By Jean-Paul Marthoz*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
Diversity? The term had a weird meaning for me when I was a kid. In fact, it was never mentioned in my little world, which was made up of a close-knit family that numerically dominated an isolated village in the Belgian Ardennes, which was itself dominated by the steeple of the Catholic church.
The media habits of my parents were not diverse at all, nor even ecumenical, but staunchly and unequivocally Catholic. My father faithfully read the conservative Catholic daily La Libre Belgique, my mother was an avid reader of a regional paper partly owned by the Bishopric. Both pored over religious news in the official church weekly, which printed the sermons, the Mass timetables and the imprimatur – that is, the list of books, newspapers and movies that a good Christian should favour or avoid.
Diversity? No, unity. Around the Church, the Monarchy and the ruling Christian Social Party.
My destiny was just like that of everyone else in the village. My cousins, my neighbors. Like me, they were born in a Catholic maternity ward, were protected by the Christian health mutuality, and if they were bright, they were sent to study at one of the severe Catholic secondary schools in the area. Mine was even a Little Seminary ensconced in an 11th century grey-stoned abbey planted in the middle of dark forests. The contents of my courses, the lists of my readings, were determined by the Catholic hierarchy. Diversity? No, uniformity. Around Catholic writers from Paul Claudel and Gilbert Cesbron to Graham Greene.
Thinking about those years now, I realize that I was perhaps the least destined to find myself, decades later, immersed in a world of political, ethnic, cultural, religious, and philosophical diversity. And enjoying it so much. How did this happen? What did it mean?
Belgium is a particular case. In fact, in the last 70 years the country has simultaneously experienced a process of inclusion and exclusion, of uniformization and separation. Since the end of the 19th century the political and philosophical institutions, the “pillars”, as they were called, had organized and segmented politics, education and social life around Christian, socialist or liberal ideas. There were few cross-overs and mavericks were looked upon with scorn or mistrust. However, in the wake of the 1960s cultural and social upheavals, these lines began to blur. Journalists could start their career in the small-circulation La Cité, the organ of the Christian trade union, and then move to Le Soir, a large-circulation newspaper anchored in the liberal and secularist tradition. Over the years the country grew more diverse as it “welcomed” a growing number of foreigners – political refugees from dictatorial regimes like Spain and Portugal, but also, and more significantly, economic migrants, especially from Italy, Morocco and Turkey.
At the same time, the Flemish and Francophone communities that constituted Belgium and were supposed to relish the national motto “Unity makes strength” started a process of separation from each other, the result of pent-up grievances over the dominant use of the French language by the ruling classes in a linguistically diverse country. Normally as an alumnus of a Catholic secondary school I was pre-programmed to study in the beautiful historical city of Leuven in Flanders, where the prestigious Université catholique de Louvain was founded in 1425. But I could not. The year I left my “collège” in 1968, nationalist politicians and Catholic bishops decided to cut it into two separate institutions. French-speaking students were compelled to move to a new location some 20 miles away, on pastures situated in French-speaking territory, on the other side of the newly established “linguistic border”. Diversity? Segregation. At the same time political parties and a number of civic associations split up along linguistic lines, as if language trumped ideologies -socialist, Christian democrat, liberal – that were supposed to be inspired by universalist values.
Years later, in November 1998, when I attended my first event organized by the Media Diversity Institute, at the Freedom Forum in London, all these memories were floating in my head as I was listening to Michael Ignatieff’s reflections on the “narcissism of small differences”. At this London conference centered on discussions about communal conflicts, I knew that the end of the sixties had been my “aha moment”. Even though Belgium’s linguistic battles had not turned violent, they had shaped my world views forever. I had become a universalist, whatever that meant. I was for the free expression of cultural differences and for equality for all linguistic groups. And therefore, during the Franco dictatorship in Spain, I supported the Catalan and Basque demands that people be able to speak their own languages. But I was suspicious of – and hostile to – the idea of identities and communities based on – or leading to – diffidence and exclusion.
Even before that London conference, I had had intense discussions with MDI’s founder, Milica Pesic, who had been working with New York University’s Center for War, Peace, and the News Media. As a journalist, I was appalled at the role that “hate media” had played in the former Yugoslavia in exacerbating what my former colleague in Paris (and future member of the French Academy), Amin Maalouf, a Melkite Christian from Lebanon, had called “murderous identities”. The Srebrenica massacre and the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda shocked me profoundly as they upended the “never again” mantra that the international community had solemnly promised to uphold after the Second World War.
