Paying Peanuts for Monkeys

18 10 2009


Photos: Boris Bergant chairing the discussion / Erhard Busek opening the session / Zoe Schneeweiss debating. Credit: Matthias Wurz

“It is most frightening to realize that history has not taught us a lesson ,” Boris Bergant uttered the words softly. The Slovenian radio and television journalist, current Vice President of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), addressed a distinguished audience of media professionals from Central and South-east Europe. His voice seems pressed and slightly nervous, but full of emotions. Before he could continue, however, his remarks were interrupted by enthusiastic applause.

It was Oct. 16, the evening event of the Standards of Evidence symposium, organized by the Commission on Radio and Television Policy for Central, East and South-east Europe alongside with the Forum Alpbach. The scheduled panel discussion on ‘The Media and the Financial Crisis’ with high-profile media professionals held at Vienna’s Haus der Musik, was preceded by a short but not less dignified award ceremony for Boris Bergant. The 61-year-old is recipient of the Dr. Erhard Busek SEEMO 2009 Award for Better Understanding. His short acceptance speech was a moving recollection of the Balkan’s troubled, repetitious and bloody 20th century history.

The SEEMO Award 2009 Ceremony

Austria’s former Vice Chancellor and President of the Forum Alpbach as well as Coordinator of the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI), Erhard Busek, was not only but also the benefactor of one of Europe’s most prestigious media awards but also host of tonight’s award ceremony. Just a few introductory words were needed for one of the finest and eloquent journalists the Balkan region has. “You have to earn your award,” Busek amicably addressed the delightful award recipient when he referred to the following debate that Bergant would chair.

Busek_16102009Boris Bergant, who was predominately working in the field of foreign policy, has nevertheless built a reputation in reporting of minority-related issues. So, the question is a valid one and the award recipient posed it rhetorically:

“Did I do anything special?” and his smile seemed to indicate that he hasn’t done more that his job.”But these days also the President of the United States received a prize,” he commented jokingly but slightly reserved on Barack Obama as Nobel Peace laureate, and with a twinkle in his eye he added that “it seems to be the fashion, more or less, to give prizes not for what you have done, but for the expectation that you will do something good.” At that point Bergant certainly won the audience with his charm.

But in the words of Oliver Vujovic, Secretary General of the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), Boris Bergant certainly is a worthy recipient: “The prize is important as moral support for press freedom and democratization in South East Europe,” and Bergant’s integrity and outstanding contributions for better communication in raising the understanding of South East Europe, he added, was evidently key to the jury’s decision.

“I am both proud and sad that I am also someone from the Balkans,” Bergant expressed with confidence. And with reference to the 1990s, where massacres between the ethnic communities relived the past of the 1940s, his comment of not having learned from history was a compelling one.

“We must not allow the hatred between the Balkan nations ever be re-ignited,” Bergant appealed insistently. The massacre of Srebrenica of July 1995, he indicated, was a symbol of that hatred. And it’s hoped to be of the past.

The Panel Discussion

Once Bergant was presented with the award certificate, the pictures were taken – a warm handshake with Busek – he took his seat at the podium along with Michael Mauritz, spokesperson of the Erste Bank Group, Zoe Schneeweiss, Bureau Chief of Bloomberg News in Vienna, and Petar Pountchev, CEO and Director of Belgrade’s Radio 3.

“Today everybody is affected by the crisis: What a good start!” Bulgarian radio-presenter Petar Pountchev opened the debate with a provocative statement. Certainly the financial crisis of 2008 is a great chance for journalists, Pountchev is convinced. At Belgrade’s Radio 3 station the pace changed, the journalists are re-energized, he shared his experience:

“We have 1,100 % growth since then, when everyone complains we are going to die,” he added with a dry voice, “we are not recovering from the crisis – the crisis is recovering from us.” A good time to be in journalism, evidently. Or rather, those who professionally following the crisis.

Schneeweiss_16102009“It’s a fantastic time to be a financial journalist,” Zoe Schneeweiss seconded, and her confident smile is disarming. The 30-year-old journalist heads the local Bloomberg News in Austria, and there is great demand for good writers in that field, she added, as companies require more than ever well-researched financial information, particularly from the Central and Southern-European regions.

But the story is yet different for general interest media, Erste Bank spokesperson Michael Mauritz indicated. “Often we are confronted with journalists who are not able to analyze financial reports,” he offered his insights, and he ascribed this to a media crisis.

“When you pay journalists peanuts, you only get monkeys,” he concluded pointedly and attributed the financial disaster many media outlets find themselves in of providing free material through their websites.

“Just like the mobile phone companies in the late 1990s, the newspapers repeat the same mistakes by providing the same content free online,” and with a serious and vivid glance into the audience he predicted, that “it will be hard to convince customers that they have to pay.” But this is, what newspapers in particularly will have to do in order to survive. Otherwise the quality severely suffers and more readers might go adrift.

On that note, Erhard Busek concluded the session with the invitation to join him and the speakers at the exquisite buffet.

“It’s for free,” remarked jokingly, “ I hope it’s something worthwhile.”



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