The atmosphere of suspense, unawareness and drama is almost tangible in the book Ausgestrahlt. Die mediale Debatte um ”Tschernobyl” in der Bundesrepublik und Frankreich 1986/87 by Katrin Jordan. In her book, which is based on her doctoral thesis, Jordan poses the crucial question: why has the catastrophe of Chernobyl in April 1986 had such a different impact on public opinion and on the energy policies of the European countries that were touched by the radioactive fallout of the exploded reactor? More precisely, in the German public sphere and eventually also in German politics, Chernobyl was interpreted in a way that fundamentally questioned the legitimacy of the use of nuclear energy, whereas in France support for domestic nuclear energy technology has remained more stable. This is a relevant issue from today’s perspective too, as we try to understand the tensions between European nations in their attempts to find solutions in energy policy that would meet the challenges of both climate conservation and energy security.
As Jordan points out, the focus on Germany and France for closer study is analytically convincing, since more research from comparative and transnational perspectives is needed in order to understand why public perceptions of a certain technology can be so different in neighbouring countries. The book both benefits from and advances recent research trends seeking new ways to analyse anti-nuclear movements and political perceptions of nuclear technology. Jordan approaches these topics by studying the public debate on and the framing of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in German and French media and politics immediately after the accident as well as in the following weeks and months. The book covers the first cycle of the Chernobyl debate, during which public debate in West Germany and France started to move in different directions. The long-term implications of the accident and its consequences for energy policy, especially in the German case, are outside the scope of the book.
The main question in Jordan’s study is why public reactions to the Chernobyl accident differed in West Germany and France. Equally important questions that Jordan discusses concern the role of mass media in the dynamics of public debate and the interplay between journalists, experts, academics and politicians. The Chernobyl case is an illustrative example of how facts, opinions, interests and emotions were interconnected in public debate in a crisis that was totally unprecedented. It encouraged the media to find new ways of reporting and presenting the voices of experts. As a part of this process, states were forced to reconsider their administrative structures and principles of information dissemination.
Jordan’s source material is extensive. It includes diverse archival sources, newspaper material, television broadcasts and interviews. Her efforts in source collection are impressive. Jordan’s analysis of these sources is meticulous, easy to follow and interestingly written. Overall, Jordan has accomplished a coherent analytical narrative of discursive processes. She argues that a variety of sources and expertise was significantly more widely and vividly articulated in the German media than in their French counterpart.
The book consists of four main chapters in which Jordan discusses the theme from multiple viewpoints and combines both the German and French perspectives. The focus of the first chapter is on information policy and crisis management of the Soviet, German and French authorities. Jordan points out the differences in the political and administrative structures in Germany and France and exemplifies how these structures set the frames for the ways the officials and politicians initially dealt with the catastrophe. The German federalism made the information system relatively chaotic and increased the volume of contradictory measures. Within the more centralized political settings of France, analysis, communication and precaution measures were mainly concentrated in the hands of a certain ministry and service. In the second chapter, the discussion covers the interaction between experts and journalists in their assessment of the catastrophe and its consequences. Both in Germany and France experts and their opinions had high public visibility since reliable information from the catastrophe area was, at best, very limited. In the French case, during the weeks following the reactor explosion the media accepted the statements of the representatives of established institutions without any significant criticism. In the German press, experts from non-governmental research institutes were more widely heard and they criticised official information politics and experts from state-run or industry-orientated institutions quite harshly.
In the third chapter, interpretations of the Chernobyl catastrophe made by the German and French media are profoundly analysed. This chapter offers a deeper historical context for the theme of the book, and in that sense it is one of the most important parts of the entire study. Long-term historical context is essential when considering and explaining why the public perception and symbolic meaning of the Chernobyl accident differed so deeply in these countries. Jordan points out how the social acceptance of nuclear energy had been highly questioned in the German context since the 1970s. The Chernobyl accident was adapted in the already on-going discourse as a concrete evidence of a “maximum credible accident” that concretized all the previous safety doubts. In France, nuclear power had a very different meaning for national identity as it was considered as the basis for military and economic independence. From this premise, media representatives in France discussed the causes and consequences of Chernobyl significantly more as a matter of the Soviet Union without making generalizations of possible defects of nuclear technology as such.
The fourth chapter analyses how the media commented on different perceptions of the catastrophe in these neighboring countries and how the catastrophe caused tensions for the German-French relationship. The media debate did not only concern information and interpretations of the actual accident, but when discussing the catastrophe journalists were also (re)producing explanations of differences and partly stereotypical interpretations of the neighbor country and its people. Jordan describes how the Cattenom nuclear power plant situated in Lorraine forced the German and French media, authorities and politicians into a dialogue on cooperation and on how to deal with confrontations shortly after the Chernobyl accident. In her concluding remarks, Jordan briefly argues that the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 was a further case that could illustrate the dynamics of public attitudes towards nuclear energy in the two countries.
The consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe for political and societal practices in the Soviet Union are not within the scope of the book, but the study includes notions that enable the reader to contemplate these aspects as well. The book leads the reader to consider the role and place of media in non-democratic states and, therefore, the value of a free press and freedom of expression. In addition, Jordan describes how the Soviet authorities practised covering-up, for example by photoshopping and by accusing the Western media of mounting an ideologically motivated campaign against the Soviet Union. These notions also resonate in the context of other, more recent crises. Jordan acknowledges that a lack of information directly from the Soviet Union and the catastrophe area rendered the work of the media in West Germany and France as well as in other West European countries difficult, and that the news were therefore largely based on speculation and second-hand information. This viewpoint could have been elaborated even more when analysing the reasons for the statements of the contemporaries in West Germany and France.
Altogether, Jordan’s book describes not only a single historical catastrophe and the immediately ensuing media debate, but also discusses many significant questions concerning the dynamics of informing and forming opinion in media-intensive societies. It illustrates the importance of giving a voice to diverse expertise in media and making a distinction between speculation based on opinions or on facts. Jordan’s book is therefore recommended reading on public conceptualizations of a crisis that challenged the work of the media and the authorities in ways that have had lasting consequences for our understanding of the reliability of information and politics.