For my family, which had been active in the anti-Nazi resistance, the Holocaust constituted the most extreme example of identity politics. Thanks to their warnings, very early in my life, the risk of genocide, of “eliminationism” as historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen would call it in his 2009 essay Worse than War, the claims for population homogenization with its consequent exclusion of minorities, became the central reference in my definition of identity and of diversity.
The fear that identity claims can lead to civil strife or – even worse – to ethnic cleansing and genocide conditioned my analysis of many communal conflicts. As a journalist I was particularly concerned by the general failing of the press when confronted with evident signs of radicalization, hatred and atrocities. Why didn’t The Press Shout? This question, the title of a book on American and international journalism during the Holocaust, haunted me. “Policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil”, Samantha Power wrote in her groundbreaking book, “A Problem from Hell”. These reflections would lead me to advocate for a form of journalism of anticipation and alert, for the “responsibility to report”, as Carleton University professor and ex-reporter Allan Thompson calls it, on the risks of genocide, in line with what the UN General Assembly would call in 2005 the “responsibility to protect” populations in danger.
For me, diversity meant exchanges, encounters, fusion. The first foreign country that I visited was Mexico in 1971, and I was thrilled by its celebration of mestizaje, the miscegenation of “races” and cultures. This hybridization expressed itself in the Place of the Three Cultures, called Tlatelolco in Nahuatl. In the middle of the site stood an Aztec pyramid and a Catholic Church, surrounded by modernist high-rises that were supposed to represent the unique diversity of Mexico.
Even as I was aware that this mestizaje had mostly been the result of the violence of colonization, I concluded that it was an invitation to share and mix and enrich lives. This mestizaje was also present in Mexican cuisine, which blends ingredients and recipes drawn from pre-Columbian times, the Spanish colonization and the French influence into divinely delicious and complex dishes. It enriched the country’s arts and literature, from Frida Kahlo’s paintings to Carlos Fuentes’ novels. It did not mean fusion or homogenization, but in Carlos Fuentes’ words, “the duty to invent a great innovative synthesis of the times which had marked us”, by respecting in particular the contributions of Mexico’s Indigenous cultures.
I experienced the same process intellectually. I came from a practising but very open-minded Catholic family. My mother viewed her faith, to some extent, as an accident of birth. “I am a Catholic, perhaps because in Belgium most people are. If I had been born in Morocco, I would have been a Muslim, I suppose”. The dogmatic teachings of the Church were softened by contact with the works of enlightened philosophers, novelists and journalists as well as progressive and socially conscious activists in the Christian workers’ movement. Esprit, a leading intellectual review founded in the 1930s, became my inspiration. Its founder, Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, opened its pages to non-Christian authors who shared his aspirations and hopes for justice and freedom.
I was seduced by the idea – drawn from my own experience but also from my readings of Bertrand Russell or Albert Camus – that every person could grow and break free from the shackles of their own community, social class or religion. Diversity went hand in hand with freedom of conscience, the right to choose your own beliefs.
My best intellectual companions in these university years were mostly liberal Jewish thinkers. They were sometimes dissidents or contrarians in their own communities, from Baruch Spinoza to Hannah Arendt. They dared to confront the dogmas of their tribe and by doing so they created brilliant, humanistic reflections on our societies and our fate. Dissent was part of diversity.
On my return from my Mexico study trip in 1971, I was struck even more by what I saw as the mediocre arrangements carving up my country along linguistic lines. The media reflected this growing separation. On the two sides of the language border, coverage of the country became compartmentalized, while the real world, in both communities, was growing increasingly diverse. New migrants were coming in and were expected to blend into one of the two communities, to become French-speaking or Dutch-speaking Belgian residents or citizens.
