Media and Democracy
Democracy seems in crisis.
Democratic politics has, in the words of Philip Gould, Tony Blair’s strategy
guru, become “a minority sport”. Apathy and cynicism have become the dominant
feature of modern democracies. Turnouts at elections have been falling
everywhere - in the case of Britain dramatically. In our hectic media
societies, a culture of contempt for politicians is spreading and political
debate is more and more contaminated.
What a contrast to the mood of the recent past! Less than 10 years ago, there was excited talk about a new and golden future lying ahead of us. Technological change and information revolution would lead to an unprecedented supply of information. Knowledge and understanding would increase between individuals and nations. An evolving democracy would bring in new, direct forms of participation. Much was expected from the Internet. Some politicians suggested that we were experiencing the beginning of the end of representative parliamentary democracy; it would be replaced by a more direct, plebiscite driven model. This was the message, conveyed both by techno-enthusiasts and many reformers on the left.
Flowing together into this vision of the future of western liberal democracies were two currents: first, the belief in the inevitability and intrinsic value of technological, scientific progress and second, the conviction that any extension of democracy would be beneficial for our societies. This is, after all, what parties of the Left had fought for all along. When Willy Brandt, former German chancellor and for many years leader of the SPD, promised in 1972 to “dare more democracy”, he was expressing the belief in the virtue of an ever-expanding democratic principle.
We are facing a new question, as unexpected as it is awkward. Can there be too much of a good thing? Could it be possible that the extension of democracy in our societies is not just a blessing, an undeniable good, but could in fact be creating new problems and challenges? Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and a political scientist from Harvard, provides an qualified ‘yes’ to this question, in his recent book “The future of freedom – illiberal democracies at home and abroad”. He reminds us that freedom and democracy do not automatically go together. In many parts of the world, from Russia to Venezuela, we observe democracies that produce elected autocrats, or establish a dictatorship of the majority. Fear about the possible or even inevitable tranformation of democracy into ugly mob rule or populist dictatorship has been expressed before by philosophers like Plato, Burke and Kant: yet it is remarkable, that the worry about the spread of illiberal democracy is emerging now, at a time of growing doubts about American democracy.
Democracy has spread around the world with enormous speed. In 1900, not a single country had what one today would consider a democracy – that is, governments created by elections in which every adult had a vote. Today around 120 States, 62 per cent of the world, do. Democracy has become the only game in town, the only accepted form of government for humanity. The alternatives, communism and fascism, are totally discredited. Even dictators are trying to create the impression that they at least follow democratic rules and are organising elections.
Further - democracy, the rule of the people, has been extended in our western liberal societies. Hierarchies are breaking down, closed systems are opening up and pressures from the masses of citizens are now the primary force of changes in all walks of life. In western societies, experiencing historically unprecedented mass prosperity, economic power has been shifting downward, to the consumers, away from the exclusively rich. The tastes and wishes of the many need to be taken into account as never before. This extension of power to the masses is the dominant feature in our democratic societies. It changed the shape of education (not necessarily for the better). It even helped to change modern agriculture: intensive farming, heavily subsidised by taxes, gave people a chance to eat food – as regular, relatively high quality meat - which used to be the privilege of the few. Modern agriculture did not only benefit the agro-chemical complex. It is and was a hidden form of redistribution in favour of the less well off, some of whom turned into the alarmingly overweight “industrial eater”, addicted to processed and fat food.
Culture, too, has been shaped by the extension of democracy. At the centre of the cultural life of our societies is no longer ‘high culture’, which retreated into niches. Popular music, blockbuster movies and prime time television are the dominant expressions of modern culture. In the past, cultural elites were able to determine what the masses should watch and listen to. “Inform, educate and entertain” was the guiding principle of the old Reithian BBC. Today, modern TV is the most influential cultural medium, and reflects the preferences of mass audiences. The elites have lost the battle for influence.
Central control over media distribution has become impossible - a positive development. This is a result of the information revolution, which has produced hundreds and thousand of outlets for news. As Thomas Friedman remarked about the Internet: “everyone is connected but no one is in control”. The democratisation of technology means that everybody can get his hand on anything, from anti-globalisation, porn and weird conspiracy theories, floating through the WWW, to weapons of mass destruction. In its camps in Afghanistan, Al Quaeda was working on chemical and biological weapons programmes, downloaded from the internet. The “democratisation of violence” is the most terrifying feature of today’s world.
