28.05.2008 | Halya Coynash

Defumigating channels of information


Who wouldn’t hurtle in pursuit if a cockroach suddenly appeared? When it’s two, three or more the task becomes harder. And if we have no wish to share our flat with a foul infestation, major steps are needed.

It is unlikely that we will succeed in identifying the true source of dirty lies about a supposedly Ukrainian manufacturer of a Hitler doll being widely sold to children which scurried around the world media a month ago.  The reason is painfully banal: nobody will wish to admit to having bitten at such rancid bait for the sake of a highly dubious sensation.

For a month now we have been strongly advising the media to sort out their channels of information as soon as they possibly can. We brazenly hope to have demonstrated to some western media outlets, in particular the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and the newspapers Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, that they should not have ignored fundamental principles of good journalism and that it was their reputation which has suffered through disregard for their professional duty.

There is no longer any need to prove the total lack of substance to the “information” about the Hitler doll. That they could have found this out with ease by simply reading the original article in the newspaper “Dzerkalo tyzhnya” we were forced to explain to all too many media outlets. Three of the above-mentioned – the BBC, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph – removed the offending material , the BBC immediately and the other two after hearing the words “press complaints commission”. Deutsche Welle dug their heels in longer, however having finally removed the article in question, almost immediately publicly apologised and placed an interview with the Editor in Chief of the publication “Telekritika” about how the scandal was manufactured (,2144,3337110,00.html). We of course informed the other media outlets of this wise move and an apology soon appeared on the BBC’s website (we had already received an apology which with the BBC’s permission we posted on our sites ). The negotiations with the editor of the Daily Mail were, we must admit, in somewhat different mode, however a retraction and apology appeared on that paper’s website on 23 May After fleeting willingness to talk to us, the editorial office of the Daily Telegraph is again ignoring our letters calling upon them to publicly apologize. We assume, however, that it is now just a matter of time.

The power of persuasion

Much as we would like to believe in the magic power of our words, it’s all, of course, more prosaic. Media outlets have to fight for their corner, and obviously can’t afford to bore their readers brainless. They are not however entitled to deceive people and must be accountable for the truth or the offensive lies which they report.

The fact that they reported information they themselves received from somewhere does not absolve them of responsibility. We are not talking (or not only) about moral responsibility. There are laws and press codes in all our countries and the media cannot expect to be patted on the back for deceiving their audience and violating our right to truthful information.

We spoke with various media outlets. There was the feeling that for some reputation was paramount, while for others the words “Press Complaints Commission” worked like magic.

In one case we were already close to turning to that very Commission to resolve the situation. We agreed to a retraction which would stay on the outlet’s site less time than the offending article only after long hesitation. We decided that it was better to get a retraction, albeit not fully satisfactory, and circulate it as widely as possible, than wait yet another month. After all information cockroaches multiply just as quickly as their real counterparts. Now we are fully entitled to file complaints against any media outlets refusing to remove material reposted from that source.

We had another reason also. During those first days after the lies were published, many of us felt despairing. The outrageous slander was being repeated everywhere. Yet another attack had been made on the reputation of the country, the reputation of each of us.  Yet this time a lot of people felt no wish to silently tolerate the lies and it turned out that we could have impact upon the situation. It would be tedious to list all the media outlets which removed material or actually wrote articles about the distorted sensation. There were a lot. The extraordinary speed with which the information cockroaches infested different parts of the globe prompts thoughts about the possible existence of some kind of “source X”. If the latter acted with ill intent, then we can only modestly hope that on this occasion their plan was a total flop.

Could the authorities have helped?  I have equivocal feelings about this. The scale of the scam and certain suspicions regarding the source make the virtually total silence from the government difficult to understand. On the other hand, I have no idea how they could have adequately reacted at an official level. Besides Deutsche Welle, and to a lesser extent, the BBC, we were dealing with privately-owned media outlets. Their behaviour needs to be regulated by internal laws and press codes, not diplomatic notes.

The problem lies, perhaps, on two different levels. In this grubby story a lot of people were most shocked by the involvement of western media outlets in an all-too-familiar game. A foul monstrosity, namely a Hitler doll, which unfortunately finds buyers in many countries of the world, was used to impose old stereotypes of Ukrainians we are all familiar with from Soviet propaganda. The government must undoubtedly follow any attempts to damage the image and reputation of the country.

There is, however, a second level. If you have an invasion of cockroaches and the dirt is somewhere in a neighbour’s flat, then all of this will be established, but later. Urgent measures of a different nature are needed immediately. We all saw how lies spread dispersing foul waste. This time you and I reacted. We deflected one dirty wave of false information and upheld our right to truthful and objective information. Not such a bad lesson for the media, and let’s hope, for us as well.

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