Democracy and the media go together like…

December 12, 2008

Ditchley ParkLike Jeff Jar­vis, Charlie Beck­ett, and Richard Sam­brook, I too was at Ditch­ley recently for a con­fer­ence on the media and demo­cracy. Present com­pany excep­ted, it brought together a fas­cin­at­ing and lively group of people (not always the case at conferences).

Sir Jeremy Green­stock, formerly Britain’s man at the UN and in Iraq (and someone who speaks in per­fect para­graphs), gives his impres­sions below (bold, ital­ics, and broken paras are me).

For the record, I’m more pess­im­istic about demo­cracy than about journ­al­ism — but I also think Google — the acci­dental mono­pol­ist — should step up to the plate and fund some inde­pend­ent con­tent resource (listen — that’s the sound of me not hold­ing my breath).

Ditchley’s last con­fer­ence of 2008, with log fires blaz­ing against the frost out­side, brought us back to the state of the media. This time we tried to ana­lyse the health of the media and of demo­cracy together…

No-one was in any doubt about the weight of pres­sures on the tra­di­tional media. Media com­pan­ies were busi­nesses, and journ­al­ism was a pro­fes­sion, harder hit by twenty-first cen­tury change than almost any other.

News­pa­pers and their advert­ising were in fin­an­cial crisis; blogs, Face­book and other mod­ern phe­nom­ena turned any mem­ber of the pub­lic into a poten­tial journ­al­ist; and vir­tu­ally free access to inform­a­tion on the inter­net under such per­vas­ive instru­ments as Google affected advert­ising choices and there­fore busi­ness mod­els. Some par­ti­cipants believed that the house was on fire.

So Ditch­ley entered yet another of its ping-pong games between optim­ists and pess­im­ists. The optim­ists poin­ted to the huge oppor­tun­it­ies cre­ated by change and new tech­no­logy. Soci­ety was increas­ingly cre­at­ive and there was innov­a­tion every­where. If there was a risk of mar­ket fail­ure for some busi­nesses, oth­ers would grow up to take their place.

So long as there was diversity, plur­al­ity and engage­ment, there would be plenty of sun­shine break­ing through the clouds. Greater trans­par­ency made gov­ern­ments more account­able, whether or not they favoured transparency.

This did not put the pess­im­ists to bed. Busi­ness mod­els were fail­ing too rap­idly. Most of what was new ten­ded to be of lower qual­ity. If the media industry had to con­sol­id­ate, diversity would be affected. Com­mer­cial­isa­tion of the media was driv­ing out respons­ib­il­ity for report­ing the facts. If good journ­al­ism meant poor busi­ness, the trend would be appalling for the health of democracy.

The cur­rent pic­ture did not mean a lack of interest in ser­i­ous report­ing or a lack of demand for qual­ity, but sup­ply­ing it without sub­sidy was becom­ing increas­ingly dif­fi­cult. Some par­ti­cipants saw this as a gap open­ing up between the col­lapse of the old model and the arrival of a new audience/readership who would pay for qual­ity. But no-one was clear on how this trans­ition would be managed.

We tried to ana­lyse how these trends might be affect­ing the health of soci­ety itself.

  • Was an increase in sen­sa­tion­al­ism and pop­ular­ism amount­ing to a death of culture?
  • Were audi­ences becom­ing so frag­men­ted by diversity that ser­i­ous main­stream journ­al­ism was being crowded out?
  • If trust in politi­cians and journ­al­ists was equally low in pub­lic esteem, did this mean that demo­cracy itself was begin­ning to suffer?

Plenty of people thought these ques­tions needed to be answered. Greater free­dom, diversity and per­sonal secur­ity pro­duced a greater focus on the indi­vidual, with less respect and appar­ent need for gov­ern­ment. This empower­ment of the indi­vidual might not yet have settled on a bal­ance which gave state struc­tures and the macro-needs of soci­ety enough of a place.

Polit­ical parties seemed to be behind the times, at least until the Obama cam­paign phe­nomenon showed that there was another way of doing it. Politi­cians found that, in cre­at­ing laws for the free­dom of inform­a­tion, they had not suc­ceeded in build­ing greater trust. Par­lia­ment and other tra­di­tional, formal insti­tu­tions seemed to be los­ing out. Yet, even against this gloomy back­ground, there were argu­ments against excess­ive pessimism.

This was a “cre­ation” soci­ety and was well cap­able of set­ting its own rules. Young people were innov­at­ive, engaged and per­fectly cap­able of the right kind of adjust­ment. The Brit­ish, per­haps over-represented in this com­pany, were more inclined to see the dark side because they expec­ted top-down solu­tions to prob­lems such as these.

