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.