Ministry of Positive Content

Try to imagine it: in response to the world financial crisis, the UK’s Deputy Speaker in Parliament invites all journalists to a special meeting, called to discuss the disturbing lack of positive news in their broadcasts.  Various solutions get put forward, including an interview with the Chancellor in a relaxed setting about his love of dogs.

Not entirely absurd, of course, since the crisis is partially escalating due to panic in the face of bad news from all sides. On the other hand the news is bad, add all the softeners you like, but good it is not.  The other reason for being less than amused is that such an event took place on 2 October in Ukraine. Journalists came and in all seriousness discussed the "problem" of negative news.

The roundtable, entitled "Formation on Ukraine’s television of positive information content" was organized by Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Mykola Tomenko to call on the media "to fight negative material at the legislative and moral – ethical levels". In endeavouring to find out what I was obtusely missing, I reread two reports about the event carefully.  The Deputy Speaker presented two examples where negative news prevailed.  Without detail or comparison of the news broadcasts with those on other television channels, it is impossible to assess the newsworthiness or lack of such in those which aroused the politician’s wrath. Seemingly, however, the news was true.

When one of Ukraine’s legislators suggests fighting negative news at a legislative level, it seems desirable to know what exactly he wants to shield us from. Precisely that remains, at least to me, unclear.  It does certainly happen that there is nothing much to report and yet it looks rather odd to cancel the news for want of any. In such cases, taking stories from a crime chronicle alone is misleading the public. The purpose of showing the results of violent crimes in graphic detail should also be considered.  Unfortunately we know of certain patterns where, for example, a reported suicide can prompt others to take their own lives. It is well to keep this in mind, however, as with reports about world events, awareness of possible repercussions should make us more sensitive and responsible, not shut us up.

Having said all of this, I remain baffled as what on earth all those politicians and media were doing in the Verkhovna Rada, or more simply, why politicians want to have any say in this at all. They clearly do: the Deputy Speaker quotes the law on information, on television and radio broadcasting, on public morals, and suggests enforcing these. 

"According to the Deputy Speaker, the fashion for violence and negative content in the news on television directly violates current legislation, demoralizes society, especially the younger generation."

With such serious albeit extremely vague accusations, some specific examples would not go amiss. There are restrictions on when certain material with violence or explicit sex can be shown, a prohibition in the Criminal Code on inciting enmity, and so forth. Yet here we are talking about the news and I am blessed if I can fathom what the politician means by "a search for mechanisms for balancing positive and negative information while definitely observing the principles of freedom of speech and media independence."

You can just imagine the changes. ""Sorry, but we’ve had our quota of negative news today – tell us about the financial crisis, the war in Georgia, the floods, the bomb in Pakistan tomorrow."  And as regards one’s diet of positive fare, the scope is simply vast for "jeansa", i.e. covert advertising dressed up as "news". It will be that much harder to fight, with editorial boards shrugging their shoulders and referring to the quotas for positive items.

If any politicians are suggesting using legislative means to protect us from negativity then, excuse me, they need to define their terms.  Most vague and worrying is the reference to "dominance of violence and negative content in television news".  There are thus two separate focuses of criticism however what precisely the information of negative content actually contains is anyone’s guess. So something terrible is demoralizing society but what it is exactly and how the demoralization is reflected the politician does not specify.

The Head of the Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morals is only a little more specific. While previously the Commission’s concern was with fighting pornography and violence, their tasks are now apparently much broader, being linked "with preventing denigration of national honour, individual dignity on ethnic grounds, xenophobia, attacks on places etc of national or religious importance, attempts to aggressively influence the formation of the younger generation’s worldview."

If one reads the Law on the Protection of Public Morals, other issues are mentioned in passing, but the main focus is on violence and sex. No other area is spelled out in any detail, and it is unclear how the respected members of the Commission will be arming themselves before hurtling into battle in defence of our morals.  The mind similarly boggles as to what their report expected next year will contain.

There are undoubtedly issues with hate speech, xenophobia and sometimes calls to violence in the media. They need to be addressed after clearly and as unequivocally as possible defining the acceptable restrictions to freedom of speech. This definition should reflect the principle articulated by the European Court of Human Rights, that restrictions must be those necessary in a democratic society.

What do we have here?  News with negative content is supposedly demoralizing society.  Some cause and effect situations are clear: smoking causes cancer.  The shop assistant who sells the cigarettes to an adult is not responsible if the latter gets cancer. Here too in this fog of vague terms it is not necessarily clear that the vendor, or in this case, journalists are to blame.

The Ukrainian media could in theory demonstrate national uniqueness by boldly changing the whole understanding of "breaking news" which on those television channels concerned about protecting public morals would have to take their place in the queue on days overfilled with negative content.  Only, what for?

In fact it’s not so difficult to uncover the secret of negative content. When there is no escape from cries of treachery and plans for overthrowing the State, of this or that judge’s alleged venality, from blunt talk about the price of a deputy’s mandate, when we face a repeat of elections without choice, without clarity as to who and what the voters are voting for, the only imponderable must be who is not experiencing "demoralization".

In a democratic society politicians have clear tasks, as do journalists and others. There are more effective means of reducing negative content in the news than abusing its bearers.

Halya Coynash

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