There seems to be a dark side of democracy, which progressives can’t afford to ignore. To focus on it does not mean to say that democracy is a bad thing: few would wish to return to a time and age where choice, individual freedom and autonomy were in short supply. But we do need to examine coolly the consequences of democratisation. We should reflect that liberal democracy is not only based on rule by majorities formed in elections, but on the rule of law and on many intermediate institutions – as the judiciary, central bankers, churches, associations, trade unions and media, which often are not democratically legitimised, but nevertheless play a vital part in securing freedom. In Europe we do not elect judges, public officials or editors.
Furthermore, representative democracy was established to function as a filter between the electorate and the executive, “to tame the beast” of raw emotions and mood swings, to prevent the unfettered rule of the majority, which all too easily could lead to a dictatorship of the majority.
Media and Democracy – Power without Responsibility?
The media have been shaped by the forces of democratization, too (even if that is not reflected in the ownership of media companies). The dream that the new information age would be one of greater enlightenment, of a rational discourse and greater participation, has not become true. Governments feel haunted by an aggressive media. The media act as if they were a kind of conspiracy attempting to keep population “in a permanent state of self-righteous rage”, as one British politican complained. On one day, the German tabloid Bild demands tough action against the pension crisis; when politicians act, it accuses them of “stealing the pensions”.
To avoid any misunderstanding: a natural tension between politics and the media has always existed and that is right and necessary. Without a free press there is no public sphere, no informed citizen and thus no democracy. As Tocqueville wrote in the nineteenth century: “It would diminish the importance of newspapers to say they serve to maintain freedom. They maintain civilisation”. Yet one could easily fail to recognize the high ideal in the grubby practice – including its rapid march to vulgar entertainment trends and often irresponsible campaign journalism. If in essence, Toquevilles observation about the role the fourth estate has to play is as true today as it was then, things have changed dramatically since.
The ‘fourth estate’ is more powerful than ever before. Defining media power, the Left has been concentrating on media tycoons and conglomerates, worrying about their ability to suppress the free flow of information, to influence, even manipulate their audiences. This fear is not unfounded. Governments and parliaments should never forget the danger of too much concentration in the media industry. Italy, where political and media power have been merging in an unprecedented way, should serve as a stark warning.
But there is another side to media power, more often than not overlooked by the left. Mass media gained their status because they express and reflect instincts, gut feelings and aspirations of the masses. Otherwise the Financial Times or the Frankfurter Allgemeine, BBC 4 or Arte, not ITV, Sun or Bild would be the media of the majorities. Mass media have to be seen as what they really are: they are tools and instruments of power of the people. Electorates are more demanding, emotional, erratic and self-interested than ever before. The culture of deference is dead, replaced by an attitude, which can be described as “have your cake and eat it”.
The fourth estate is shaped more than ever before by two dominating principles, by sensationalism and simplification, which the American Sociologist Robert McChesney, in his book “Rich media, Poor democracy”, defines as the consequence of ‘hyper- commercialisation’. It has led to ever fiercer ratings and circulation wars, which inevitably leas to what is called ‘dumbing down’. To succeed, the media industry tries to appeal to the lower instincts of people.
Of course it is one thing to pander to lower instincts: but they have to be there in the first place, and so has the willingness to be pandered to. In the end, people have a choice. One has to face an unpalatable reality: Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi, whose media outlets are giving the people the fun, games and entertainment they want, are more ‘democratic’ than the cultural elites, who tried imposing their values and standards on the masses.
The appeal to the lowest common denominator is shaping the content of TV and popular culture more than ever before. The result is dumbed down entertainment, the triumph of banality. TV has turned into an endless attempt to lure and titillate the audiences with ever stronger attractions. For TV programmes to be successful, they have to promise to be ever more outrageous - explicit sex, exhibitionism, violence and voyeurism have become their vital ingredients. Highly successful Reality TV formats like ‘Big Brother’, ‘Island of Seduction’, ‘Superstar’ or ‘I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here’ are tellingly equipped with an element of direct democracy - audiences are asked to vote. Most of these programmes belong to the category of what I call ‘Sado-maso TV’ – the participants must accept to be humiliated by satisfying the human instincts like gloating and voyeurism. For their moment of TV fame they must accept to do ghastly things, eat worms or beetles, dive into a snake infected swamps or
In the “democratic age” news and information have been transformed. The way politics is covered has changed radically. papers don‘t “report” news, they more often present them according to their preferences and prejudices. The growth of columnists has lead to the birth of a ‘Commentariat’, which contains a few excellent and analytical minds, but in which, too often, reasonable and balanced voices are drowned out by journalists who seem untainted by facts or deeper knowledge but substitute this with gleefully presented prejudices.
