff.).

[7] The decision not to list any sub-categories below “Press” makes sense because press releases are there for a specific group of readers – the press -, even though everybody gains access to them. http://www.europarl.eu.int/press/index_en.htm 09/12/2003

[8] The links at the very bottom of the page – “Webmaster”, “©”, “Disclaimer” and “Text only” are of no relevance for this study.

[9] http://www.europarl.eu.int/whoswho/default.htm 23/11/2003

[10] http://www2.europarl.eu.int/votre-europarl/logon.jsp?lang=EN 02/12/2003

[11] http://www.europarl.eu.int/europe2004/index_en.htm 18/12/2003

[12] Arranging these links in a more transparent way could be to exchange “Citizen’s Portal” with “Fundamental rights Human rights” in order to get two more coherent groups: One that is concerned with questions of access and organisation and a second one of a more political nature.

[13] Following this argumentation, it is surprising why unemployment has not been made be one of the most salient links: It was of the highest priority to the participants of the recent “Eurobarometer”-survey. Interesting enough, human rights did not even appear as one of the priorities the participants could chose from, probably because it is indeed representing a mixture of problems from various political fields and thus impossible to grasp as one single field in itself. (Eurobarometer 2003: 5).

[14] “The Future of Europe”: http://www.europarl.eu.int/europe2004/default.htm “Enlargement”: http://www.europarl.eu.int/enlargement/default_noscript_en.htm “Citizen’s Portal”: http://www.europarl.eu.int/opengov/default_noscript_en.htm and “Freedom, security and justice”: http://www.europarl.eu.int/comparl/libe/elsj/default_en.htm All 02/12/2003

[15] http://www.europarl.eu.int/home/default_en.htm 28/12/2003

[16] http://www.europarl.eu.int/europe2004/index_en.htm 28/12/2003

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Rhetorical Legibility and Political Transparency: An Analysis of the 'Europarl' Web-Site
University of Bremen
The Rhetorical Analysis of New Media Texts
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Rhetorical, Legibility, Political, Transparency, Analysis, Europarl, Web-Site, Rhetorical, Analysis, Media, Texts
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Tim von Oehsen (Author), 2003, Rhetorical Legibility and Political Transparency: An Analysis of the 'Europarl' Web-Site, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/108972


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