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04.11.2008 | Halya Coynash

Injecting political will

   

My surge of interest in one of the debates between presidential hopefuls Obama and McCain, that is, McCain and Obama, waned swiftly. I did have time to note, however, that the presenter even alternated the order in which the two men were mentioned.

Is this super-professionalism by the TV journalists?  I rather suspect it has to do with the querulous demands of the audience. Accusations of bias are inevitable in any case, and God forbid, that a channel should actually give grounds for them!  As a means of fighting “jeansa” or covert advertising presented – for a fat fee - as “news” items, the audience’s wrath has a vital role to play chiefly where we are dealing with politics or socially important issues, regarding nuclear energy, the environment, etc. I imagine that in other spheres the success of such undeclared advertising depends on the “advertiser’s” competitors, but in honesty my objections are more theoretical and I don’t think I could tell how widespread the problem is.

There can be nothing abstract about my opposition to any attempts made to dishonestly influence the will of the voters and people’s level of understanding of environmental and other issues directly affecting their lives.

In Ukraine there are virtually no mechanisms protecting the public’s interests. Or more precisely, there are laws which regulate political advertising, and there is also “jeansa”.  During the recent snap elections for Kyiv Mayor and City Council, there was an unprecedented amount of such paid for “news” items with all political factions being implicated.

This is discussed at various roundtables and is already the subject of monitoring. It is the discussion in fact which prompts me to write this. At a recent roundtable, all experts agreed on the serious nature of the problem.  Complaints were heard of a lack of “political will to overcome the phenomenon”. That there is no will is quite clear, only I don’t really understand why and from whom we should expect it.

Perhaps there is some utopia where the political will of politicians and public officials fully harmonizes with the will of the people. I don’t know, I’ve not been there, though I wouldn’t mind and also dream of seeing politicians finally beginning to think not only about their own interests.

Yet if all political forces have sufficient resources, where is the political will to come from to make them change anything? I am not talking of principles, moral calibre and wisdom for obvious reasons, and I simply don’t see stimulus of another, more pragmatic type. “They do it, so why shouldn’t we?”, “We can’t risk lagging behind, we don’t have a choice”. And perhaps not quite so openly the blunt truth of it is that “They don’t hassle us, and we leave them in peace to do it too”.

Conclusion 1: The organism will not produce its own political will. An injection is needed.

The recent roundtable was entitled “The censorship of the wallet: how to overcome corruption in journalist circles”. I haven’t the foggiest how to overcome human greed. I suspect that if such a moral victory is required in order to fight paid lies, then we may as well give up.

Only I don’t want to surrender, and I’m not convinced that it’s necessary. It is, admittedly, disturbing that everybody is already talking about a mass phenomenon, and about how it will take many years to overcome it. What about if we don’t absolutely have to begin with a moral cleansing of human beings?

We read, for example, about the “journalism of envelopes” in some Asian countries and efforts to counter it in South Korea. Certainly interesting, however one crucial difference is worth keeping in mind. If we carry out a survey among Ukrainian journalists, or in society as a whole, we’ll see that most people will condemn paid “news”.  It is by no means so clear that we would find such condemnation in Japan or South Korea.

This indicates that while there are problems, even without legislative sanctions, nobody wants to flaunt their use of such “motivation” and for good reason. It is worrying therefore to see texts virtually implying that journalists have nothing to do with this, that they are forced into it by their bosses or the media owner on fear of losing their job. On the one hand this is undoubtedly the case. On the other – I read exactly the same words in the first years of Putin’s presidency where there were still some relatively independent media outlets in Russia. Of those honest media outlets and journalists, only a few remain, while the journalists who retained their jobs have long lost sight of their professional calling.

You hear of the incredible amounts being paid for such commissioned material and lose heart. After all we can’t overcome it alone and not everybody is in a position to become an unemployed hero. If we don’t unite now and support one another, it could be too late.

Conclusion 2:  Understanding the source and scale of the problem should lead us to seek effective ways of resolving it, not just grab another bottle of vodka, because the problem is too massive and we haven’t got a chance.

So is it possible to fight effectively? I will not speak here of economic “jeansa”. I don’t know what methods are needed and the difference between open and covert advertising is not so clear-cut. I’ve seen features on CNN, for example, which were presented as news but which I took to be advertising.  I drew that conclusion without indignation, but without illusions either.

No such tolerance is conceivable with regard to political “paid news”. Here I don’t really understand why the possibility is rejected of legislative regulation. Bribing voters to give their vote for a particular party carries criminal liability, and how that differs from a paid news item commissioned by some politician or other I can’t fathom. Maybe the connection is not so immediate and direct, but the essence is the same.

There is clearly a significant difference between the commissioning politician, the channel which effectively makes such “news” only on a paying basis, and individual journalists and presenters, etc, who carry out the task commissioned. For the reader or viewer the effect is the same – they are conned and their constitutional right to elect parliamentary representatives is manipulated.

One can indeed call this “censorship of the wallet”, however some other terms are also entirely appropriate, like fraud, for example. Certainly public discussion is needed regarding covert advertising and other means of deception. There should also be work with journalists to ensure that they respect themselves and their profession and don’t sell out. It wouldn’t be a bad idea either to bring in better conditions and guarantees so that people weren’t nervous about their jobs. All of this will take years but it is surely worth the effort.

Yet without clear regulation you can have as many roundtables and training seminars as you like, but the situation will not radically improve. I am not suggesting imprisoning people for commissioning and selling “news”, but some painful fines could have impact, and not merely of a moral nature.

They would also have a constructive impact on the audience (voters) who would finally receive the message that the words in the Constitution about the people being the bearers of sovereignty and the only source of power are not doomed to remain mere words. After all you can list any number of words and appeals that politicians blithely ignore and that don’t appear to be vastly interesting to media owners and bosses either.  The word “rating” however still has a wonderfully magic effect.

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