MacCarthy’s World | Corresponding to fact

A revealing survey this week of 66 Denmark-based foreign correspondents by Politiken probed the state of this countryÂ’s reputation abroad over the last ten years.

In an age where reputation often seems to be all, where image is carefully managed and soft power of all hues plays an increasingly important role, this was a timely survey.

In rounding off the decade of centre-right government, it was all the more well-timed.

The correspondentsÂ’ verdict on the reputation-management capabilities of the VK+O administration was scathingly clear cut: failure.

According to the correspondents, the previous government ran a ten-year master class on how to run your reputation into the ground. A full 79 percent of the journalists said that the Danes came to be viewed by their readers and listeners back home as more xenophobic under VK+O rule. And 58 percent of the respondents said that DenmarkÂ’s reputation became much worse or worse during the period. One lone respondent out of the 66 held that it had improved.

Countering any suggestion that journalists are by nature a pessimistic bunch who will invariably seek the dark side of a story, the survey also revealed a bracing optimism: Some 67 percent expect DenmarkÂ’s general reputation to improve under the new prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and a whopping 73 percent believe that the stigma of xenophobia will diminish in the years ahead.

Coinciding as it does with a decisive shift in political power from the right to the left, it would be tempting to assume that the journalistsÂ’ answers were directed by inherent leftist sympathies. But this would be incorrect.

I personally know the vast bulk of these journalists, and believe me, they cover the entire right-left spectrum of political sensibilities. The variety is as marked as it is in any representative cross-section of public opinion in any other developed democracy.

These journalists come from every corner of the planet (almost, weÂ’ve got nobody from the Antarctic) and they report back to editors and readers of everything from small-circulation special interest journals to global financial and business newswires and newspapers.

On the basis of interests, adherences and political perspective, any common denominator simply does not exist.

But we do have rather a lot in common, not least our dedication. We work hard and given that the nature of the foreign correspondentÂ’s lot is to be the eyes and ears of his editor abroad, we are uncommonly committed to getting our facts right. The buck of accuracy stops with us.

Should we get something wrong, our own reputations and careers are on the line. We have minimal margin for error because we can never be temporarily demoted to the backwaters of a news organisation and made to compile sports statistics or cover dreary court cases while the dust settles.

The reason we cannot be shifted sideways from the frontline of foreign reporting within our organisations for a period is that the bulk of us have developed pretty deep roots in this country. WeÂ’re here to stay.

We’re married (some of us multiple times à la façon Danoises), have children, have Danish friends, are members of local clubs and communities, and speak the language. Along with our colleagues in the Danish media, we are also among the heaviest consumers of newspapers and other media that you could possibly find in Denmark.

Contrary to a widespread notion, we did not just swoop in on the last plane to make snap judgements and compose quick stories on whatever topic is galvanising our editors back home in New York, London, Brussels or Beijing. A lot of us have been in Denmark for 15 or 20 years, some for 30 years, and a few for more than 40.

That said, fleets of foreign-based specialists are habitually parachuted in en masse for special events like the forthcoming Danish EU presidency. But this is a relative rarity. By and large, the day-to-day hardscrabble of covering Denmark is done by a hardworking cohort of permanent residents.

Which is what makes Claus Hjort FrederiksenÂ’s response to PolitikenÂ’s reputation survey all the more amusing. Frederiksen, you might recall, was a leading light of the previous centre-right administration, as well as one of his own Liberal partyÂ’s most active strategists. (He ended up as finance minister and left behind a gaping budget deficit for the new government to deal with.)

Frederiksen’s facile and perfunctory response to the survey was that we had confused open debate with xenophobia. “Those journalists in your survey are obviously not accustomed to the sort of open and free debate we have in Denmark,” he told Politiken.

Dear Mr Ex-minister: you are quite mistaken. We are more than adequately conversant with Danish norms. And free debate? Why this very column is a prime example thereof.

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