The article below was published February 12th 2005 in Aftenposten. Translated and re-published with the author's permission.
Maintain their position.
It tells us a great deal of the medias powerfulness when Aftenposten must open for debate about "Polish Nazis" in the Ukraine, because NRK boss John G. Bernander chooses to stand by sources that fail completely. And he's still standing there.
NRK and the dangerous arrogance of the medias.
by Nils Morten Udgaard
In a time when the medias' hunt for peoples which might have broken written or unwritten rules for correct behaviour in today’s society becomes more and more intense - as the public sees it - then it is in place to observe the medias own execution of the power which many get to feel. And here we have a good and fresh example to present.
At mid-day yesterday, Wednesday, there was still a text published on the net, the controversial NRK-text from the famous net-meeting about Ukraine 26.November last year, with the claim about "expressed Polish Nazis in the Lviv-region" today. This claim was presented by a NRK employee, Hans Wilhelm Steinfeld, which in the following debate the last weeks has underlined that "my boss, John G. Bernander supports me in full". No correction of anything.
Not a trace of Poland.
The case came up because the Polish Ambassador approached NRK after the net meeting, and asked for documentation behind this claim, and was sent a CD and a DVD with the two NRK programmes which Bernander concurred produced such documentation. But as it turned out they didn't at all. They contained no reference to Poland, Polish language nor Poles. Norway's prime expert on the Polish language including it's dialects likewise examined the programmes and also failed to note any trace of Poland in them. When the Embassy didn't get anywhere with NRK, Aftenposten published the first letter.
Documentation was the core-issue, as seen from a press perspective. But instead of a clarification about sources we got a detour in the form of a dog fight about European history, of Poland’s place and role during the last war - maybe an important debate which illustrated to the Norwegian readers how complicated and difficult this history is. Poland lost 18% of its population during the war, even far more than the USSR (11%) and Germany (7%). That explains why a Polish Ambassador is wide-awake of any references to Polish Nazism, also in Ukraine. If it can be documented. But it couldn't.
A critical approach to the sources is the core for all serious journalism, just as it is the main factor for any historical study with serious ambitions. When cheating with the sources, then credibility is at stake, both for institutions and for persons. And that's when one wonders how an institution like NRK works. It seems as if one single employees polemic roar has scared any management hierarchy to gather around the mouse-hole, whilst editor-signs and position-declarations flies in the air during the escape. A strange sight.
PFU (Press Ethics board) didn't check.
But NRK is not alone. When PFU - the medias own watchdog - got the case sent them from the Polish Embassy, they didn't examine the case's sources. "Under all circumstances we cannot conclude otherwise than it's one opinion against the other about the described situation". The sources referred to by NRK were never checked. Had that happened we hope that PFU would have taken the trouble of concluding that one claim is right and the other wrong. Sometimes it's that simple.
Maybe more than any other business the medias operate in a fluctuating social universe. They live and die due trust from others. They have traditionally lived well of having been the critics of power. But what happens when the medias becomes more powerful, when they themselves are thought of as being too powerful, a part of "the power out there"?
Possibly people on the outside exaggerate the medias power. But us on the inside shouldn't overlook that the last large power-investigation showed the increasing role of the medias. That doesn't only request responsibility. But also to see that the road from power to powerful arrogance is short. That's when we need alarm clocks. We've got them. But on this occasion we simply had them turned off.
Dr. Nils Morten Udgaard is an editor at Aftenposten. He was adjunct professor of modern European history at the university of Bergen till 1997.