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.]

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