Journalism in times of crisis

Rebecca Abecassis argues that in times of crisis, journalists need to be clearer in their work and go beyond simply reporting the news. Interview. Español Português

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano Rebecca Abecassis
19 October 2016

A European Union flag in front of Big Ben. Daniel Leal-Olivas PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved

Manuel Serrano: People are accusing the European Union of a lack of transparency, and a lack of accountability to European citizens. Do you think that there is a democratic deficit in the Union?

Rebecca Abecassis: I would not say that there is a democratic deficit. What I think is that there is bad communication. And we, journalists, have a lot of responsibility for this, because we are not explaining how the European institutions work well enough. If we analyse them in detail, we see they work well and there is quite a lot of transparency. Of course, there are episodes of poor transparency, as was recently the case with the former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, but in general the institutions are working fairly well. Yes, it is true that there is a lot of bureaucracy and that a lot of the time things do not work as they should. The machinery becomes so heavy that, as a result, things are not easy to understand, giving European citizens the impression that things are not working.

On the basis of this analysis, there is, therefore, from the point of view of communication a big piece of work to be done by the European institutions – not only by the journalists, but also the officials themselves and the politicians, who are so often unclear.

MS: Recently, during the debate prior to the referendum in the UK about staying in the European Union or not, we saw British newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, contributing to the polarization of the voters, misrepresenting not only journalism and the truth, but also the role of referenda as a mechanism of popular participation. Would you agree with this view?

RA: Totally. And this leads us to reflect on the role of journalists today. Are we taking sides, or not? This is an extremely relevant point. I think that in the case of Brexit, media owners, journalists themselves, and many of the conservative or far-right politicians didn’t think this could happen. But the reality is that it has happened, and the consequences are much great, much worse that we could have imagined.

This leads us to reflect on the role of journalists today. Are we taking sides, or not?

MS: What is your opinion of politicians, such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who seem not to care about the future of their societies and the consequences of their policy decisions?

RA: You can only say that this further discredits European politicians. David Cameron as much as Boris Johnson, due to the positions they have held, have shown no consistency or true political conviction. I think the case of Boris Johnson is far more concerning than that of David Cameron, who simply shot himself in the foot. He at least faced the consequences and resigned.

MS: But the reasons for discrediting the EU go beyond that. For example, in relation to the refugee crisis, there is no common policy, or if it does exist, it is not applied. Apparently, the EU crisis is not limited to political incapability, but includes a clear inability to make decisions, or even implement measures that have already been approved. Are we facing a multidimensional crisis in the EU?

RA: I think that the EU is not sure how to resolve the situation. What room to manoeuvre does the Commission have to impose sanctions on Poland or Hungary? Or to force these countries to accept a certain quota of refugees? At the end of the day, the Commission believes it cannot do this because it would result in an enormous crisis, which could in itself lead to the disintegration of the Union. However, it is obviously extremely unfair that the Swedes agree to accept 160.000 refugees in six months, the Germans are prepared to accept 1 million, and the Hungarians refuse to accept 1.300. Of course, this is a huge disparity and it makes no sense whatsoever. As Federica Mogherini says, if everyone were to share the refugees, we wouldn’t even notice, because they would all integrate perfectly into our societies. There is clearly a crisis of the European institutions, since they have failed to resolve a fundamental problem.

It is extremely unfair that the Swedes agree to accept 160.000 refugees in six months, the Germans are prepared to accept 1 million, and the Hungarians refuse to accept 1.300.

MS: But, on the other hand, we also face another huge challenge: populism. From Orban in Hungary, to Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland, populism has become a problem in Europe. These populist phenomena take advantage of crises such as the refugees or terrorism to confuse European citizens, to manipulate voters, and to establish a distinction between “us” and “them”. Do you think the media have an ethical duty, in line with their capabilities, to make these politicians accountable to society?

RA: Of course. Our function is precisely to present the facts and reveal that these politicians – any politician – are lying. However, these days, we have an increased responsibility, because of the refugee crisis and the rise of terrorism which have interfered with aspects of European society: on one hand people are frightened, and on the other, they have a profound ignorance of who the refugees are and whether we should take them in, or not. Therefore, both issues need to be better examined and duly explained. In Portugal, for example, we have very few Muslims living here, compared to other countries in the European Union – such as France, or Belgium –, so it would be extremely important that, in everyday reporting, we should be conveying stories about Muslims, making it clear that a Muslim is equal to a Catholic or a Jew.

This is the new dimension of the journalistic profession. The crises that we face require us to be attentive to things you normally would not talk about. We have to explain things better, be clearer in our work, and not only go after the news – we have to go much, much further!

This is the new dimension of the journalistic profession. The crises that we face require us to be attentive to things you normally would not talk about.

MS: A final question, in relation to the selection procedure of the Secretary General of the United Nations: what is your opinion on Antonio Guterres’s election - by acclaim? Do you think he is the ideal candidate for a position that has been described as ‘the most difficult job in the world’?

RA: I think that he is the right man, in the right place, at the right time. The experience he has gained as High Commissioner for Refugees – in daily contact with these realities – certainly prepares him for dealing with what will be one of the most important issues we need to resolve over the coming years. Moreover, I personally think it is an honour and a privilege for Portugal to have someone like Antonio Guterres as Secretary General of the United Nations. What is more, I do hope that his election helps to wake up a greater interest in the United Nations within Portugal.

This interview was conducted on October 7, in Lisbon, at the conference "What democracy?” organized by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.

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