Will democracy collapse without journalism to provide political information?

December 4, 2008

Polling Station by hugovkIt’s a ques­tion that tends to assume there’s only one answer – yes. Journ­al­ism is both an inform­a­tion source and a watch­dog. Without it, demo­cracy would seize up. So is it true? I think the answer might actu­ally be – no. And the reason has more to do with our demo­cracy than with our journalism.

Let’s start with Brit­ish democracy’s view of itself. For me it’s pretty much summed up in a cam­paign encour­aging par­ti­cip­a­tion in local elec­tions in North Lon­don. Posters run the slo­gan: No Vote. No Voice. No Excuse.

More accur­ate, but less punchy, would be: If you cast your vote in a mar­ginal seat, you can elect a coun­cil­lor who might have the bal­ance of power over a budget that is 80% hypo­thec­ated by cent­ral gov­ern­ment, and whose remain­ing powers to raise or dis­pense or raise cash are highly cir­cum­scribed.

In our rep­res­ent­at­ive sys­tem, vot­ing offers a choice rather than a voice. Rousseau’s dis­missal of Britain’s ancien elect­oral sys­tem still rings true:

The people of Eng­land regards itself as free: but it is grossly mis­taken; it is free only dur­ing the elec­tion of mem­bers of par­lia­ment. As soon as they are elec­ted, slavery over­takes it and it is nothing.

Being informed is not part of the demo­cratic bar­gain in the UK. The law imposes no edu­ca­tional or inform­a­tional com­pet­ence on voters. Given com­puls­ory sec­ond­ary school­ing and a vot­ing age of 18 it could be argued that some edu­ca­tional exper­i­ence, although not attain­ment, is impli­cit in the vote.

The con­sequence of not liv­ing in a par­ti­cip­at­ory demo­cracy is that the public’s inform­a­tion needs are really quite mod­est. This isn’t a pop­u­lar idea.

We prefer to be a bit more romantic about the intel­li­gence of the aver­age cit­izen. Advoc­ates of pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing make their case for news by claim­ing that “cent­ral to the idea of the demo­cratic soci­ety is that of the well-informed and self-determining indi­vidual.” So do we need journ­al­ism to inform people’s lim­ited choices?

In the 1950s an eco­nom­ist called Anthony Downs argued that the demo­cratic sys­tem did not incentiv­ize voters to become informed. His pos­i­tion? Because an indi­vidual vote is so value­less, people who try to become well informed about polit­ics must be doing so either for instru­ment­ally irra­tional reas­ons, such as per­ceived civic duty; or because they are ignor­ant of the odds of their votes mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, mean­ing that they can­not have ration­ally weighed those odds against the costs of being well informed. (The corol­lary, of course, is that elites like polit­ical inform­a­tion because they see ways of influ­en­cing the polit­ical pro­cess bey­ond the bal­lot box.)

Downs argued that given its low ‘return,’ most people would want to pay noth­ing for their polit­ical inform­a­tion, and he iden­ti­fied seven ways they could get it for free. Six of them have noth­ing to do with journ­al­ism. The first on Downs’ list is the inform­a­tion provided by the gov­ern­ment itself.

In other words the pub­lic data and reports that are made avail­able (in his days through lib­rar­ies, but now online) for polit­ic­ally minded cit­izens to acquire inform­a­tion. And with inde­pend­ent gov­ern­ment bod­ies, like the National Audit Office, there’s both watch­dog func­tion and information.

The only type of free polit­ical inform­a­tion that equates to mod­ern polit­ical journ­al­ism is that from enter­tain­ment sources (like TV and news­pa­pers) which “some­times yield polit­ical inform­a­tion as a sur­plus bene­fit from what is inten­ded as an enter­tain­ment invest­ment … Some cit­izens also seek straight polit­ical inform­a­tion purely for its enter­tain­ment value because they enjoy polit­ical rivalry and warfare.”

If we took that sev­enth source out of the mix and beefed up the oth­ers would our demo­cracy be any the worse? Discuss…

[Ori­gin­ally pos­ted here.]