On May 24, 2018, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum hosted the TV debates of the Valdai Discussion Club on the Russia 24 TV channel, titled “Information Inequality: How to Rebalance the Information Landscape Globally”. At the heart of the discussion was the problem of restoring confidence to information in the context of the gap between the capacities of different countries and cultures to influence the global information field.
This inequality means that a relatively small number of mass media, primarily the Anglo-Saxon ones, dominate the global information landscape. In recent years, non-Western countries have been engaged in creation of alternative sources, which caused a sharp negative reaction not only from the media monopolists in the market, but also from the governments of the concerned countries.
According to debate participants, this inequality has several aspects. It not only impoverishes the information landscape for the audience, contributing to the preservation of information incompetence on the global scale, but also serves the political agenda of individual countries. Inequality has deep reasons, related, in particular, to the dominance of Western countries in the world economy, and it will not be easy to overcome it. But the non-Western world can and should provide its audience with its own point of view – not only to confront the Anglo-Saxon mainstream, but above all to shape a broader perspective.
Noteworthy was the lineup of the debate participants. Representatives of various schools of journalism gathered at one table, including media managers from the three countries that make the most active efforts to create an alternative to the English-language narrative: Russia, China and Iran. According to Margarita Simonyan, the RT news network editor-in-chief, inequality in the information space always existed, and only in recent years the bias towards the Anglo-Saxon media began to be countered. “As soon as this inequality ceased to be clear and other voices began to sound louder, governments and special services began to fight against it,” she said.
Yerlan Karin, Chairman of the Board of the Kazakhstan Television and Radio Corporation, noted that there will probably never be a single picture of the world. The problem is different: in a world where information inequality reigns, the dominant narrative makes it impossible for other voices to speak out.
Justifying the struggle with alternative voices, people in the West say that these voices “undermine the information balance.” However, according to Simonyan, only the western hegemony is understood as balance. Meanwhile, in Russia it is believed that it is better to have different points of view. Information consumers need them. This is evidenced by the fact that over the past year, when the increasingly retaliatory measures were taken against RT, its audience has grown by one third.
Recognizing the existence of inequality in the information environment, Juan María Calvo, International Relations Adviser to the president of EFE news agency (Spain), pointed out that it would be wrong to talk about the Western media as a single united front. “Spain is a western country,” he said, “but we do not follow anyone’s instructions. Everything is not so homogeneous in the Western world.”
However, in the coverage of events in such countries as Russia, China or Iran, the Western media usually sound in unison, the three countries’ media managers told their Spanish colleague. Seyed Zia Hashemi, Director General of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), referred to a conversation with a New Zealand professor, who said that he received all information about Iran from CNN. It turned out that the scholar did not have the slightest idea of Iran as a country with an ancient and rich civilization, being in captivity of stereotypes about the aggressive policy of its government, propagated by the American television channel. Li Bin, deputy director of China Global Television Network (CGTN), noted that stereotypes about his country are popularized by the Western media both because of concerns about China’s role in the international arena as a powerful player and because of the mere incompetence of journalists. According to Margarita Simonyan, some leading figures in the Western media are die-hard Russophobes, for whom everything that happens in Russia is a priori bad.
All participants in the discussion agreed that incompetence is a serious problem of modern journalism. To solve this problem, Andrey Bystritskiy, chairman of the board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, called for professional media to return to the top of the “food chain” in the information space. It is necessary to go back to high professional standards, to achieve a kind of journalistic renaissance, restoring the information hierarchy, he stressed. Colleagues agreed with him. Juan María Calvo noted that this process should take place on several levels: journalists themselves must work on their quality standards, governments should ensure the increase in literacy and professional level of the media, and technology companies should invest in tools to combat fake news.
In order to get a little closer to solving the problem of fundamental incompetence, as well as information inequality, the professional media need to cooperate with one another. “We need to communicate and unite,” Yerlan Karin said. “Not against someone, but for the common cause”. “When we are together, we are stronger,” Li Bin agreed. “When we are apart, we are weak.”
Summing up the discussion, Andrey Bystritskiy noted that Russia, China and Iran managed to achieve quite impressive successes in overcoming the information inequality. The reason is that the colleagues try to work honestly and decently, and this is what is required for the success of professional journalism, he said.