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18.08.2008 | Halya Coynash

Second-hand News

   

The conflict between Georgia and Russia showed the world that the worryingly militant rhetoric from Russia was much more than mere rhetoric. Suggestions are increasingly being voiced that none of it was unexpected; that Russia had planned it beforehand and cleverly provoked Georgia. Be that as it may, and regardless of our assessment of Georgia’s actions, the undisguised dismay and sense of desperate powerlessness as Russian forces invaded another country’s territory will stay with many of us for a very long time.

  This sense was particularly acute for those whose countries border Russia and who, for historical reasons, have large numbers of ethnic Russians, many in fact holding Russian citizenship.  A lot has been said on this and all would seem clear.

  All except what it is that seems obvious to the average person in, for example, Ukraine.  Surveys carried out in the last week found that television viewers expressed views that roughly coincided with those being very strongly pushed by the Russian media. On the other hand, the majority of visitors to a number of Internet publications ticked the box indicating support for Georgia. A study found that more than half the information used by Ukrainian Internet publications came from Russian sources. None of this can in any way be considered definitive, and we don’t know what methods were used to gather the data. On the other hand the results prompt certain disturbing, but one feels, probable conclusions.regarding the influence of television and its sources.

   Russian television channels which are increasingly reminiscent of their Soviet predecessors are watched in a lot of post-Soviet republics. It’s easy to understand why: they’re larger and have greater scope; they can report news more rapidly and there’s no problem with language. In short, they simply require less effort. You can just go into copy-paste mode or translate into Ukrainian within minutes. There are some English-language media outlets (BBC, CNN, Euronews, for example, but the number of people who would comfortably listen to English-language news broadcasts is not high.  Nor, and this should be stressed, would most people understand the need.

  And the need is paramount. I am certainly not suggesting that the western media coverage was brilliant. In those first days absolutely all media outlets obediently repeated figures provided by Russian “official sources”. Where the latter took their information from is anybody’s guess, however the purpose was entirely clear.

  The western news broadcasts provided sharp contrast to those emerging from Russian (or Georgian) sources.  I don’t know whether provincial television channels in the USA showed only the official stand with regard to the war in Iraq. At the national level, and in Britain which has also been involved in that war, the one-sidedness and overt propaganda found in the Russian and Georgian media would be absolutely unthinkable.

It is obviously not possible to present all points of view. However each opinion aired is given as the view of one person or representative of one of the sides involved. The newsreader often recapitulates, but does not add any personal comment or judgment. All the phrases like “in X’s words”, and “as Y maintains” may make a text more cumbersome and certainly interfere with the kind of sensational headlines which abound in the Ukrainian media, but they do provide one invaluable opportunity. They allow you and I the chance to decide for ourselves which views inspire confidence and which cannot stand up to criticism. And on the subject of criticism, it is worth remembering that copy-paste does not necessarily fall within the duties of a journalist, but what the latter is there for if he or she can’t ask penetrating questions, I have no idea.

It all boils down to one point: do we consider that it’s possible to “trust” the audience, rely on their ability to distinguish truth from lies?  Quite honestly I have no great optimism, but I also see absolutely no choice. The Soviet regime foisted their “truth” on people and dealt harshly with those who didn’t acknowledge it. I can name views which I consider “correct” and worth lobbying. If I say that they should be imposed like those of the Soviet authorities, “dissidents” will inevitably emerge. Is it not better to rely on your audience?

We need to be realistic. There are some viewers who will turn on specifically that television channel which will repeat the views they want to hear. There are always a lot of such people and whatever arguments you use, however many alternative opinions you offer, nothing will be achieved: they’ll just switch to another channel.

What is more worrying is that they are well aware (so are we, for that matter) which channels they can change to, which newspapers they can read so as to not hear or read unpalatable opinions.

Yet there are a huge number of people who don’t “know” a priori who is right, who not; who is restoring constitutional order and who is invading an other country’s territory; who is defending people, standing up for democracy or somebody’s rights and who is cynically playing with fundamentally alien values.

Should we try to pull them into “our camp”?  Or simply provide them with what we consider to be correct?  We can of course continue like that.  Yet those with other views usually have a powerful arsenal and not just of ordinary weapons. In any case I have doubts as to whether we can emerge victorious from that information war if we use the same tactics. When you hear more or less the same clichés, slogans and accusations from both sides, then you either believe the first you hear, or make your choice on some other, usually subjective, grounds.

The skills of critical thinking are not so hard to develop. No quantum leap is required, in fact you can strictly follow the Code of Journalist Practice and the difference will immediately be noted. Will we be able to convince everybody as to who the goodies are, and who the baddies?  Well, no, but nor will those who hold such invaluable information. However when one channel or newspaper does not resort to hysteria or wild accusations, doesn’t conceal inconvenient information and allows all the chance to air their views, and another outlet presents carefully selected information and only give “its people” the opportunity to speak, the decision as to who is more trustworthy would seem clear.

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