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.]

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Seamus McCauley December 7, 2008 at 12:11

I turn as ever on such questions to Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, which shows that for all the information to which voters ostensibly have access they vote according to a predictable set of systematic biases and misconceptions.

Since the seven or eight existing sources of political information we have confer no measurable benefit on the quality of the electorate’s decision-making process I have to agree with you that the loss of one of them would be trivial for democracy.

There’s also an issue as to whether it matters very much at all which of two functionally-indistinguishable branches of the same oligarchy we congratulate ourselves for kicking out every four or five years (see amongst others Crossman‘s Plato Today for a view on how long this has been the situation).


Adrian Monck December 7, 2008 at 15:35

Thanks Seamus – on the last point, isn’t it valuable for the element of uncertainty that it injects into the system?


Mark Watson April 6, 2009 at 04:33

Firstly, remember we must check our premises in any discussion, and journalism, which has been regarded as the fourth estate by Burke (attributed), he thought they held power (and I suppose they did at the time) over the clergy, the nobles, and the commons.

Today, at least in the USSA, the press is little more than a stenographer for the state (Lew Rockwell’s expression for lapdog media). Watch any white house press briefing the last few decades and it is easy to see if a member of the press wants in the room, they will toe the line for the administration, all grandstanding to the contrary notwithstanding.

We saw it on fox news when Shawn Hannity and co. routinely disrespected Ron Paul, and when beltway-koch-libertarian(sic) magazine (t)Reason did a Ron Paul hit piece. The other Ailes-boy Rush Limbaugh would not permit any discussion of Paul who had the most money of all republicans going into Iowa. We were unimpressed. We do not expect Ailes to tolerate Napolitano much longer- he’s too much like us. Great show though as long as he is still on- internet only.

They (lapdog media) should be reporting the truth,but they are not uncovering it. When they do find it out, they are paid to steer clear of reporting it. They do not serve their subscriber’s interests. Subscription journalism is going away- now we will have Nascar/Indycar media- Wherever advertising dollars go, is where journalism will go. Advertising dollars are corporate. Corporations receive kickbacks from government through lobbyists. Boeing gets no unfavorable advertising, and yet you should learn what they are doing to our very own borders.

Game over.

Soon even blog media will be Hannitized, opposing points of view will not be discussed in earnest- only at most paid lipservice. Cache will be deleted. It will be just like 1984.

Newspeak is already here.

Have a double-plus-good day and enjoy your chocolate ration.


Cynical- Hell Yes.

I do not get cable- I watch Hulu and for my entertainment. When I want news, I go to LewRockwell.com and DrudgeReport.com


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