Can Television be a Force for Good? Screening and discussion with BBC Media Action at the Legatum Institute


On 7 July 2015, Legatum Institute hosted a TV series screening and lunch discussion with BBC Media Action’s Ellie Haworth (Middle East & Europe Head of Projects) and Josephine Casserly (Governance & Rights Adviser), moderated by Peter Pomerantsev. The project they presented is a web series titled, targeted at young audiences in Ukraine and aiming to support the country in dealing with tensions and divisions exacerbated by the war.

The series which currently includes four eight-minute episodes is focused on two youths who start their own business in contemporary Ukraine, willing to do any job for $5. As a result, they have to interact with different kinds of people, and often find themselves in ridiculous, tricky, or difficult situations. The project is a contemporary drama, seeking to address the problems that young people are facing in today’s Ukraine, in particular the problems of hate speech and polarisation of the society.

The TV drama was produced in collaboration between BBC Media Action and National Television Company of Ukraine which operates the state-owned television channel Pershyi Natsionalnyi that has a coverage over 97% of Ukraine’s territory. BBC Media Action, the charity and international development arm of the BBC, works in partnership with local media and development organisations around the world, seeking to promote social change, improve education and healthcare, and support human rights in developing countries. The current project is funded by FCO; the US State Department is also said to be willing to support it. The idea behind the series is based upon research conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology among young people aged 15-24 from cities and villages in different regions of Ukraine.

The screening of two episodes introduced the two protagonists of the series (a Ukrainian- and a Russian-speaker), the challenges of their business, and a mysterious girl. The story is bound to cause emotional and ambiguous reaction of parts of the audience: one of the scenes features an unknown character listening to ‘Novorossiya radio’ delivering an obviously pro-separatist and anti-Ukrainian broadcast. In another scene, the characters visit an IDP camp where one of their jobs is to entertain refugee children from the East of the country. Emphatically bilingual conversations of the protagonists have already caused some criticism among the audience in Ukraine for allegedly sounding unnatural and impeding popularisation of Ukrainian language, to which the director of the broadcaster responded by stressing that the series actually reflects the contemporary linguistic situation in the country. At the same time, raising controversial issues in the show is one thing; preaching to the converted by presenting ideas that would confirm existing prejudices instead of challenging some of the existing views is also something to be avoided, as noted by the writer Zinovy Zinik from the audience.

After the audience proceeded to the lunch discussion, the speakers gave a brief presentation about the project. The big question that they sought to find an answer to was whether quality TV dramas can help the country develop and solve its problems. The speakers sought to strike a balance between optimistic and pessimistic views on media’s social impact. They consider opportunities of the media to provide social influence, increase accountability, and create a space for dialogue and participation. Media’s role in conflict is based on providing unbiased and independent information, generating broad and inclusive discussion, and possibly shifting social norms around violence and tolerance, stressed the presenters. TV drama as a particular genre is able to create a safe space to address problematic issues and complex dilemmas. Rather than being didactic, it relies on a softer approach which is ideally based upon research, implies translating nuanced and realistic images and discourse, and encourages critical thinking. Haworth underlined that the project intended to show how people were affected by the war in a realistic way, instead of creating a political drama.

Politicisation of the very subject of the series is something that the producers constantly have to deal with. Showing the series in the war-ridden territories in the East, for example, is hardly possible: it would be difficult to find a local broadcaster there and remain in good relationships with NTU. The choice of channel was not an easy one, admitted the speakers when asked about the reasons of limiting themselves to a state broadcaster: NTU was ultimately chosen not only because of its coverage, but also because it was trying to become a public broadcast service. The challenges of affiliation with state institutions like FCO or State department were also highlighted.

In conclusion, the discussants noted that media projects cannot change things on their own and need to work in conjunction with other initiatives to support education, healthcare, and human rights. In the particular case of 5baksiv, they were clear in stating that it is not possible to put an end to the conflict, hatred and social divisions by a single TV series; however, with this project they hope to contribute to the reversal of some of the negative practices.

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