At the first ever Media4Change Awards Ceremony in Lithuania, time constraints meant that I delivered a slightly shortened version of this speech.
I am privileged to a guest of Media4Change in Vilnius this evening at the first media awards of their kind in Lithuania.
I have been involved with Media4Change projects for many years, and even been made a Fellow of the National Institute for Social Integration for my efforts by its Director Neringa Jurciukonyte. I would like to take this opportunity to express my admiration for Neringa. She has been an indefatigable champion of ethical journalism, and has influenced many young journalists from across Europe over the years. Her enthusiasm and commitment are a wonder to behold.
I have been in the journalism trade for some 50 years, and Director of the journalism ethics charity MediaWise for almost a quarter of a century. Journalism has always been a cut-throat, competitive business, but looking back it seems as if things way back then were a little less fraught than they are today. Even so in the UK, where at one time we had the advantage of skilled sub-editors to check our copy, we were not always accurate and fair. Then as now, we all make mistakes. And we suffered then from social attitudes that would not be acceptable today. Nor were we as conscious of our own personal biases as we may claim to be today.
There has always been a fine line between confidence and arrogance among media professionals. Hubris is our greatest weakness. Some years ago I attended a conference in Athens about The Media and the State, at which a Member of the European Parliament was pouring out vitriol against journalists. My response to him was: “The difference between politicians and journalists is that politicians think they know everything, but journalists know they know everything.”
The new pressures of work in the multi-platform 24-hour rolling environment make it even more difficult for us to reflect upon the accuracy, fairness, and impact of our work.
Inevitably people and points of view get left out. This means our publics miss out on things that might change their perceptions of the world, the politics of the day, and those who have been left out of the story.
In a booklet about diversity in the media (‘All the Voices’) I wrote with a Portuguese colleague, Ana Cristina Pereira, we spoke about the build up of frustration, anger, and, yes, violence that can come from being denied a voice – especially when around you others claim to speak for you.
As a trainer I have tested this by inviting all the men present to sit on their hands and stay silent for an hour while only the women speak, about their experience of men. I can tell you the men find it a very uncomfortable session and become extremely agitated. Once when I told white students they must remain silent while their black colleague spoke about their lives, it led to tears. The black students felt liberated to describe their daily experience of overt and covert racism, but the white students were shocked that they had never understood what life was really like for their friends.
Our essential task of aiding understanding becomes all the more important when others are sowing division and attitudes are becoming more polarised, almost everywhere we look.
In his challenging and important book ’On Identity’, Lebanese journalist and author Amin Maalouf wrote:
‘I know it is not realistic to expect all our contemporaries to change overnight the way they express themselves. But I think it is important for each of us to become aware that our words are not innocent and without consequence: they may help to perpetuate prejudices that history has shown to be perverse and deadly.
‘For it is often the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their own narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free.’
At a time when we are remembering the horrors of the holocaust, and atrocities carried out against Jewish people even here in Lithuania, Maalouf’s words have a special resonance.
‘[I]f the men of all countries, of all conditions and faiths can so easily be transformed into butchers, if fanatics of all kinds manage so easily to pass themselves off as defenders of ‘identity’, it’s because the ‘tribal’ concept of identity still prevalent all over the world facilitates such a distortion. It’s a concept inherited from the conflicts of the past, and many of us would reject it if we examined it more closely. But we cling to it through habit, from lack of imagination, or resignation, thus inadvertently contributing to the tragedies by which, tomorrow, we shall be genuinely shocked’’
We all have multiple identities – ethnic, religious, political, sexual, physical or psychological – some of which even we may not be fully aware. Referencing the tensions between immigrants and local populations, including Lithuanians and Russians among others, Maalouf comments:
‘Those who can accept their diversity fully will hand on the torch between communities and cultures, will be a kind of mortar joining together and strengthening the societies in which they live. On the other hand, those who cannot accept their own diversity may be among the most virulent of those prepared to kill for the sake of identity.”
Tough as it may seem, our work as media professionals is an essential ingredient of that mortar. We can call out evil and ensure that a multiplicity of voices can be heard.
Let us hope these awards will signal the value of more inclusive, ethical journalism.