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New EU states – Extending democracy through the media

by Charles Fletcher

Ten years ago, young Romanian journalists training at the BBC School in Bucharest dismissed guidelines on the use of violent pictures in television news. The BBC guideline calls for more sensitivity, restraint on the amount of violent images that can be screened, particularly together in one bulletin.

The BBC says “there is a balance to be struck between the demands of truth and the danger of desensitising people”. But the young Romanians insisted that “the viewers wouldn’t believe the journalists unless they could see the evidence for themselves”.

In other words, to be believed, they said they must show pictures – often close-ups – of the continuing atrocities in the Balkans War ; dead and injured in accidents ; and in one particularly disturbing incident in the early days of commercial television, the shocked reaction of a young woman to the news that her husband, an airline pilot, had been killed in a plane crash.

All of this was acceptable in those early days following the Romanian Revolution – or “The Event” as it was often caustically and sarcastically referred to. There was a sudden dash to embrace their version of freedom, liberation.

There was a belief, genuinely held among people in an industry that had never been taught otherwise, that with this break from the yoke of Communism and the suppression of the Securitate, they could say anything about anyone. After all, wasn’t this the so-called “Freedom of the Press” much heard about from people who had access to the West ?

Well, of course it wasn’t. But trying to explain that to many of the young journalists who were also holding down two or three other jobs at the same time was challenging. It was rather like bringing up your own children when they have reached that awkward stage of asking “but why ?” to everything you say.

There were some of the journalists in those early days, during the initially difficult transition from dictatorship towards democracy, who actually did understand and undertake to develop their industry into one staffed with professionals. Indeed the badge “professional” was much sought after, even more than money.

“Will I be a professional after this course ?”… “Will this make me a professional ?”… “Does this diploma make me a professional now ?”… all genuine and serious questions raised by the young – and they were in the main in their early 20s – journalists wanting to make a career in the media.

Some of them now work in decision-making positions in Romania’s national public service radio and television, others in similar posts in commercial broadcasting. Yet others work for the BBC, Euronews, Eurosport, while one is teaching media in Paris.

In little over ten years, the Romanian economy has been transformed and the country stands on the edge of accession to the European Union, fully expectant of successful talks leading to formal entry in 2007, the next stage of proposed enlargement of Europe.

The media in Romania is unrecognisable from a decade ago, (perhaps) mostly in its television news and the picture content. Today, the journalists will tell you that they prefer not to show close-up scenes of death, violence, injury, as it is disturbing and unnecessary if they tell the story properly and professionally.

So, that all sounds perfect then. No need for further media training in Romania. All is in good shape…

Wrong. That there is considerable improvement, there is no doubt, by any measurement that the media output in radio, television and, to a certainly lesser degree, in the Press. There is always room for improvement wherever the media operates.

As in the standards of BBC news output, infamously shaken to its core by the misguided handling of the reporting of the Iraq War by the defence correspondent of BBC Radio Four’s Today Show. The subsequent mismanagement of his initial mistake served only to compound the incident rather than deflate it.

In the past month, BBC Scotland repeatedly broadcast the news that the Scottish government was about to make extensive changes to the higher education system that would wipe out the university status earlier awarded to a swathe of colleges across the country. It was wrong.

And in the UK Press, the Daily Mirror apologised unreservedly for printing fake pictures of Iraqi prisoners being beaten and tortured by British servicemen. The company admitted its mistake, sacked the editor, then robustly called on the British and US administrations to admit their mistakes in the war in Iraq.

The media is important in helping to develop and build a strong economy, a stable democracy. Undoubtedly, mistakes will be made by reporters. But genuine mistakes, as irritating (and sometimes dangerous) as they may be, are very different from the people who deliberately set out to tell falsehoods, to mislead, to lie to the people.

In the example of the Daily Mirror, it would be the easy option for the newspaper to apologise then cower in the back alleys off Fleet Street, seeking a quiet life as it licked its wounds. To do so would deny the basic tenets of democratic media : question, quiz, challenge authority. You are the watchdog for your reader. You can ask that awkward question and you must. The Daily Mirror was wrong to publish the fake pictures, but it seems to have been a genuine mistake, however misguided the decision appears to be.

It was correct to sack its editor and apologise to the readers – but it was critical that the newspaper would then raise its game and ask the awkward questions, make the demand of politicians to account for and admit their mistakes. And in turn, where appropriate, resign or be sacked.

In Scotland, as in other parts of the world, we refer to the media as “The Fourth Estate”. In an odd way, it adds a sense of gravitas to the industry, makes it seem almost part of the Establishment (a strange phenomenon when you consider that the media generally rails against anything to do with the establishment, rather seeking to knock it than join it).

Across the extended Europe, now a club of 25 nations through the continuing process of what could perhaps be well described as “Eunification”, the media has arguably a far greater responsibility than it has had in the past.

As the economies develop, so must the media. It needs to be there to reflect town and country, raise issues, investigate concerns, encourage growth in business and culture and hold the nation’s leaders to account.