I hated this separation. I saw it as an attack on the values in which I had been educated. It denied the past that I had been taught to respect and honour. During the Second World War, my father and my mother had been part of the Resistance. It was the moment in their lives that transcended everything else and in fact reflected their understanding of “unity in diversity”. “I will always prefer a Flemish anti-Nazi resister to a Walloon or Francophone pro-Nazi collaborator”, my father would say when questioned about his loyalty to the Francophone cause. Linguistic diversity, yes, but first and foremost unity in sharing the values of freedom and humanity. In the mid 1990s, at a seminar in Ohrid, Northern Macedonia, sponsored by New York University Center for War, Peace and the News Media, I repeated my father’s quote, to great effect, when confronted with a local journalist for whom ethnic nationalism trumped humanism and ethical journalism.
Le grand large
In the early 1970s, I booked a flight to, of course, Mexico. But as I could not get a residence permit there, I tried my chances further south, in Costa Rica, which welcomed me with open arms. While teaching French at the state university, I started my journalistic journey at a new leftwing political weekly, Pueblo. Run by a former Catholic priest, it was staffed with political exiles from Central America and Chile. I also freelanced for the expatriates’ weekly, The Tico Times. My editor-in-chief was a woman, an exception in the world of journalism at the time. Derry Dyer was brilliant and congenial and she started a pattern in my career in which, for half of my working life, I was supervised by women.
The Tico Times was a liberal paper dedicated to civil rights and equality. Despite its reputation as the Switzerland of Central America, the only democratic country in the region, Costa Rica was still struggling to include its Black citizens, heirs of marooned slaves who had escaped from sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The Tico Times opened its columns to intellectuals from the community of African descent. In fact, this gringo newspaper was one of the few media venues in town where Blacks had a voice.
It was a political and ethical choice. But it also reflected a philosophy of public interest journalism, the way the Commission on Freedom of the Press, chaired by University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, had defined it in its 1947 seminal report A Free and Responsible Press. Among its recommendations, the report called upon journalists to “project a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society”. Diversity was a matter of justice, but it was also an intrinsic corollary of the first commandment of public interest journalism: to provide, in the Commission’s words, “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning”.
As a journalist, I saw diversity as a necessary ingredient of any story aspiring “to provide the best obtainable version of the truth”, to quote Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. Could the press do that without being itself a reflection of the diversity of the societies on which it was reporting?
When I was hired by Le Soir in 1980, I entered a newsroom that was politically and philosophically diverse but less so in other ways. The effort to increase gender diversity was in its infancy but was gaining strength. If there were still only a few women on the staff, they held very visible positions: among them were a daring war reporter, the editor of the sprawling economics department, and a talented political editor. However, most of the journalists were still white, middle-class, secular. The paper was liberal and vocally anti-racist but, with the exception of two Lebanese journalists on the foreign desk, the staff did not include anyone from the migrant communities, even though these already represented a significant part of the increasingly cosmopolitan city of Brussels.
How could we accomplish our essential mission and pretend to “tell the truth” if we did not have journalists “issus de la diversité”, who would help us understand what was happening in all the communities that made up our society? Since my early days in journalism, I had been fascinated by the US press. And I closely followed the journalistic experiments on the other side of the Big Pond, from the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate saga, in particular, when The New York Times and The Washington Post dared to stand up to the Nixon administration, which governed from 1969 until 1974. But I was also attracted to reporting initiatives that journalistic scholars at the time called “community journalism”.
The US is a country of immigrants. Decades before their Belgian or French colleagues, US journalists had been confronted with the challenges of reporting on a very diverse society. On its Black community of course, but also on a country made up of hyphenated Americans; Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans. How did US journalists address these stories? I had read with awe and admiration Black Like Me, a non-fiction book by John Howard Griffin, a Texan journalist who in the 1950s had darkened his skin to roam the Deep South and tell the story from the perspective of a Black subjected to segregation and the “hate stare” of white racists. His project demonstrated that undercover journalism could be crucial to diversity reporting.
Others immersed themselves not among the victims of discrimination but among the victimizers, by infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups. These were dangerous but important investigations. In these tumultuous years, reporters from The New York Times or from the very few liberal Southern newspapers were considered by segregationists to be “enemies of the people”, part of the elite “lying press” that deserved to be mobbed and punched.
