Ferrero-Waldner: Cultural Diversity the Quest for Common Moral Ground and the Public Role of the Media
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Austrian Foreign Minister
"Cultural Diversity - the Quest for Common Moral Ground and the Public Role of the Media"
Saturday, 8 November, MuseumsQuartier Wien, Erste Bank Arena
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have the pleasure of welcoming all of our distinguished guests here tonight on the occasion of our international symposium entitled "Cultural Diversity - the Quest for Common Moral Ground and he Public Role of the Media".
I would particularly like to thank the staff of the Institute for Human Sciences and its Rector, Professor Krzysztof Michalski, for their excellent cooperation in organising - together with my Ministry - this symposium which will begin tonight with a keynote speech by Charles Taylor, distinguished Professor for Law and Philosophy at Northwestern University in Chicago and author of such topical publications as for example "Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition", published by Princeton University Press.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When we think about the concepts that have shaped the world we live in during the past half-century, even within the past decade, there are many key words that come to our mind. "Globalization" which has many meanings, both positive and negative, may be one of the most decisive concepts of all. It signifies that we have to learn to look at political and economic questions in a way which includes all of their global consequences.
Globalization has made all of us more acutely aware of the ways in which our currencies, our economies, our political fortunes, our attempts at waging war and our attempts at building peace are all inter-linked. It is not possible to "go it alone" in the kind of world we live in, since there is no such thing as "alone." Quite on the contrary: given the modern means of transportation and communication, even the farthest corner of the world can be reached by a camera team of a news organization in a matter of hours - yes even minutes - if a "newsworthy" event has to be reported to the public. Does this increased proximity of world cultures, religions and civilizations thus mean that our mutual understanding - and tolerance - has increased over the past decades?
Well, just to give one prominent example, Samuel Huntington certainly has not thought so. In his well known publication about the "clash of civilizations" he basically concludes that in the post Cold War era, world politics will be increasingly characterised by clashes along the civilizational fault lines.
So is it true that one of the unavoidable divisions of the future is the one between the "West and the rest"? Huntington is certainly correct when he argues that cultural differences have taken on a new importance, forming possible fault lines for future conflict. However, it seems to me that what is truly important is how we deal with those fault lines by which we are often separated from one another.
Austria has a longstanding record in organizing a dialogue between cultures and civilizations and has acquired tangible political know-how in this area. During the past years in my position as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and before that in my capacity as State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, I have put a lot of energy and time into initiating and promoting such a dialogue. And I have done this for one simple reason: I am firmly convinced that there is no alternative to an open and sincere dialogue between cultures and civilizations. What has, however, been somewhat missing in past years was the inclusion of the indispensable role of the media - who are after all the prime communicators to the public - in our deliberations. This is precisely why my Ministry has organized last year an international seminar dealing with the important role played by the media in this context, and frankly this is why I have invited you all to come here tonight.
All political and religious efforts to promote a dialogue between cultures and civilizations must reach out to a wider public. The task we as governments, religious leaders, teachers, writers and journalists share is to give people a fair chance to understand and appreciate different cultures and civilizations. In order to involve our civil societies in this dialogue, we need the media, writers and poets to help us transmit a message of understanding.
Nothing is easier than to use - and abuse - well established prejudices in order to characterise and describe "the other". Nothing is harder than to portray complicated and emotional matters in an even-handed and well balanced way. "Audiatur et altera pars" as the Romans have put it: "You also have to listen to the other side". However, it is certainly not enough to listen, we also must try to understand. What are the deeper roots of a conflict? Where do we constantly talk past each other? What are the underlying motivations for certain patterns of behaviour?
I am of course aware that media-organizations are businesses and therefore have to follow certain rules of the market. I am also aware that a headline beginning with the words "on the one hand - on the other hand" might not sell a whole lot of newspapers. Sometimes the media have to sharpen an argument, have to exaggerate in order to get to the heart of a problem. But there is also an ethical responsibility for intellectual honesty, for truth and sensitivity and for messages that are not purposefully biased - and this is precisely the reason for the various "codes of conduct" of media organisations which try to enact standards of excellence for journalistic behaviour.
That we are often walking a fine line in this context should not be overlooked. Allow me to give you one example: A few weeks ago a member of the US-House of Representatives - Democrat Jim Marshall - returned to the United States from a visit to Iraq. On the day he left Iraq via airplane he shared his flight with the body-bag of Sergeant Trevor Blumberg, who had been ambushed and killed that afternoon in Iraq.
In an open letter to the media, Representative Marshall accused the US media of being - at least partially - responsible for the killing of US troops in Iraq. The media were - according to his view - dwelling upon the mistakes, the ambushes, the killed soldiers, the Blumbergs. But they were not balancing the bad news with -the rest of the story-, the progress made daily. They were thus creating a falsely bleak picture and weakening the national resolve of the US as well as emboldening the enemies of the United States.
His comments drew a sharp reply from the President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and I quote:
"It is clear that there is much debate in the United States and internationally about various aspect of the Iraq situation. We report a wide range of stories, reflecting many viewpoints. I can see no failure in the coverage or any reason at all to accuse the media of harming the situation. This assertion is unsupportable in fact and wholly uncalled for."
I wanted to give you this concrete example merely to show you, how delicate the questions are about which we will be discussing in the coming two days.
Let me be crystal clear: I am not talking about taking sides or asking journalists to ´cry peace´ when there is no peace. But they also have to explain, to illuminate and to present the various shades of grey - not just black and white, tempting as it may be. I believe strongly that all of us - politicians, journalists, academics - have the responsibility to roll up our sleeves and work on those shades of grey - or else we will not be looking at a rosy future.
Thank you for your attention. I hope that Vienna will be a fertile ground for today’s and tomorrow’s deliberations.