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Understanding the Rise of Media Nationalism through the History of Cold War Media

The second ECREA 2016 keynote this evening is by Sabina Mihelj, who begins by acknowledging the substantial growth in eastern European media research, which has challenged and surpassed Cold War frameworks. We now have a better understanding of how the Cold War affected media and communication in east as well as west, and there is much in this history to be optimistic about.

But the ground has shifted again: several European countries now no longer want to be part of a democratic Europe, and the United States have just democratically elected a leader who actively opposes many democratic principles. The notions of democracy, and of Europe, as strikingly different across the countries of this continent. There no longer is a great deal of reasons to be optimistic.

What will be the future of European media and communication, and media and communication research, in this context? Eastern Europe might serve as a key laboratory for such research. For instance, it serves as a case study for the interrelationships between media and nationalism: this can be seen from the Balkan wars all the way through consumer nationalism and the current refugee crisis.

But media nationalism remains crucially underresearched, with substantial interest only from peripheral European nations; country focuses tend to address former colonies, non-European nations, or (at best) Germany. In major European nations, media nationalism has tended to be seen as a minor issue that no longer deserves substantive research effort. But the Brexit debate in the U.K. has shown that this is not so; there now needs to be a renewed focus on such issues.

Spotting media nationalism in the Brexit debate is easy, however; this is not so easy in other, more subtle debates across eastern European nations where such nationalism is expressed by both the left and the right, and often in relation to other nations seen as threatening or undeserving of becoming full members of Europe. Indeed, there are two kinds of nationalism and two kinds of Europe here, loosely represented by the U.K.'s Leave and Remain campaigns. Nationalism was and is our problem, whether we are Europeans or anti-Europeans. We live in a world of nation states and media nations; these are increasingly interconnected, but distinct media nations nonetheless.

Take TV: technologies have improved, channel options have multiplied, and we no longer necessarily even watch television on and as television. This is a world away from the communist television programming eastern European viewers would have experienced before 1989; such programming positioned viewers as participants in a grand experiment and sought to further their ideological education, while also needing to be entertaining. But this programming also differed markedly across countries; it combined a number of content genres in various mixtures, balancing public missions and market demands much as public service and commercial television in the west had to do.

There are similarities across western and eastern European programming: for instance, a preference for European over U.S. programming even in spite of audience demands. At the same time, television in the east was gendered differently due to the higher workforce participation rate of women: less daytime content aimed at women, more programming produced by women.

Developing an understanding of these media patterns prevents us from dismissing these historical facts altogether and entering into a purely presentist understanding of media developments. There is a growing interest in such research, which explores the shared and tangled histories of media on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This has uncovered interesting similarities in addition to the obvious differences, and can also help to explain the re-emergence of highly nationalist media in a number of western as well as eastern European countries in recent years. This can also help to preserve the historical achievements of democratic media in Europe.