The will to “project a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society”, as the Hutchins Commission recommended, did not necessarily require such daring methods. In most cases, it simply meant to get out of the newsroom, meet and mingle. “Roll down your window”, advised Puerto-Rican journalist and New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez in a book that described the way he covered Latinos in the US. His beat was community journalism at its best, immersing himself in the ordinary, day-to-day life of a community, chit-chatting with regular people, walking leisurely around neighborhoods, observing the small signs of change that reveal trends and developments: the replacement of a Latino shop by a Korean restaurant, the Babel-like diversity of languages among parents waiting for their kids at the local schools.
As Gonzalez elegantly wrote: “The outsider who wanders into one of these outcast neighborhoods by accident only registers garbage and loud music. And with a roar of his engine, the stranger is gone. But if he had rolled down his window and listened for a moment to the melancholy lyrics of the music, or stepped out and bought a coffee, he might have learnt something about his own humanity.”
Unfortunately, in Belgium very few of the journalists assigned to cover a specific community practiced this form of “slow journalism” and grassroots reporting – at least in the media where I worked. Journalists who were supposed to cover the Muslim communities mostly visited “les quartiers” when there was an “incident”. Or at the beginning and end of Ramadan. Their main contacts were the community’s established leaders who at times were ignorant of – or disconnected from – the reality on the ground.
The invisibles and “deplorables”
The pattern even applied to a form of diversity that is rarely mentioned in our neoliberal times: social class. Most media in Europe missed the story of rising rancour and a sense of disenfranchisement among lower-income whites. The “deplorables”, as Hillary Clinton infamously called them in 2008, the pro-Brexit “chavs” in the UK, or the Yellow Vests that rocked the initial days of President Macron’s presidency, were mostly absent from the mainstream media.
There had been warnings. In France, the eminent social scientist Pierre Rosanvallon had written about these people that he called the “invisibles”. They were mostly white people, blue-collar, often veterans of a downsized manufacturing sector, who felt left behind by globalization, migration, culture wars and technological disruptions. Who had taken the time to talk to them? Studs Terkel, the legendary author and radio host in Chicago, had done so in his iconic books The Great Divide and Working, interviewing with a sympathetic ear a chorus of people usually forgotten and sidelined by the media. But he was a lonely figure in the world of mainstream media.
All these issues popped up in 2018 during an event convened by MDI at the Perugia International Journalism Festival to discuss the rise of the far right and the press coverage of populism. Was the press part of the problem by being too close to the liberal global world and too oblivious of – or even too dismissive of – the “white tribe”? The press, or at least a significant part of it, was taken off-guard and was definitely at fault: not only did it largely miss the “invisibles” and the emergence of populism, but it also took time to report properly on the most violent groups. “The coverage of the far right is not really a cause for cheers in the mainstream media”, I said at the gathering. “In many countries violence from far-right groups has been underreported, compared to the coverage of Islamist terrorism, and often framed in a way that tends to misrepresent their danger to democracy.” I mentioned in particular the coverage of the October 2015 attack against the Christian Democratic candidate for the Cologne municipality by a far-right thug. It was so underreported that I headlined my column in Le Soir: “Don’t worry he is just a neo-Nazi”. Imagine the media frenzy if he would have been a Muslim! Diversity reporting implied consistency and excluded double standards, said the speakers at the event. I could not agree more.
Quotas and the truth
Starting in the 1980s, the press tested other ways to tackle diversity. How about hiring a number of reporters and editors from the “other” communities, up to a percentage of the newsroom, so that the staff would more or less closely reflect the demography of a rapidly diversifying nation? In 1980, I had been to the US on a Fulbright Scholarship to study the press. And I had met a couple of African-American journalists and members of Congress who expected a lot from newsroom diversity. Some were speaking of the need for quotas of “ethnic journalists” in newsrooms. Many were insisting on the need to give more visibility to non-Caucasian anchors on TV.
These suggestions were well-meaning and in fact rather obvious. But I was concerned by the risk of assigning journalists to specific beats not based on their skills or desires but on their ethnic or religious origin. Ethnic-minority journalists assigned to cover their communities faced a difficult task. If they reported any inconvenient truths, they and their families took the risk of being more or less excluded from their community. Over the years, however, diversity was adopted as a mantra in many media circles. It became a central tenet of journalists’ unions and an organizing principle in public broadcasting. It led to hiring rules and editorial guidelines.
These efforts achieved some success. In Francophone Belgium, in the first decade of the third millennium, two women from the Maghreb anchored the most popular evening news programmes on both the private and public TV channels. One of them, Hadja Lahbib, is now Belgium’s foreign minister.
