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AEJ Congress debates Brexit and media in a ‘post-truth’ world

The AEJ’s Congress in Kilkenny in south-eastern Ireland on 4 -6 November debated Brexit and the rise of  demagoguery, the threat to journalism in a brave new media world, and talk of a so-called ‘post-truth era’, under the overall  theme of ‘The changing face of Europe and its media . William Horsley, AEJ Vice President and Media Freedom Representative, gives this account of the highly-charged discussions…

A single idea underpinned the discussion among the 70 journalists from some 20 countries who met against the magnificent backdrop of Kilkenny castle. It was that the good times in Europe over the past 70 years have been founded on a respect for freedom of  speech and the rule of law. Those foundations have been violently shaken and both are looking fragile. Those half-conjoined twins – Europe’s politics and its media – have both suffered a catastrophic loss of public trust. The future is unknowable, and it doesn’t look nice.

‘Wishful thinking’ and troubled times

The Irish foreign minister and the British Ambassador to Ireland who opened the debate did not quite describe the state of Europe in those words. But the attempts to paint today’s reality in a rosier light were met with spikey questions and concerns from the journalists from all corners of the continent.

The UK Ambassador, Robin Barnett, set out the government’s official stance: number one, the prime minister, Theresa May, and her government are committed to implementing the democratic choice of the people in the June referendum; number two, the UK will strive to maintain good relations with the EU, especially with Ireland. The Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, had been the first foreign leader invited to talks in London after the referendum on 23 June. But no details about the road to Brexit were forthcoming.

Charles Flanagan, Ireland’s foreign minister, put on a brave front. The Irish government, he claimed, had prepared contingency measures in case the UK voted to leave the EU. Ireland had made a good start in its efforts to ensure that its common travel area with the UK would survive Brexit, and trade with its number one economic partner would not suffer.

But hard evidence was not available to give confidence to those aspirations. Mr Flanagan seemed rather to speak from the heart when saying that the referendum vote in the UK had been a shock. Brexit would be to the disadvantage of both the UK and Ireland. And he foresaw that all sorts of barriers --- legal, political and cultural – were liable to disrupt Ireland’s relations with its closest neighbour.

Above all, he intimated, the British government’s determination to quit the EU would be a test for the Good Friday agreement which laid the foundations for a golden age in relations between the UK and Ireland:  Brexit ‘must not damage the peace process’, the minister insisted. But in the coming negotiations, Ireland would be on ‘Team Europe’. Go figure.

And there was passion in his voice when he held up that day’s Daily Mail headline, which attacked the judges of the UK’s High Court as ‘Enemies of the people’ for ruling that the British government could not legally trigger Article 50 to start the process of withdrawing from the EU without consulting parliament.

‘That’s quite shocking’ he said, coming from a country which prides itself on values like the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. If such a personal attack on judges occurred in a dictatorship, Mr Flanagan said, it would be called unacceptable.

Had the UK media held the line against demagoguery and really scrutinised the issues in the campaign? The answer was not spelled out, but post-referendum analysis of media coverage by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and others has been quite damning.

A top banker speaks out with home truths from abroad

There were more headlines in the next day’s Irish papers out of the fiery speech to the Congress by Richard Pym, the British chairman of AIB (Allied Irish Banks), one of Ireland’s largest. He called it scandalous that British leaders had made ‘no preparations’ for a possible vote for Brexit and were only now trying to figure something out’.

He spoke with unbanker-like bluntness: the Brexit campaign had been based on the ‘massive lie’ that the UK was paying L350 million to the EU every week which could be used instead to fund the NHS. For Mr Pym the referendum campaign had allowed ‘post-truth politics’ to develop on both sides of the argument.

He feared that what he called Britain’s folly would reduce its economy to ‘an architectural boneyard’.  The Brexit campaign has been led by a group of chancers and opportunists, and it was time for ‘real leaders’ to stand up.

Journalism on the rack: disinformation and technology revolutions: ‘this is just the beginning’

More big questions in the afternoon: what role for journalism in these times when truth is on the rack or can be created as glibly as new apps or video games?

