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 elite 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.

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