26 May 2006 – Some 100 journalists from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East met in Vienna this week to discuss the challenge of contemporary racism and xenophobia. It was the third such meeting since the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in European newspapers caused a diplomatic incident and violent demonstrations.
This time the emphasis was on turning the heat of the controversy into light about the future. After a robust exchange of views about the respective weaknesses of journalism on both sides of the Mediterranean, those attending began to map out improvements in journalism practise and structures that might enhance understanding about cultural differences rather than playing to the gallery of popular prejudices.
The solutions arrived at echoed those of the MediaWise RAM Project, set up in 1999 to counter inaccurate and unfair portrayals of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK media:
· greater representation of minorities in newsrooms;
· more dialogue between ethnic, religious and cultural groups and the mainstream media;
· a better understanding of difference, and the causes of conflict and migration among media professionals;
· more networking and sharing of information and best practice among media professionals.
There was recognition that as the power and influence of the media grows, so too does its responsibility to the public it serves. There were calls for journalists to learn about cultural and religious diversity as part of vocational training. If they understand the harm that can be caused through ignorance, they are less likely to rely upon cliché-ridden stereotypes that stigmatise minorities.
The emphasis throughout was on the importance of effective self-regulation. If editors and journalists want the public to trust them they must be prepared to live by clear codes of conduct, accept valid criticism when they fall below their own declared standards, admit to errors and put right mistakes promptly. It is the best way to disarm politicians and governments who would prefer to control the media.
Such threats are on the increase as media professionals report on the fractures in society worldwide. There were calls for journalists to support each other across political and cultural divides whenever governments or vested interests anywhere seek to limit their ability to tell the truth or their freedom to associate.
The Exiled Journalists’ Network set up with help from MediaWise is an example of the solidarity action called for in Vienna. And the International Federation of Journalists’ announcement of an Ethical Journalism Initiative to engage working journalists and their employers in promoting more diverse, high quality media products is something MediaWise has campaigned around for years.
It remains to be seen whether governments and media owners will pick up on the positive messages that emerged from this two-day hothouse in Vienna. Hopefully we will not have to wait until the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue in 2008 to discover whether the media really does appreciate its enormously influential role in challenging xenophobia and speaking for and to the increasingly diverse population of Europe.
(Bulletin No 122)