In Hungary, there is a continuing process of education through the media, in radio and newspapers in particular. The “big picture” of Europe was explored and reported (not as often as one would really desire or demand, but at least it developed in depth over recent years leading to accession), but perhaps more importantly, in the past three years, there have been useful reports by sensible journalists who stripped Europe down to the very basic question : what will it mean to the price of eggs ?

It was in no way diminishing the overall growth and development : it was, in fact, recognising what the media can do so very well, connect directly with people. “Europe : What Does It Mean For You ? How Will It Impact On Your Life ?”

One group of young Hungarian journalists travelled to Belgium and Scotland to get first-hand experience and understanding of what the EU was all about. They went first to Bruxelles to see what impact the Euro was having on the economy. They met members of the great and good from the EU Parliament and institutions – and once the officialdom was concluded, they spoke to real people on the streets to get a measure of the real impact on their real lives.

By contrast, in Edinburgh they met people in a country functioning outside the Euro Zone. They similarly spoke to the great and the good of the Scottish Parliament, where they had a working lunch with elected representatives before observing a session in the chamber. As in Bruxelles, as useful as the official encounters were, it was the contact with real people in Edinburgh and Dunfermline that helped to colour in their picture of Europe and report that back to their readers and listeners in Hungary.

As nations continue through transition, the media must be encouraged to develop and it in turn must ensure that it reports responsibly.

A strong media is critical in the 21st Century. It plays a crucial role in the development of nationhood and its people. A free, responsible media is an integral part of a modern democracy and one that has to be encouraged.

In The Visegrad Guidelines, a code of media ethics written by this author and translated into seven languages, the UK politician, Michael Portillo MP, says : “Politicians will have to come to terms with the reality of a critical, unbiased media. It is a challenge for you to understand that, to welcome its development and to take it as a sign measuring your success in creating a democracy that is on its way to maturity.”

In little more than a decade much has changed in the media across Europe, and most especially in the new entrants to the EU and countries on the new eastern border like Bulgaria, Ukraine and Romania. Much also has changed in the media in Serbia, Montenegro and in Croatia, similarly aiming to enter the EU in 2007. There remains considerably more to be done.

It is no longer astonishing ; rather it is pitiful, when departmental managers, company owners and donor agencies, in their rush to save money, cut costs, reduce or withdraw in entirety their support for training and development.

Rather, it is inappropriate to cut training budgets when people, the keystone to any organisation, are the very tools that can help improve output and market positioning.

Journalists in the new entrant countries to the EU are at varying (sometimes dramatically varying) levels of professional competence. Training, by organisations like the BBC and Caledonia Media, have played important parts in helping to develop the standards of the industry. Now, as funding bodies look to engage their resources in other ways in other nations, there is perhaps even more necessity to help support the media across Central and Eastern Europe, to develop all of the industry, improve its quality, build a better reputation for responsibility, reliability, quality, trust.

All of which costs money, and in some cases, will require media companies to self invest rather than rely on external funding support. In Slovakia, the general director of the national broadcaster, STV, looked outside of the country for professional support to develop the network’s news and current affairs outputs. But it funded the project internally.

In Hungary, there is ongoing restructuring at the national radio, funded internally ; but at the national public television, a similar programme of development has stalled because there is no internal funding available and so far, much to the chagrin of their general director, no external financial support.

By contrast, that external support has been on the table for Belarus for a considerable period of time, yet has never come to any great realisation. Funders who want to support training and development are thwarted and left to express their grave concerns about the continuing political direction of the country and the dictatorial thumb on the throat of the media.

In contrast again, Ukraine has opened its doors, outstretched its arms (not as some cynics suggest, its palms) and is positively encouraging external support to help develop its media.

A little over ten years ago, Western professionals, people steeped in the industry as opposed to academics, pioneered media training across Central and Eastern Europe helping develop journalists, the managers and editors of today, encourage growth of, in particular, commercial radio stations and play their part in the development of democracy, and by doing so, have an input into nation-building.

There are examples of successes worldwide because of these initial interventions. In Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Baltic States, the Balkans, media training and development has secured a generation of responsible broadcasters and journalists.

Part of that success is that we now see journalists from Romania training their counterparts in Asia ; journalists from Hungary training colleagues in Kosovo. They are the beneficiaries of investment in their skills and talents and they are determined to pass it on. That spend on the young Romanian talent has been paid back by the bucketload as he counts the hundreds of young broadcasters who have benefited from his experience, beginning in the classroom of the Scoala BBC at the National Film and Theatre Academy in Bucharest.

Their learning is a model to be rolled out further afield.

They can’t do it on their own. They still need support and help in training the next generation. A friend in Budapest says of trying to do his job to the high professional standards he believes in : “I still have to struggle every day, it’s better, but it’s still a struggle. I’m doing all this for my son and his son. My country will be better for them than it is for me.”

It is a measure of his determination to help build and grow Hungary that he stays there, rather than move elsewhere.

He may be a unique person, but the attitude isn’t. There are many more like him who want to do what they can to extend democracy through the media. They are all there, across Central and Eastern Europe. And they still need support. And that means recognising investment in continuing training and development. It needn’t cost a fortune. But it can accelerate the democratisation of a country. And a continent.

Charles Fletcher is General Director of Caledonia Media, a Scottish-registered organisation dedicated to media support and development worldwide.

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