President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö’s speech at the News, Communication and Information Wars media seminar, 15 October 2020

Tasavallan presidentti Sauli Niinistö pitämässä puhetta Uutisia, tiedonvälitystä ja informaatiosotia -mediaseminaarissa etäyhteydellä Presidentinlinnan Keltaisesta salista. Kuva: Jon Norppa/Tasavallan presidentin kanslia

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This seminar brings together professional journalists who worked in the Finnish Section of the BBC World Service. This year is the 80th anniversary of the start of the Section’s work in London. In connection with the anniversary, a history Täällä Lontoo. BBC:n suomalaistoimittajat idän ja lännen välisessä informaatiosodassa (London Calling. The BBC Finnish Section in the Information War between the East and the West) has been published. The book covers the period up to 1997, when the work of the Finnish Section ended after 57 years.

An interesting title. One might ask, what would the title have been if the work of the BBC’s Finnish Section had come to an end at the turn of last year? The information war has not disappeared. The front lines are different, of course, but the struggle for influence is still under way throughout the world or within different countries.

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The atmosphere of social discussion in Finland has changed in recent years. In a flood of information and opinions, it has become challenging to stand out and gain attention. The mood today favours short, sharp and often harsh means of expression.

As the old saying goes “it is so, if it appears so”. How then do things appear? It may be easier to influence appearance than to be categorical about whether an issue is or is not so. In other words, to make an issue appear as you intend. Such counter-realism paints an image that appears very different from the object being described.

For the media, the situation is challenging. How to approach an attention-grabbing online discussion. Does it pass the threshold for news? Or how to sharpen the news with a striking headline? Journalism is more than merely transmitting information. At the heart of journalism is evaluation, balance and professional handling of issues. It is also the assessment of whether an issue is worth reporting.

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During my visit to Washington last autumn, it was obvious how divided the media field is in the United States. For and against positions are clear. The polarisation of politics has also divided the media field in a way that makes adhering to traditional journalistic values difficult.

In clashes between journalists, personal views are considered to be the only truth. Such an emphasis that one – or what is perceived to one’s own side – is right easily leads to a situation where one’s credibility as a communicator of information is compromised. Independence and testing one’s own beliefs are the basic assumptions of a credible journalistic role. Lost credibility is difficult to regain.

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In January, the Pew Research Center published a study on the state of the United States’ media. Many media there are in a kind of limbo. If one side likes something, the other side hates it. In this research, no media channels exceeded an overall trust level of 50%. There are only three media channels that both Democrats and Republicans trust more than they do not trust. These channels are: Public Broadcasting Service PBS, BBC and the Wall Street Journal. The activities of two out of three of these are based on public funding.

These research results cast light on how important editorial principles and professional behaviour are. The book on the history of the Finnish Section also emphasises the principle of “two independent sources” followed by the BBC. The BBC appears to be ready even to suffer a short-term news loss in order to make sure that a breaking issue is correct. Apparently, this ethos still supports the reputation of the BBC.

The situation in Britain has also escalated. At the end of last year, I was startled to hear someone being interviewed on the streets of London describe the opposing factions of the Brexit debate: “We have learned to hate each other.” When an issue inspires hatred towards someone who thinks differently, we are heading in a bad direction. A culture of hatred destroys, it does not build.

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If information is only significant when it serves one’s own agenda, space is created for half-truths, even lies. This is not only about the kind of atmosphere that would be more pleasant for the parties to a debate. Loss of the ability to understand each other also plays a role. If polarisation permeates the whole of society, the success of the nation will be jeopardised.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are of prime importance. But at least as important is the responsibility that comes with freedom of expression. It goes hand in hand with honesty and truth.

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Max Jakobson – who was also a Bush Finn – published Finland – A Lone Wolf, a guide to Finland for foreign readers. Jakobson concludes the book with the words: “Historical experiences reveal how little we know about the future. We can be certain only of one thing – something happens that no one had expected.”

For us Finns to be able to prepare for this unfathomable future, knowledge and understanding must be emphasised. If we do not have the means to perceive the impact that the great changes under way will have on our own lives, it will be impossible to live without anguish.

As citizens’ level of knowledge and skills rises, they must have access to as accurate and correct information as possible as the basis for forming an opinion. Discussion aimed at developing society must not descend into point-scoring.

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The writer William S. Burroughs described language as “a virus from outer space”. A virus first attaches itself to a carrier and then spreads from one carrier to another. In today’s world of communication, words are spread rapidly and they make a mark more quickly than the coronavirus.

It is the task of journalists to ensure that among these word viruses there are also those who spread good words about good deeds.

The Finnish Section has ceased to exist as a journalistic unit, but work promoting quality journalistic culture is continued by the Bush Finns heritage association. I wish the association every success in this work.