Rising visibility, however, did not mean that newsrooms were numerically more diverse. If the proportion of women kept rising, other indicators of diversity were lagging. While the population of residents of African and Arab origins was growing, the numbers of journalists from these communities remained disproportionately low, in part because few people from these groups considered journalism a promising career. Many more preferred to join political parties or chose more prestigious professions, like medicine, business and the law.
In fact, although a majority of migrants had found their bearings, identity had become a hot-button issue. The growth of Islamist movements on one side coincided with the rise of nativism on the other side to give an ominous meaning to diversity. For these identity-driven groups diversity was no longer seen as a promise of equality and respect for the common good. The former confused it with assimilation and therefore as the denial of their most essential norms, beliefs and values while the latter perceived it as a threat to their once-dominant national culture.
Newsrooms became battlegrounds. Some tabloids and talk shows fed intolerance and bigotry, seemingly ignorant of the International Federation of Journalists’ Global Charter of Ethics: “Journalists shall ensure that the dissemination of information or opinion does not contribute to hatred or prejudice and shall do their utmost to avoid facilitating the spread of discrimination on grounds such as geographical, social or ethnic origin, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, disability, political and other opinions”. The more respectable media were accused by one side of being racists and by the other side of being “politically correct wokists”. In Belgium’s Francophone part, which is highly influenced by France’s controversies, journalists felt obligated to define themselves as pro- or anti-headscarf, pro- or anti-Islam. The publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the subsequent terrorist attack against the satirical weekly on January 7, 2015, framed the controversies and froze attitudes in increasingly polarized camps. Social media harassment fanned these battles, leading some journalists to avoid the touchy subjects of migration or religion altogether. In contrast, others took sides and often crossed red lines by jettisoning the journalistic principles of independence and impartiality.
There was no way out of these battles without reaffirming core principles. This is the message that was conveyed at one of the most interesting MDI events I attended. In January 2019, at the Brussels International Press Centre, I moderated a distinguished panel of journalists, lawyers and scholars who addressed the issue of “reporting religion in the populist era”. Auckland University of Technology’s Verica Rupar, Human Rights League Director Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty, Reporters Sans Frontieres President Pierre Haski, US-based religion expert Kimberly Winston and the European Commission’s David Friggieri candidly analysed the frames, routines and assumptions of religion reporting.
And they confronted the challenges and dilemmas of free speech and responsible reporting. These exchanges highlighted the need for all of us to constantly reflect on our biases, to discuss them openly, to think from the standpoint of someone else, and to embrace complexity where too often Manichean or binary positions prevail.
I still see that event as emblematic of my own reflections on diversity. It stressed the potential of finding the common ground underlying our differences and of turning these differences into an asset and a lever of journalism. This is what my newspaper, Le Soir, had been doing in recent years when it was collaborating with Flemish media Knack or De Tijd to investigate public interest stories, from the Panama Papers to corruption at the European Parliament. Their combined strength anchored in diverse networks of sources and cultural references produced outstanding journalism. Diversity and unity, freely crossing its linguistic border to work together, was possible in my own country. It reminded me of the discussions I had held with Milica Pesic on “multi-ethnic reporting”, assigning journalists from different communities to work together on issues of common interest, like the environment or social issues. My journey on the road of inclusive journalism had come full circle.
That night, at the prestigious Residence Palace in the heart of Brussels’ EU neighborhood, “sharing” was the key word and the roadmap for a journalism of diversity: sharing the best of our own idiosyncrasies, but also our doubts and our fears. Sharing above all those common values that we think are universal and without which we could not imagine a common humanity and a common destiny.
*Jean-Paul Marthoz is a columnist at the Brussels daily Le Soir. He is the author, or coauthor of some 20 books, in particular The Media and Terrorism (UNESCO, 2017) and Fragile Progress (on the EU and Press Freedom, 2023). He has been Human Rights Watch’s European Press Director and EU correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Between 2002-2022 he taught international journalism at the UCLouvain, Belgium. He sits on the Editorial Board of Index on Censorship magazine, the Ethical Journalism Network, the Bastogne War Museum and Belgium’ public broadcaster’s (RTBF) ethics committee.