The EU set up a Task Force last year to expose and correct the massive Russian disinformation campaign directed towards Europe which has grown exponentially . Giles Portman, head of the Stratcom East Task Force of the European External Action Service, outlined its extraordinary scale and depths of psychological cunning.

The Russian government, he said, openly uses disinformation, false news and propaganda as an active tool of policy and of military strategy. It funds ‘disinformation outlets’ including state-controlled media like RT and Sputnik TV, instructing journalists from the Kremlin every week what news they should put out and giving awards for loyalty; also a host of pseudo NGOs, many in the ‘eastern neighbourhood’ of the EU bordering Russia, as well as shadowy websites inside the European Union and a network of trolls who aggressively target critics of Russia online everywhere. 

Mr Portman directed interested journalists to the Task Force’s website https://euvsdisinfo.eu/ which claims to have exposed 2000 examples of fake stories from the Russian media designed systematically to denigrate and criticise the EU, NATO and the West, to disseminate excuses and defences for Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, and to sow discord among the nations to Russia’s west and their politicians. 

The EU is adamant that it does not do ‘counter-propaganda’. The task is to expose and correct deliberate falsehoods, and seek to strengthen accepted tenets of good journalism like objectivity, and to apply policies to promote media diversity in the large parts of Europe, especially eastern Europe, where it is lacking.

The political goals if this Russian information onslaught, Giles Portman said, are ambitious, targeting key western figures including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor widely seen as an important force for maintaining a united European front against Russian aggression in Ukraine and subversion more widely.

Mark Little, the founder of Storyful and now a senior executive for Twitter in Europe and Africa, shook up the less tech-savvy journalists present with a millennial-sounding  warning that new technologies have changed all the practices and the ethics of journalism. The world of WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Google, crowd-sourcing and the rest has broken the traditional mythology about journalists as the gatekeepers of news and writers of the ‘first draft of history’.  And this, he promised, is just the beginning.

Now, instead, journalists should prepare, Mark Little advised, for a new role, as curators and analysts of the oceans of information and data flooding in from countless sources  on the spot wherever the news action starts – at the fruit-seller’s stall in Tunisia where the Arab spring was born, or at Gezi Park in Istanbul where Periscope came into its own as a device to broadcast to thousands (or more) from a fast-moving street protest.

Mr Little faced a barrage of questions. Are the new social media not in fact being used as an effective way to spread all manner of hoaxes and falsehoods, which are eagerly read, shared and believed by vast numbers of people? His answer was that Yes they are; but very smart new technologies have also been developed that can do sophisticated fact-checking of stories and verification of images and sources.

Against that, it was argued with some force that the ad market for traditional media is in freefall in many parts. And despite the birth of new online media and the success of newcomers like Vice News it’s not clear where the next generation of journalists will find employers to fund their work, whether it is newsgathering, reporting and commentary, or the ‘new agenda’ of curating, fact-checking and number-crunching.

As the AEJ met in Ireland and word came in of more large-scale job losses among journalists at the Guardian, the New York Times and Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland. Recently Hungary’s most respected daily newspaper, Népszabadság, under pressure from declining sales and revenues, was sold to a business seen as close to the illiberal government of Viktor Orban. And some 150 journalists are in jail in Turkey under state of emergency laws which deprive them -- and many others who have been summarily jailed or thrown out of their jobs --  of their most basic rights.

 

Resolutions and a renewed commitment to journalism’s role

At the Kilkenny Congress the AEJ publicly marked the 2 November UN International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists and recalled that journalists have been killed with impunity in the past ten years in European states, including Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Greece and Poland.

And AEJ members adopted three Resolutions (see other website entries) opposing the persecution of journalists in Turkey, protesting the lack of protections against the loss of high-quality media outlets in Poland and Hungary, and asking the EU to reverse its threat to end its funding support for the Euranet public-interest radio service.

The AEJ stands by the watchdog role of journalism. We have all seen what happens when it is not there.


 

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