By Juliet Lodge*
The profound challenge for journalists and the media of communicating Europe does not excuse them from failing to search for truth; from failing to seek out and compare contrasting positions; or from failing to think about their sources of information and analysing their reliability, authoritativeness and legitimacy.
Journalists and the media have a deep responsibility for framing, shaping and presenting narratives about contemporary life in all its guises. How they interpret and reflect upon their observations provides a glimpse into a collective mentality at a point in time. This collective mentality does not equate to a single, common viewpoint, nor should it. Diversity is at its heart. Ensuring diversity is respectable, respected, challenged and analysed opens doors to innovation, fun and discovery.
Trying to close down investigation, and a search for the genuine – a search for what is real and what is fabrication – robs society of the fuel for change and development. It demotivates and denies individuals and society the chance to improve and to create something better. It paralyses, by freeze-framing a point in time. It denies the joy of advance in the personal and public sphere. It creates a deception on a grand-scale.
Is the concept of ‘post-truth’ politics no more than a vacuous neologism to replace the unpalatable truth of a ‘lie’ with a deliberate perversion of truth in order to create and sustain a particular delusion?
Perpetrating the great lie of the advisory British referendum on the EU in June 2016 as ‘the will of the people’ illustrates this. The majority of the people did not vote to leave the EU. Close on 13 million did not vote for a variety of reasons; many more were deprived of the vote by the Government; and only 1.2 million more people voted to leave rather than stay. With an electorate of over 42 million, the ‘will of the people’ would more accurately be presented as deeply confused and divided. Confused because of the history of largely abject, weak and Eurosceptic media coverage of the EU. And divided because of how Europe was depicted as contributing to personal life experiences in different regions mapped onto deep rifts within society that magnify the gross differences in wellbeing people believe exist between the haves and have-nots: those in power in Westminster, and those outside.
Whether voters reflected on this deeply is largely irrelevant. Whether they accepted the nasty narrative of xenophobic media distortions of a society suffering at the hands of the identifiable ‘others’ who had strayed over borders and reduced their share of the common cake, is important. But maybe equally important is what the referendum outcome’s message was to policymakers and public narrative shapers.
The outcome exemplified hostility to a ruling elite which had lost public confidence, respect and trust. Hence, the denigration of ‘experts’. Hence, the deafness to reason, common sense and decency. It has taken over six months of mealy-mouthed media reflection on the disastrous abyss the UK is in for the political elite and large chunks of the media (including the BBC) to accept that ‘post truth’ politics are a ruinous travesty propelling largely pro-EU younger generations into feudal isolation, and stopping them from contributing to building and reforming Europe with their peers and with a great many older people whose anger at the Brexit heresy has not abated.
If the media and journalists had taken their duty to inform the public honestly, long before the referendum and even immediately before it, no one would be talking about Brexit or residency rights of EU citizens (whom the Government, Opposition and less honourable media seek to discriminate against in their misguided, dim-witted post-truth fantasy-driven misrepresentations of the people’s will.)
Instead, people would be innovating, exploring and creating a better future for all. That is the (possibly unsensational) reality that journalists and the media have a duty to reflect. That is not a trivial task.
Excusing ‘post truth’ politics to appease right-wing bullying rhetoric shows shameful disrespect for those who gave their lives so that we could enjoy peace and a better future, and work to prosper together through the gift of European integration. Europe does not need to be, and should not try to be, uniform. Its diverse, rich cultural heritage, past, present and future should be celebrated. The challenge for the media and journalists is to play a worthy role as key enablers in stoking curiosity in what it means to be part of a distinctive inclusive Europe today.
The dissolution of physical and virtual borders makes it incumbent on those who are in a position to communicate authoritatively to do so in all humility; to recognise the limits of their own knowledge; to seek out difference and to find and understand the ethical core of honesty and consensus; and to uphold the values of decency in showing what it is to be human in such a borderless world. We are all ‘the other’. We are all ‘us’. How journalists and the media mediate that is a challenge to us all.
*Prof. Dr. Dr. Juliet Lodge (BA MA MPhil PhD DLitt) Emerita, University of Leeds, UK, was co-founder of, and director of the Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence and has held a Jean Monnet chair since the Jean Monnet chairs were first launched. She is senior researcher with Saher UK, and Member of the Expert Group on Privacy of the Biometrics Institute, London. She was elected by a European jury European Woman of Europe in 1992 (having been selected as UK Woman of Europe the previous year, and honoured with a Golden ECU and European Woman of Achievement awards). She is a panellist at the 17th January 2017 @mediagovlab event: “Europe at what price? Answers beyond silos and post-truths” – held to launch the Jean Monnet chair programme of @mediagovlab head Prof. Katharine Sarikakis.