The United States, on the other hand, had a more vibrant bottom-up soci­ety which was more likely to find the answers. As for the rest of the world, whose voices inter­vened at reg­u­lar inter­vals in this dis­cus­sion with gentle mock­ery at the state the Anglo-Saxons were get­ting them­selves into, they soun­ded all too pleased to swap their prob­lems with ours in most respects.

In other words, few wished to sug­gest that demo­cracy was ser­i­ously sick. We could still agree that good journ­al­ism mattered and that ways could be found of pre­serving it. Pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing was a key issue in this context.

Demo­cracy was rather more vul­ner­able to the rise of extrem­ism, against which the media could play a vital role in pur­su­ing intel­li­gent ana­lysis and estab­lish­ing sens­ible norms: indeed, local media needed the sup­port of the inter­na­tional media in the fight against fan­at­icism. There were nev­er­the­less some prob­lems which needed atten­tion. The some­times ran­cid rela­tion­ship between gov­ern­ment and the media, espe­cially in the UK, had been taken too far.

Rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy was chan­ging its char­ac­ter if indi­vidu­als believed that they could now par­ti­cip­ate dir­ectly; and yet the way in which they were doing this was not strength­en­ing the fab­ric of society.

The themes of qual­ity and “media lit­er­acy” came into our dis­cus­sion, sug­gest­ing that gov­ern­ment, the private sec­tor and indi­vidual mem­bers of soci­ety alike ought to take more trouble to under­stand the con­text of mod­ern trends and set in hand or sup­port policies which built a more respons­ible society.

Rather than adding com­plex­ity to the sub­ject mat­ter, our dis­cus­sion of the media and demo­cracy in the devel­op­ing world gave a sense of pro­por­tion to our dis­cus­sion so far of the developed world. Dif­fer­ent coun­tries and dif­fer­ent media exper­i­ences in Africa and Asia of course presen­ted a mixed picture.

But, at its best, the media was cap­able of gen­er­at­ing huge interest and dynam­ism in coun­tries with younger or only par­tial demo­cratic sys­tems. Even where the insti­tu­tions of the state were weak and fin­an­cial invest­ment was inad­equate, the media were show­ing how gov­ern­ment could be called to account and the interests of soci­ety served.

There were still too many places where the heavy hand of the state caused severe dif­fi­culties, where – as one par­ti­cipant put it – sub­jec­tion had replaced cit­izen­ship because inde­pend­ence made only the polit­ical élite true cit­izens. But there were advances in free­dom of expres­sion and free­dom of the media which were sup­port­ing account­ab­il­ity and indi­vidual rights.

Even where the state media dom­in­ated, gov­ern­ments were find­ing that they could not afford fin­an­cial sup­port for pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing. The res­ult­ing com­mer­cial­isa­tion of state media, while open­ing up oppor­tun­it­ies on some fronts, was also pro­du­cing notice­able distortions.

With inter­net access too low across many parts of the devel­op­ing world, radio remained the most avail­able medium. Its power in local polit­ics was well illus­trated in Kenya in early 2008 when viol­ence erup­ted over lan­guages selec­ted for radio.

Gradu­ally, how­ever, use of the web was emer­ging and micro-public spheres were being cre­ated. This trend might accel­er­ate quite fast. In addi­tion, as journ­al­ism and the diversity of instru­ments improved, the power of nar­rat­ive was mak­ing itself felt in the devel­op­ing world, per­haps more so than in the developed world.

But this power would not be enough to coun­ter­vail poor gov­ernance unless fin­an­cial and insti­tu­tional back­ing for a free media also made pro­gress. In this con­text, we were warned that some import­ant coun­tries with a his­tory of state con­trol of the media were increas­ingly res­ist­ing mul­ti­lat­eral efforts to pro­mote free media.

We were asked to remem­ber that, out­side the advanced demo­cra­cies, dif­fer­ent coun­tries were at dif­fer­ent stages of devel­op­ment towards soph­ist­ic­ated sys­tems and that the les­sons we were try­ing to learn from the US and UK exper­i­ences did not neces­sar­ily yet apply elsewhere.

In Rus­sia, for example, for all the talk of demo­cratic prac­tice being on hold, there was a vibrant media debate in Moscow which could be regarded as provid­ing a more lively polit­ical oppos­i­tion to the groups in power than, say, in the United States. The form which the expres­sion of opin­ion took did not neces­sar­ily mat­ter when it came to its effectiveness.

While this dis­cus­sion did not eas­ily lead to any firm policy con­clu­sions or recom­mend­a­tions, there were areas of focus which emerged as valu­able or as need­ing fur­ther con­cen­trated effort. One of these was pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing, which we covered in some depth. The Brit­ish sys­tem was seen as almost unique in its char­ac­ter­ist­ics, includ­ing the nature of the licence fee and the main­ten­ance of the (usu­ally) high qual­ity of the BBC.