A lot of modern political journalism ignores context and complexities, presents everything in black and white. And yet the nature of politics, most of the time, is a balancing act between contradictory interests and demands. No surprise then, that politicians are losing control over the political agenda. The much maligned spin doctor was an attempt to win back the initiative – but that failed a long time ago. Yet, the myth of the Spin doctor is being kept alive by a media, presenting itself as heroic fighter against the dragon of spin. The loss of control over the political agenda would not necessarily be such a bad thing, if significant parts of the press had not eliminated the opportunity for thoughtful debate between people and politicians.
The last trusted bridge between politics and the public seemed for a while to be TV and Radio. But here too, as Richard Tait, former Editor of ITN noted - commercial pressures and audience research are ‘pushing editors away from political coverage’. News has become more superficial and sensational. The need for images and pictures is greater than ever before. News is all too often degenerating into ‘disastertainment’. Nor are public broadcasters, as the BBC and Channel Four, immune from this trend: OFCOM, the new regulator for the electronic media in Britain, registered a decline of up to 25 per cent in their political content during the last decade.
But more has changed than just the extent of coverage. A Survey by the British Film Institute, published in 1999, revealed a worrying trend. The overwhelming majority of television programme - makers believe that ethical standards have collapsed. Among those working in news and documentaries, 52 per cent said that they had been pressured to distort the truth and/or misrepresent the views of contributors to create an “exciting, controversial or entertaining programme”. The BFI report states that “some respondents felt that bowing to pressure had almost become habitual within factual programming”. It may only be distortion by oversimplification, or by altering or concealing facts. However, it is often “serious falsification by omitting inconvenient evidence, misrepresenting contributions and sometimes knowingly restating untruths”. This was five years ago: the situation has hardly improved since then. And it is by no means a problem specific to British TV. Reporters of German TV stations told me that this kind of pressure is all too well known. Political reports, which are regarded to be too boring, will be worked over, to make them more exciting, in a process called “hotting up”.
Sensationalism and oversimplification affect the output of all media outlets. There is less room for a balanced approach, for analysis in place of crass headlines or hardly credible stories. The merciless hunt for weaknesses and inconsistencies of politicians and other figures of public life has become a prevalent feature.
Furthermore, the rhythm of politics and the media is drifting apart. After the end of the great ideological divide, politics is more often than not undramatic, complex, not easy to understand and therefore more difficult and boring to report. Quite often results of political decisions, in education or welfare, can be judged only years after implementing them. That is exactly the opposite of what modern media needs and demands. The media has a 24 hour mindset, shaped by the demand for ever shorter soundbites. They are impatient, short-termist, they want results here and now.
Media language has changed too. What we are observing is an adjectival degradation. Every report, coming from inside governments or institutions outside is, if it contains some form of criticism, therefore ‘damning’, ‘devastating’ or ‘scathing’. Warnings, which most of the times were not heeded anyhow, are ‘stark’, differences of opinion between politicians of the same party are ‘dramatic splits’, developments are ‘alarming’ – the consumer of media is confronted with a permanent linguistic overkill. Official language is evolving in the opposite direction, becoming more sanitised, cautious, bureaucratic and politically correct.
All this has contributed to change democratic politics for the worse. The electorate has become hostile and distrustful of the media and politicians alike. Trust has broken down threefold, between people and politicians, media and people and journalists and politicians who now observe each other with deep distrust and mutual antipathy. A vicious circle has established itself. Journalists claim that the political culture is not appealing to the public; driven by commercial considerations and market pressures, the media are thus reducing their political coverage even further. The chances of the public participating in the rituals of democracy are declining even more. The Phyllis Committee, set up in Britain to look at the relations between media and politics, has confirmed this bleak outlook. Politicians have given up trying to get their message across via newspapers, which they regard as hopelessly partisan and biased; newspapers no longer believe much of what the government is saying.
