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Monday, May 19, 2014

The Media the hope

2014 Media Ethics Conference

The following is Bernard Margueritte's opening speech given on 9 May at the Media Ethics Conference 2014.

Should we still debate about the media? Does it make sense? Speaking only about the ICF: after 28 great media conferences worldwide did we improve the situation? Besides we, people of the media, do we not know too well all about our own sins or even about what should be done to improve our credibility? Indeed, it seems, everything has been told. In the past year alone, two brilliant books have published in America by two friends of mine: 'The Need for knowledge-based journalism—Informing the News' by Thomas Patterson from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard and 'Beyond the News: The Future of Journalism' by Mitchell Stephens from New York University (but also my co-fellow at the Shorenstein). You read the two books and you have all you need to know about the media. Does it mean that we can simply forget about this meeting and go straight home? Probably you are not expecting me to tell you so, and you are right.

2014 Media Ethics ConferenceWe need, time and again, to have a clear consciousness of the problems we are encountering and we need to make the owners of the media, the decision-makers, and the public at large aware of the situation of the media. But the most important is that we have to do that because everyone must be aware that without honest media, dedicated to serve the public, conscious of their mission, there is simply no hope for the future of our civilization and for the world. This is the crucial point, the core of the matter. Media matters. We have to understand and explain that from what the media will be depends the future of our world. Nothing less.

Indeed we are part of the problem. A serious part of the problem. We discussed this last year at a conference at the Cathedral of Canterbury, under the leadership of Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury- and an admirable man. I had the opportunity to quote there the new Saint of the Catholic Church, pope John Paul II. He noted in his 'Letter to Families' in 1994 that what is needed is a critical reflection about our society and added: 'this kind of critical reflection should lead our society, which certainly contains many positive aspects on the material and cultural level, to realize that, from various points of view, it is a society which is sick and is creating profound distortions in man. Why is this happening?... Is it an exaggeration to say that the mass media, if they are not guided by sound ethical principles, fail to serve the truth in its fundamental dimension? This is the real drama: the modern means of social communication are tempted to manipulate the message, thereby falsifying the truth about man. Human beings are not the same thing as the images proposed in advertising and shown by the modern mass media.' Earlier, visiting his homeland in 1991 the pope said in Wloclawek: 'do not let us become embroiled in this new civilization of lust and abuse that grows unrestrainedly among us, taking advantage of the various means of communication and of seductive perversion…Is this civilization or anti-civilisation? Culture or anti-culture? We ought to go back to the basic notions: culture can only be what makes the human being more human and not simply what ‘consumes’ his humanity' and, during the same trip, in another town (Olsztyn) he added: 'the mass media should defend freedom, but also the respect for the dignity of the person'.

2014 Media Ethics Conference

Alas we are all aware that the media have been and are an instrument of dehumanization. We are part of the problem, part of the global world crisis.

The causes of this painful situation are numerous. No doubt we will during this meeting address many of them. In this introduction I will therefore just mention a few of those problems.

Of course we still have to fight for the freedom of the press. We know that in many parts of the world there is no such freedom up to these days, in Africa, in China, in Russia, just to mention a few examples. The political power always had the tendency to try to control the media. I remember how I was astonished to hear Lech Walesa, the great leader of Solidarność, telling me as soon as he became president: 'you know, our priority now is to control the TV as soon as possible!' And that was said by a man, who fought all his life for the freedom of the press. Nowadays the political leadership in the Poland of Solidarity control indeed 80% of the media. In the Arabic world the situation is no better. Al Jazeera for one is remarkably professional on the job, but many studies have shown how its objectivity ends where the political interests of the Qataris start. John Kerry reported, when he was just senator, about many negotiations with the Qatari leaders offering a more friendly coverage of American affairs by Al Jazeera against political support from Washington…

Obviously many leaders in the world are still convinced that if they can control the minds of the people they will be able to run their country without difficulty. They pretend to promote democracy, but what they truly dream of is a democracy without citizens! Obviously they did not learn the lessons of the past, which showed that where you don’t have informed and conscious citizens, the rulers themselves are down the road paying the price. Not only because the citizens at one time or another have no other issue than to revolt, but also because they are themselves desinformed by the lack of open media, and therefore unable to properly run their country. We have seen that to a great extend in the collapse of communism.

To be honest tough sometimes we have a reverse situation and media moguls are trying to control the politicians. The UK, with Mr. Murdoch, knows a lot about that. It was interesting for example to learn how Rebekah Brooks used her personal relations to tell Tony Blair about all the bad things Gordon Brown said supposedly about him and to tell Gordon Brown about all the bad things Tony Blair told her about him. It was an easy way to accelerate the fall of the Labour party.

In any event any collusion between the media and the political forces is always detrimental for both.

Nevertheless the ICF, although obviously concerned about the freedom of the press, was always ready to leave others, who do this brilliantly- like the International Press Institute in Vienna- concentrating on this, while we prefer to focus on another huge question: 'when we enjoy the freedom of the press, what do we do with it?'

Here again the dangers are numerous. First because of the role of globalization and of money. Globalisation has pushed toward the concentration and standardization of the media. Paul Krugman, who received the Nobel Prize for economy, expressed similar concerns in The New York Times. He says, almost jokingly, that in the United States you get almost all your news, day in and day out, from what he calls'AOLTimeWarnerGeneralElectricDisneyWestinghouseNewsCorp'.

He adds: 'The handful of organisations that supply most people with their news have major commercial interests that inevitably tempt them to slant their coverage, and more generally to be deferential to the ruling party.' He concludes: 'For the time being, blatant media bias is still limited by old rules and old norms of behaviour. But soon the rules will be abolished, and the norms are eroding before our eyes. Do the conflicts of interest of our highly concentrated media constitute a threat to democracy? I’ve reported; you decide' ('In media res', NYT 29/11/2002).