But there was nervous­ness about the costs of pre­serving this qual­ity if the pub­lic ser­vice broad­caster was also required to reach large audi­ences and main­tain a com­mer­cial approach for at least a part of its out­put. In the United States the role of pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing was less cent­ral because the suc­cess of com­mer­cial busi­ness mod­els was higher. But that did not mean that a debate about qual­ity was irrelevant.

In both envir­on­ments, and per­haps else­where as well, the cred­ib­il­ity and the innov­a­tion of the media was best rep­res­en­ted by the news sec­tor, in which pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing had to play a role. But there was a long argu­ment to be played out in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent jur­is­dic­tions about the right pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing model and it was hard to pre­dict at this stage what the out­come would be.

Another strong theme, per­haps in the end the most sig­ni­fic­ant one for policy focus over the next period, was edu­ca­tion. We inter­preted “media lit­er­acy” as mean­ing not so much the lit­er­ary qual­ity of journ­al­ism itself as the capa­city of the pub­lic to receive the media’s product with dis­cern­ment and to judge what was healthy for their own interests bey­ond the short term. It was felt that there was a need to insert a stronger sense of civic respons­ib­il­ity into the edu­ca­tion curriculum.

Through­out the con­fer­ence par­ti­cipants con­stantly returned to the need for young people, and per­haps older gen­er­a­tions as well, to under­stand bet­ter the mod­ern con­text for a healthy democracy.

With com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy racing ahead as it was, pub­lic par­ti­cip­a­tion in the media was the only mod­ern guar­antor of a healthy media sec­tor and the exer­cising of pub­lic judge­ment by a “lit­er­ate” soci­ety was a neces­sary require­ment for securely-based democracy.

Not just schools and uni­ver­sit­ies, but also busi­ness man­age­ment train­ing and gov­ern­ment account­ab­il­ity pro­cesses, should build in an approach that served these needs.

These thoughts tied in with the theme of qual­ity in journ­al­ism and in the use of instru­ments of mod­ern com­mu­nic­a­tion. If the pub­lic under­stood the bene­fits of hav­ing the best true pic­ture of the world presen­ted to them, then good journ­al­ism had a pro­spect of again becom­ing good business.

Trans­par­ency needed to be more overtly linked with respons­ib­il­ity and the build­ing of trust. If the gov­ern­ment was not able to man­age this through policy dir­ec­tion, in other words through a top-down approach, then the rel­ev­ant parts of the private sec­tor should be encour­aged to fill the gap.

We wondered whether phil­an­thropic found­a­tions could help, for example by build­ing on mod­els of ‘cit­izen journ­al­ism’, or whether com­pan­ies like Google might be per­suaded to take an altru­istic approach on behalf of soci­ety. Neither of these thoughts, espe­cially the lat­ter one, gen­er­ated much con­fid­ence. But we were clear that both the power of innov­a­tion and the fund­ing that res­ul­ted from com­mer­cial suc­cess ought to play a part in con­struct­ing a sys­tem where diversity and open­ness were accom­pan­ied by social responsibility.

In short, we found ourselves con­clud­ing that there were still huge strengths in the media industry, though more in the mod­ern than in the tra­di­tional forms of it, and there was still dynam­ism in the evol­u­tion of democracy.

It was polit­ics that had not yet found the right bal­ance: between gov­ern­ment and indi­vidual, between plur­al­ity and demo­cratic secur­ity, between free­dom of choice and edu­ca­tion on the con­straints. That, we felt, was where the next con­cen­tra­tion of effort should lie.

There was plenty of hard-bitten media exper­i­ence around this table and yet the shar­ing of dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives, geo­graph­ical or pro­fes­sional, threw up a con­ver­sa­tion of great fresh­ness and interest. Ditch­ley owes a great deal for this to the spirit of the par­ti­cipants, and espe­cially to our chair­man, who steered between a free-for-all and an over-disciplined dis­cus­sion with great judge­ment. As for the optim­ists and the pess­im­ists, each indi­vidual will have to add up his own score. But we all felt we had learnt a lot from these two days.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dr Emmanuel Bezzina February 16, 2010 at 19:28

An interesting discussion. One aspect that, however, was totally bypassed was the instances where Political Parties owned their own Media Houses. In such instances the TRUTH was distorted to accommodate the Parties’ Leadership Profiles and the political objectives of the Party in question. Such an abuse occurs in the Republic of Malta, a tiny EU Member State of 420,000 inhabitants, where NO DIVORCE Law exists and the manipulative control of a warped Catholic Church still prevails! Emmy Bezzina.

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