Spotlight Populism

„We have to keep facts important“

Conversation beteween two journalists on „How to survive pupulism“ – during a coffee break.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord political party delivers a speech in Germany Foto: dpa

E: I have to write something on how to survive populism but I really don't know what I could write.. It seems to me that everything we can write is quite obvious..

Z: Well, you know.. First we have to understand what we mean by populism. There is not only one kind of populism, there is a left wing one and a right wing one.

E: Yes but for me there is ONE common definition, populism means easy answers to difficult questions. Leftwing or rightwing parties all share this feature. But it’s not only that…. It's clear that populist leaders don't hesitate to ride every issue which brings votes to their party. Look at what happens here, in Italy. We have two movements which can be defined as populist: Lega Nord and Movimento 5 Stelle. They have very different origins, they are actually very different but their leaders agree on the issue of migration. They both said that all irregular migrants should be thrown out from our country. That is exactly what I mean by simple answers to difficult questions. From my point of view, expelling all irregular migrants is not only deeply unfair but it is also impossible. But Salvini and Grillo said exactly this!

Z: I bet they did! That happended immediately after Italian police shot dead Anis Amri the tunisian terrorist who killed 12 people in Berlin. He travelled easily throughout most of Europe, with no control at all.

In December 2016 the European Academy Berlin invited 20 journalists from Southern Europe to visit Berlin. taz was part of their official tour programme. The meeting quickly turned into a talk about our shared need for international cooperation, aiming to find a media counterbalance to current crises in Europe. To start with, we decided on a question that concerns us all: How will we survive populism in Europe?

E: But this is Shengen law and it's one of the main achievements of the European Union.

Z: It’s true, but think of how easy it is to attack this law. How easy it is to say that we will solve all our problems by getting rid of all irregular immigrants, closing borders and rejecting foreigners.. If people want easy answers these are the easiest answers they can get. Think about Trump saying he would have built the wall with Mexico.

E: But what if these answers are wrong?

Z: It’s about the future. Populism deals with the present and the fear of our time. And what is worst and makes populism very difficult to defeat is that there is something real and tangible underlying people’s fears. Too many immigrants can be a problem, globalization can have bitter costs, strong unemployment and shitty jobs for the so called middle class ARE real problems! If these problems are ignored by politics or underestimated, populism will rise…

Auf Einladung der Europäischen Akademie Berlin besuchten 20 JournalistInnen aus Südeuropa im Dezember 2016 Berlin und die taz. Schnell wurde deutlich, wie groß das gemeinsame Bedürfnis nach internationalen Kooperationen ist, einem Medien-Gegengewicht zu den aktuellen Krisen in Europa. Wir haben uns zum Auftakt für eine Frage entschieden, die uns alle gleichermaßen umtreibt: Wie überleben wir den Populismus in Europa?

E: Are you saying that there is something good in populism?

Z: No, I’m not. I'm saying that in order to defeat it, politics and parties should do a better job. They should listen to people’s problems and fears and try to change things and solve problems. Our world is more and more unequal. Rich are richer, poor are poorer and the middle class becomes more and more unsecure and unstable. That's not good

E: I see, questions and problems are real, answers can be wrong, easy and dangerous.. But do you think that we as journalist can do something? If something goes wrong or false we should tell or write.

Z: It’s not just a matter of what is true and what is false, it’s a matter of how people feel and interpret reality. We have already talked about it…. Do you remember?

E: When?

Z: Last year, IPSOS (a global market research and a consulting firm) released a really impressive survey. In Italy immigrants are 9 percent of the population, but Italian people thought there were many more, about 30 Percent. So, 9 is the real datum, 30 is the perception of reality. This is not a slight difference because it changes the way people see reality. Populism takes advantage of this gap between the reality and the perception of reality and it fuels the flames of discontent and of the real problems. So, good journalism tries to bridge this gap and to tell facts as they really are.

E: It’s hard… Sticking to the truth in the era of post truth politics.. when facts are apparently not that important is a hard job.

Z: We have to struggle to keep facts important. It’s a hard job and it’s even harder because the web and social media are full of information – also wrong information – and if we want people to read us or watch us, we must offer something more and something better. We must do our best! But it’s challenging and worth doing…

E: So let’s go back to work!

Enrica Toninelli is deputy director of Italian public TV allnews channel Rainews24. For many years head of the foreign affair desk.

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Journalists from Southern Europe reflect on populism

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