2014 Media Ethics ConferenceThis globalised concentration of media is also bringing about a dull uniformity of the media. Here we are faced not only with a world-wide domination of American-made media where, for example, 70 per cent of all the film series presented on television screens in Europe come from Hollywood. Indeed, this 'uniformisation' is taking place in the United States as well, with media people in Colorado or South Carolina complaining – as I witnessed personally – that they are not able to address topics important for the local people, since they are channelling what is presented by their main company based in California or New York.

The rule of consumerism, greed and money-making is certainly another culprit. The goals are profits and ratings. If there is a feeling that sensationalism, pornography and violence are leading to those goals, let them be used! At the end of the day we have what was expressed openly and cynically by Patrick Le Lay, when he was the president of the French television TF1. Describing his company’s mission he said: 'The job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product. For the advertising message to get through, what we need is that the brain of the TV-watcher is available. The goal of our programs is to prepare this brain between two advertising spots. What we sell to Coca-Cola is availability of human brain-time' ('Les dirigeants face au changement'. 2004).

Another cause of the media crisis is the trivialisation of our agenda. We are presenting on our screens or newspapers news that is irrelevant, sensationalist, superficial…and depressing, instead of addressing the topics truly important to society. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted that: 'putting the emphasis on events of little significance, filling the limited time we have with nothing- or almost nothing, we eliminate relevant topics that would be needed for the citizen to exercise his democratic rights' ('Sur la télévision', 2004). This obsession with 'ratings' leads us also towards the presentation of more and more violence and sex on our screens but also in tabloids. Instead of educating the people, we are becoming a tool for depraving our audience and particularly the young!

In the face of all this what was our mission supposed to be? I was lucky to start my work as a journalist at 27, fresh out of the Sorbonne, under the leadership of Beuve-Méry, the founder of 'Le Monde'. He was arguably the greatest media man of the 20th century and, arguably, 'Le Monde' was then the best newspaper ever. He taught me everything I needed to know about my job as a journalist and everything I consider up to this day as relevant in our vision of the media. For him the media – albeit with the necessity to be profitable – was not a mere business. 'Never forget,' he kept saying, 'we are there as human beings and citizens addressing other human beings and citizens. This is a blessing. We ought to be up to it'. For Beuve-Méry, entering the media was, therefore, comparable to entering the Church. It was an ordeal.

One day he gave me the best lesson in journalism, and a very short one. He called me to his office after one of my first articles (he never did that, except to approve the unsigned editorial of the paper). He was not happy. He thought I presented there too much of my own views and he told me with great passion: 'You want to know what journalism is? It is very simple. Something is happening, you go there and you report, using what the Americans call the five 'ws' (where, who, what, when, why). But this is not enough! You have to present the historical, political, sociological, economic background to what happened. Then you have to tell your reader what Mr X or Y or the party A or B suggest to do about it. And then, my friend, your reader will have all he/she needs – and not only all he/she wants! – to understand the matter, to think about it and to make up his own mind. Then, my friend, he/she will be a citizen and we will live in a true democracy!' and he added: 'but there is also a second part of the job, particularly relevant for you since you hope to become a foreign correspondent: you and only you in the media have the opportunity to bring the 'Other' to our readers, the other religion, the other way of life, the problems and dreams of others. And by doing so you will build a world of mutual understanding, of respect and yes of peace!'

These are still the missions of journalism. The tools may have changed. We have the blessing of internet, fantastic new communication means, allowing everyone not only to get the news but to produce and share the news. Nevertheless the basic mission of journalism remains the same.

Can we revert to it? Curiously maybe I am extremely optimistic about it. First, precisely, because of the technological progress. The internet is a fantastic tool, but an ambivalent one. As we had 'fast food' we now have 'fast news'. Quite often those news are not verified and are presented and interpreted not by journalists we learned to know and respect for years but by people we don’t know. We realize that the news are not the media. That bringing the news is not being a journalist, that is to say somebody, who can put the news in perspective and context and explain the news to its readers and listeners. The people are now inundated by news, coming every second from everywhere, but they cannot understand what is happening. Therefore they starve, not for the news anymore but for the 'meaning', the 'meaning' of the news. And so the need for quality media is greater than ever! The tabloids may be endangered but not the quality media! Of course changes have to be made. There is no need anymore for the daily paper to inform, except in the case of investigative journalism. The readers know already everything from the internet or thousands TV channels. Sometimes papers are only online daily ('The Christian Science Monitor' paved the way in this regard) but print a huge week-end magazine, read when people have more time to reflect and analyze. It is interesting to note that indeed the daily paper has a tendency to become a week-end paper, the weekly a monthly, the monthly a quarterly and the quarterly a book…

There is however another, maybe more fundamental reason for my optimism. This reason is the deep crisis of civilisation we are in. As 'Le Monde' wrote sometimes ago: 'Vive la crise!' Indeed the crisis is so deep that it forces us to begin to think and to try to find new, bold solutions. What do we need to find them: a well-informed, conscious citizenry on one part, and the cooperation of all the people in the world looking for the good, no matter what is their background, color of skin, religion, habits or whatever on the other. But you remember the lesson of Beuve-Méry: only media, proper media, quality media can bring about a true citizenry, only media can allow people all around the world to know and respect each other and get ready to work together!

Therefore the media are not anymore the problem. They are the solution. We have to get better. We have to revert to our proper mission. Not only for our own sake but for the sake and future of our civilisation and our world.

Photos by Shree Wood

See footage on Levant TV/media-ethics-conference-2014-footage