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27.06.2008 | Halya Coynash

Not just bad to lie

   

With children we make the distinction so clear:  it’s either “just a story” or real, either the truth or lies. .  While they don’t read the newspapers and listen to politicians, all is well. Then the lies start coming in torrents, and from everywhere.  And yet new generations will tell their own children not to lie.  No hypocrisy: we clearly recognize the worth of a lover or friend whose words mean nothing. 

So why do we tolerate untruth in the media? After all the most marvellous journalist initiatives against paid news items and all discussion around information wars are meaningless without one vital component -  outrage at being conned and treated like idiots.

We are finally able to turn the page on the scandal over a frightful monstrosity. The British newspaper “Daily Telegraph” has published an apology for its article on the Hitler doll, in which it states that “this doll was not widely available, no Ukrainian toy manufacturer was involved and the doll was manufactured in Taiwan. There are no plans for further sales” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2193520/Adolf-Hitler-doll.html)

We are extremely grateful to the Press Complaints Commission for their help since the paper insisted on not understanding, among other things, what we had to do with the matter. The PCC understood and probably made it all entirely clear: they had published false information, had been caught doing so and must now apologize.

The incident demonstrated to all of us that disinformation can cross any borders and language barriers.

It did not, however, break down other stereotypes. Put most primitively, we were appalled only by “western” lies, while we virtually didn’t react to those from Russian media outlets. On the one hand this is natural enough – you notice what stands out, and here the smell was sickeningly familiar.

Yet on the other, the Soviet Union collapsed a long time ago, and why we accept effectively Soviet propaganda from Russian journalists is a question worth putting. We probably won’t get an answer yet the question is not rhetorical.  A lot of other reports from the Russian media contain absurd criticism which can very easily be refuted. Unfortunately against a tsunami of offensive rhetoric, journalists in Ukraine all too often respond more or less in like manner. As a result the original nonsense gets forgotten and victory goes to the most eloquent. Yet stubborn refusal to brook inaccuracies (or much worse) and the habit of indicating point by point where the mistakes are work wonders on stemming the wildest verbal torrents (and give considerable satisfaction to boot!).

The problem lies in more than just verbal battles. Most tenets of Soviet ideology have long been discarded however one seems to have taken root. It was convenient for the communist regime to brush off criticism of its arrant brainwashing with the argument that everybody lies and that there is no such thing as objective facts. When the lies penetrate all aspects of life, it’s not so easy to refute that, and the claim is not entirely wrong anyway. I would however question how seeped we are in misinformation. There are 5 serious daily newspapers in the UK. You basically know what their politics are, and many people make their choice accordingly, however any attempts to twist, reinterpret or conceal main events will spell death regardless of their views.  Death will come, incidentally, not by Presidential decree or by court ruling. People will simply stop reading them. Maybe it won’t be after the first dodgy article, or even the second, but soon enough. Confidence imposes strict demands.

Unfortunately we increasingly often hear another myth about journalists, politicians, judges, etc that “they’re all for sale, they all have their price”.  Monitoring carried out by the journalist initiative “We’re not for sale!” showed that during the Kyiv Mayor and City Council elections in May all parties, without exception, bought “jeansa” or paid-for “news” features. Some bought more, some less, but the number here does not change the essence which is well worth spelling out. All Ukrainian political parties tried to distort the decision of voters through dishonest advertising. A lot of media outlets and journalists took substantial amounts of money for misleading their audience. Members of the public were victims of deception with advertising being presented as news, and were therefore unable to fully exercise their democratic rights.

And we watched the entire process and continued to be proud that unlike some neighbouring countries we have freedom of speech. Too often, incidentally, not that bothered as long as it was “the right party” benefiting from dishonest reporting. Children are supposed to understand that a lie of any shade or form remains a lie and we don’t have to?

The laws in Ukraine against those who spread lies are quite clearly inadequate.  It is just as obvious that they won’t get better by themselves.  There needs to be a press commission which anybody can turn to with complaints, and a recognized code of conduct.  Yet none of this is in itself enough.

  I believe we should also be publicly lobbying to have “jeansa” or paid-for “news” made illegal, with liability for both those who buy news items and those who sell them. If I knowingly sell food products which may be off, I should be liable. If you buy them to pass on to others, so should you.  This is also longer-term however the very campaign would help to raise awareness of the danger of such behaviour.

  It is the public who can play a vital role in this. Going to court is expensive, and even complaining to a press complaints commission is at very least time-consuming. Yet if enough people show outrage over imbalanced reporting, misleading information or over being fed commissioned material, this damages the reputation of a newspaper and hits profits. 

We succeeded in shaming some western media outlets recently over the Hitler doll scam not through calls to conscience, and if there is a difference between various countries, it is about how well developed the mechanisms are for protecting our right to truthful information. Misleading their audience simply does not fall within a journalist’s job description in any country.

The rule of public opinion can sometimes reach absurdities. Some of the politically correct terms elicit only bemusement as to how the old terms could possibly have offended.  On the other hand, many terms used in the Ukrainian media in reference to a person’s ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation or in reporting a person’s arrest on suspicion (only!) of having committed a crime are inconceivable in England or America. Somebody would immediately raise a huge uproar.

There is a motivating force in indignation which has nothing to do with naivety.  I do not believe that all journalists are committed to telling the truth.  I have even less illusions about politicians. I expect them to be answerable.  This will not happen overnight, but it is fully attainable if we learn to demand it. If freedom of speech is important – and it is – then there is also precious little choice. 

I frankly question the motives of at least some of those who assure us that this is all unattainable nonsense: “they all lie”, “they’re all for sale”.

Who are they? 

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