This should leave public broadcasters in an even more important and responsible position. If public broadcasting, torn between commercial pressures and public duty, surrenders even more than it has done already to the culture of contempt, there will be only a few niche outlets left in the fourth estate, willing to promote and practice a fair journalistic approach to politics. Sections of the BBC operate on the basis of a strong anti-politcal bias and, like many of their colleagues in the press, regard all politicians at the end of the day as ‘lying bastards’ who could never be trusted.
Self criticism is not popular among the media. Sometimes it seems that the only taboo for the media is the media itself. Some journalists and broadcasters are aware of the danger. Not least John Lloyd, Author of “What the media have done to politics”, an analysis about the effect of “antipolitical journalism”. Andrew Gowers, former editor of the Financial Times, wrote at the beginning of last year - after Lord Hutton had delivered his judgment on the David Kelly affair – that “while the crisis at the BBC is deep seated, it is merely part of a broader malaise … journalists’ reflexive mistrust of every government action is corroding democracy”. And Martin Kettle remarked in the ‘Guardian’, a paper deeply critical of the decision to got to war in Iraq, that “the episode (the Kelly and Gilligan affair, triggered by the controversy over the weapons dossier of the British government) illuminates a wider crisis in British journalism than just the turmoil at the BBC”. He remains deeply sceptical about the willingness of the fourth estate to address this crisis.
Democracy and civil society need informed citizens, otherwise they will find it hard to survive. Without media aware of their own power and responsibility, an informed citizenship cannot be sustained. What our democracies have today is an electorate highly informed about entertainment, consumer goods and celebrities - while being uninterested and/or deeply cynical about politics, equipped with short attention spans and a growing tendency to demand ‘instant gratification’. Politics in western democracies is mutating in a strange kind of hybrid, a semi-plebiscitarian system, in which the mass media represent the new ‘demos’.
If this trend cannot be reversed the stadium
of democracy might become even emptier than it is now. It might only be filled
again by the seductive calls of populism. When democracy is running out of
control, it is the politicians who suffer first. Once the demos in ancient
Athens and during the French Revolution had developed a taste for more power, it
looked for and found its victims as easily as authoritarian tyrannies did and
disposed of them.
But nothing stays the same. No trend will continue endlessly. Movements spring up to counter these trends and to turn things round. Amidst noisy sensationalism and hyper emotionalized media output are signs of change, tentative and not representative, but clearly recognizable. Take the BBC. Britain’s public broadcaster has decided to leave the populist path, along which Greg Dyke had so energetically walked. His successor promised a return to more serious journalism and less dross. Judging two recent products of the corporations current affair department, “the New Al Qaeda” series by Peter Taylor and the Panorama program “A Question of Leadership”, which looked at the most important Muslim organizations in Britain, one can detect signs, that the “old BBC”, known and respected all over the world for its cool, detached journalism, is trying to reassert itself.
Equally interesting are some of the new formats of Reality TV. There are and will be more examples of “Sado – Maso TV”, like “Island of Seduction”, Big Brother or the Jungle show, that combine voyeurism and exhibitionism and appeal to lower human instincts. But there is a new type of Reality TV, “Supernanny”, “Honey, we are killing our kids”, “Tiny Tearaways” or “Transformation”, which use this popular format to help and teach hopeless parents and their neglected, overweight and aggressive children how to cope with life and each other. The TV industry is always in need of new stimulants; new, innovative formats were required, and the success of one example of this new “educational” program triggers inevitably a dozen imitators. But these are eternal laws of the TV jungle. It does not diminish the important contribution to an urgent western problem . There are all too many hopelessly dysfunctional families around. It seems, that in quite a number of cases only the presence of a TV camera can motivate children and adolescents of the X Box and Video generation, who grew up in the light of ever flickering TV screens, to leave the self destructive cycle of aggressive behaviour, junk food intake and passivity. Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners were rightly applauded as a helpful contribution, which might even have a long term effect.
All is not lost. But even these positive signs of greater responsibility won’t reestablish the dominance of the cultural elites. In the conflict between the elites and the masses, the masses have won, for better or worse.
BACK TO MAIN PAGE