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02.03.2017

Pegida - now the good news

by Jane Whyatt

Journalists under attack from right wing populist groups in Germany are fighting back – with words as their weapons. Reporters in Dresden have devised a stage play to convince audiences that journalists are professionals and can be trusted.

First the good news_2 Scene from the play "First the good news", on stage in Dresden. Pictured: Marcus Anhäuser, Anne Schneider, Lena Schulz, Yolande van der Deijl, Charlotte Morache. Photo credit: David Baltzer

The city is at the heart of the Pegida anti-immigration and anti-Islamic movement. (Pegida stands for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West" in German.) Since 2014, this political group has continued to stage weekly Monday evening demonstrations, having numbered up to 18,000 people at their peak in 2015.

ECPMF has been monitoring Pegida supporters' ongoing physical and verbal assaults on journalists and camera crews, carried out under the pretext of fighting the "Lying Press" ("Lügenpresse").

News superheroes

Now local journalists are appearing at a city centre theatre, each playing themselves in a provocative performance. It manages to be fun to watch while carrying a serious message at the same time.

The journalists insist that they are not following political orders. And they point out that their play, "Zuerst die gute Nachricht" ("First the good news") is an attempt to regain the trust of all the people of Dresden.

On stage at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden, they give themselves special powers and dress up as superheroes. For example, one becomes as small as a fly on the wall, to listen to politicians when they meet with business leaders. Another can travel back in time, to discover the historical context of today’s news stories. And the medical journalist gives himself the ability to instantly read and understand all the conflicting scientific evidence at the speed of light.

Ethical debate

The "actors" argue fiercely about the journalistic code of ethics. For instance, should reporters mention that a suspected criminal comes from a migration background?

Those who want to stick to the German Press Code contend that mentioning a suspect's ethnic origins leads to stigma and racism. Others on stage laugh at them: the police description of the suspect is readily available on the internet – so what is the point in covering it up? Dresden's non-native German population is less than five percent of the whole, so individual migrants are easy to identify, they explain.

First the good news_3 In action at the Dresden theatre: Charlotte Morache, Jürgen Hahm, Lena Schulz, Yolande van der Deijl. Photo credit: David Baltzer

The price of information

In another part of the play, the journalists struggle to find a new business model that will save the news industry. "Fake news" is one idea – running competitions in which readers and viewers have to guess whether news stories are true or false, to win a cash prize. A tax on information (like an all-media TV licence) is another idea.

An Army press officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Christoph von Löwenstern - freshly back from Afghanistan - is also part of the cast. He adds insights from the point of view of embedded reporters. 

Löwenstern has told the ECPMF:

When we started work on the play, fake news was a new phenomenon. We were ahead of the wave - It's important to be always ahead of the wave."

He then laughed, because what he had just said was also one of his lines from the play – a quote from the Handbook of Crisis Communication. He portrays the conflict between journalists and press officers. The rest of the cast are also cold to the idea of PR.

"I was offered a well-paid job in public relations," says one cast member. "I considered it for a whole thirty seconds."

The exception is the senior reporter who is a mother and cannot cope with the 24/7 demands of working in a newsroom as well as looking after her family. A PR job would solve her problem.

First the good news_4 Charlotte Morache in a Batman-like costume during the play. Photo credit: David Baltzer

Feedback

After the play, the journalists face questions and comments from the audience - which inevitably includes a few Pegida supporters:

"Why do you never interview us?"

"Why do you label us as Nazis?"

"We are just concerned citizens, and we have a right to express our concerns."

And thus a channel for dialogue and for promoting mutual understanding is opened.

The journalists themselves are also concerned citizens – not professional actors – and their theatre project represents their attempt to reply to the "Lying Press" smear campaign. It remains to be seen how this bit of "good news" might reverberate in society.


More

For further information, dates and photos for the play "First the good news", visit the Staatsschauspiel Dresden website.





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