Populist. Enemy of the people. Liar.

by Nicholas Phythian
Wednesday, 31 October 2018 11:24 GMT

Participants on the Foundation's Diversity and Resilience training programme in Alpbach, Austria. Photo: Rosalind Phythian

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Insults, from whatever quarter, are not new in politics. Labels, loaded words and emotive language have long been used to sway - or limit - public debate.

They are the stuff of political rhetoric, but any journalist who wants to engage audiences across the political divide and inform that debate needs to handle them with care.

“Is Orban a populist when his party has a consistent political programme?” Matej Zwitter, a radio journalist from Slovenia, mused as we walked back to our hotel one evening from the 2018 Alpbach European Forum.

Matej was one of 10 journalists from central and eastern Europe attending a Thomson Reuters Foundation workshop on the sidelines of the Forum, which markets itself as Europe’s Festival of Ideas.

He was referring to Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, who is locked in a dispute with the European Union over migration, democracy, European values and the rule of law. His question, particularly in the age of social media, was a valid one.


The Reuters Handbook of Journalism offers the following definition of a populist: “Usually a politician who appeals to popular interests or prejudices and is often critical of establishment politicians, parties or policies.”

However you define it, the term “populist”, which is used across the political spectrum, has become a label, a loaded or derogatory term that can raise hackles and stifle debate.

Yet the label, with its different associations, is less important than the policies, when it comes to helping the public, which is essentially you and I, understand the significance, for us, of what a “populist” might have to say.

The Reuters Handbook offers the following advice to journalists: “The term is vague and ill-defined so try to specify what the policies advocated.”

The Alpbach European Forum, launched by a member of Austria’s resistance to Adolf Hitler’s national socialism, began in 1945 as a series of international summer seminars focusing on Europe’s cultural, scientific and humanitarian heritage and European integration.

This year, the Forum, which brings young people together with Nobel laureates, political and business leaders, artists and members of civil society, ran from August 15-31, and organised its debate around the theme of “Diversity and Resilience”.


With its multiple plenary and break-out sessions, Alpbach confronts any participant with a series of difficult, if not impossible choices. You just can’t do everything.

“I found the combination of the conference and a journalistic workshop happening alongside the conference very interesting, yet a bit challenging, too - mostly in terms of how to organize the time and the group work,” Magdaléna Vaculčiaková, a freelance journalist from Slovakia, said, looking back at our time together.

Matej and other participants in the Thomson Reuters Foundation workshop welcomed the opportunity to network. “I like the freedom this program gave us to attend sessions, network and explore the conference. It was very interesting to me to attend such a conference, it gave me an opportunity to get interviews that would otherwise be difficult to get,” Matej said.

But he and Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska from Poland were hungry for more discussion about reporting on difficult or delicate subjects and the use of loaded words such as populism, terrorism, far-right & far-left.

“The workshop would benefit from more sessions on ethical issues faced by journalists in the increasingly polarised world, how to engage with our audiences better and how to report on sensitive subjects,” said Agnieszka, who had misgivings over a story she wrote about a group that delivered aid to migrants in Lebanon.

Her concern was that by reporting on the actions of a small nationalist group, motivated by a desire to help the migrants stay in the Middle East, she was helping promote an anti-immigrant agenda at home.


Populist is one of many loaded words. So too is the word “terrorist”.

The Reuters Handbook offers the following advice on dealing with emotive words.

“Some words have emotional resonance, or their definitions are highly debatable, or are vague, so should be used with special care in the interests of neutrality and accuracy. Bear in mind that the unqualified use of words like ‘extremist’, ‘guerilla’, ‘insurgent’, ‘militant’, ‘radical’, ‘terrorist’, mean different things in different contexts,” it says, adding:

“One man's ‘terrorist’ can be another man's ‘freedom fighter’. One man's insurgent may be another man's lawful ruler driving out a usurper. Do you brand a guerrilla attack on a bus as terrorist but not the indiscriminate bombing of a village by government forces ?”

This traditional Reuters mantra raised hackles in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, where the debate about language has moved into other areas with conservatives accusing the Associated Press style book and mainstream media who follow it of censoring the word “pro-life” in the abortion debate by replacing it with “anti-abortion”.

Dig a little deeper and you find it’s not a question of censoring emotive words but of how and when you use them. “‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ must be retained when quoting someone in direct speech,” the Reuters Handbook says. “When quoting someone in indirect speech, care must be taken with sentence structure to ensure it is entirely clear that they are the source’s words and not a label.”

The BBC takes a similar line and offers the following advice to its journalists: “We should not adopt other people’s language as our own. Our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.”


The Forum, as well as Political, Economic, Legal and Financial Symposia, also invited our journalists and other participants to explore the practice of mindfulness in politics, business and other walks of life during a series of Alpine hikes.

Chris Ruane, a parliamentarian from Britain’s Labour Party, explained how politicians and those working with them in 40 countries around the world are exploring techniques for stepping back, grounding themselves in the moment and creating space to think about the best way forward. “We sprinkled the ecosystem of decision-making in the British parliament with mindfulness and we are hoping good things will flow from that,” Chris said.

Another British parliamentarian, Andrew Rosindell from Britain’s governing Conservative Party, meanwhile, highlighted a need for everyone to step back - and listen - with an intervention from the floor at the end of a break-out session on the media and populism.

Andrew, a supporter of Brexit, criticised journalists on the panel and raised a difficult question or two about dissident views and diversity in an age of self-affirming echo chambers.

At the same time, his intervention highlighted another perpetual challenge facing the journalist - how to engage meaningfully with audiences across an ideological divide.

That, however, is a question for another day.