The media and democracy

Democracy is about so much more than just voting for your leaders. There are many other facets like freedom of speech, freedom of belief, the right to a fair trial, the list goes on. One very important facet is freedom of the media. But equally important is an informed citizenry. Importantly, freedom of the media is not necessarily sufficient to achieve the latter. Why? Because any media source has its biases, which people are exposed to and influenced by. The key, therefore, is not just to have free press, but diverse press. These two objectives are not necessarily mutual. So how do we achieve both?

Many libertarians advocate zero government intervention in the press. I believe this needs to be broken down into two separate arguments:

1) Should the government regulate existing private sector media?
2) Should the government fund independent media to provide an alternate source to the private sector media?

I believe the answer to (1) should be ‘no’, and the answer to (2) ‘yes’. If we were to do (1) we would effectively undermine freedom of speech and expression, dictating to people what they can and can’t say, or dictating who has the right to say it. This has been a big issue recently in Australia in relation to Gina Rheinhart – Australia’s richest person – who has been seeking large stakes in the Australian media. Many oppose this because, as a rich and powerful woman, she might have a right-wing bias. I’m sure she would. But any stakeholder in the media will have their inherent biases. So legislatively preventing her from having a stake in the media would be a very dangerous path to follow – it would put the government in the position of passing judgement on who can, and cannot, have a stake in the media, which would introduce systemic bias in itself. This has been a contentious issue in Australia recently, with the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, attempting to implement a ‘Public Interest Media Advocate’ to make decisions on this issue. It hasn’t received a very warm welcome. In relation to question (2) however, if we were to not do this, we would risk complete monopolisation of the media by a small number of private players, which may undermine diversity of views.

The significance of monopolisation of the media cannot be understated. Historically, this is how every dictator in history – Fascist, Nazi, Communist or otherwise – either came to power, or maintained a grip on power. Thus, centralisation of the media is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously, and for this reason I support government-funded independent media. Diversity of views is essential to the democratic process, and monopolisation of the media all but ensures that diversity of views in mitigated. In Australia, the ABC and SBS – the two government-funded sources – are the only media players I refer to when watching TV (which, admittedly, I hardly ever do). The others are typically shallow and populist, and I cringe to watch them. Personally I’m grateful for the existence of the ABC and SBS, and in particular their status as non-private sector players in the media market. If they were to either cease to exist, or become privatised, diversity of views in Australia would suffer.

There is one issue, however, which is far more important to diversity of views – consumer behaviour. If consumers choose to obtain all their information from a single source, then it’s largely irrelevant how centralised the media is. The internet is our biggest blessing when it comes to disseminating different viewpoints, but one which is, sadly, under-utilised. Personally, on a daily basis I read at least half a dozen major news sources from around the world, plus numerous minor ones, and additionally many blogs. This information is at everyone’s disposal in the internet age. The problem is that people are daft, and have too much faith in the mainstream media, to stand up and make use of this wealth of information that sits at their fingertips. Thus, in my mind, independent media, while important, is not the sole solution to the problem. The solution is a cultural paradigm shift, whereby the population is aware that all media has its inherent biases, and therefore the onus is on them to seek out a cross-section of different sources. In the digital world this can be done in a matter of seconds.

If media diversity is a priority, which it should be, then our number one goal should be to make people mindful of the need to seek different opinions and never take any one source to be the literal truth. I pity the poor soul who has their TV permanently tuned to Fox News. If they spent just ten minutes each day online reading competing international sources, voters would be far more informed, the quality of political discussion greatly enhanced, and leaders far more accountable for their policies.

6 thoughts on “The media and democracy”

  1. Diversity and freedom of press are indeed crucial to democracy. In Australia, the printed media are highly concentrated. About two thirds are run my Murdoch, about one quarter by Fairfax. In Queensland, for example, Murdoch-run newspapers for all practical purposes have a monopoly (The Australian, Courier Mail). In the economy, laws are in place that “guarantee” competition, in other words prevent monopolization (not very effective, perhaps). Similar “laws” for diversification of the media exist but are even less effective. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that in Australia a few right-wing personalities control the private media (newspapers, TV channels). One does not have to guess to say that right-wing control of the media guarantees a right-wing political agenda. Murdoch is straightforward right-wing (Fox News in the US, The Australian, Daily Telegraph etc. in Australia), Fairfax also is right-wing biased but not as strongly. If Gina Rhinehart and some like minded spirits would win total control of Fairfax (and they are certainly trying to do exactly this), goodbye to any attempts to present a more balanced view to the public, for example on climate change. I have followed reporting on climate change in the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph (both Murdoch controlled) and The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax) fairly carefully. The degree of misrepresentation and outright lying is astounding. A highly dangerous situation considering what is at stake. (Just one example, from the last chapter of my book “The Balance of Nature and Human Impact”, Cambridge University Press 2013: ” …the Murdoch-run Wall Street Journal refused to publish a letter from 255 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences supporting the mainstream view on climate change (held by 97% of scientists involved in climate research), defending the rigor and objectivity of climate science and calling for an end to ‘McCarthy-like threats’ of criminal persecution of researchers….However, it published a letter supporting an opposing view …..signed by 16 scientists, few of them active in climate research, and at least half in some way involved with the giant oil company Exxon”).

    There should be laws that make deliberate lies and serious misrepresentations in the media a criminal offense. Freedom of the Press should not mean that anybody could mislead the public if it suits for example some mining magnates or whomever.

    Of course, in Australia we have the ABC and SBS, but it seems that the majority of people do get their views from tabloids like the Daily Telegraph and some private TV channels. In this context, the only private News channel (Sky) is Murdoch-run.

    Further details on media concentration and climate change here:

  2. Klaus: “There should be laws that make deliberate lies and serious misrepresentations in the media a criminal offense”

    That might sound very well. And if it were possible to assemble a benevolent, all-knowing, and unbiased committee to pass judgement, then this might be a good idea. But any panel you establish to pass judgement on the private media will inevitably not satisfy those criteria, and so I think it could be incredibly dangerous. What would you do if, having established such a committee, you discover that they have a political agenda of their own? Then you’ve got an even bigger problem. I prefer to fight misinformation with information, not with punishment, since any judge is himself only human and may or may not be just as bad as the biased media.

  3. Peter, yes you are quite right. To apply this practically would be difficult, and people who want to mislead are probably clever enough to phrase their lies ambiguously for self – protection. For these reasons, rules might perhaps be introduced (supervised by a parliamentary committee) that force the media to publish supporting material for their claims. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald published a report by the director of the Institute for Private Enterprise and former deputy secretary, treasury, Des Moore, that ‘30,000 US scientists signed a petition specifically rejecting the theory of dangerous warming…’ I sent an email to the newspaper asking for details of the claim, but did not receive an answer. Where did Moore get the number from, and who are the scientists? There should be a way to set this straight. – Lord Monckton, a “famous” or rather infamous agitator for the climate change deniers, sponsored by Gina Rhinehart, called Professor Ross Garnaut, the senior advisor to the Australian government on climate change, a Nazi because of his involvement in the policy of climate change. He withdrew that claim later but would there have been a way to force him to do this? Lord Monckton has no background in climate science. Should he be forced to state this prominently whenever he appears in one of his TV shows?

  4. I could see such laws turning into an ever lasting game of cat and mouse. The laws require certain disclosures or supporting evidence. Then the media conforms to it, but finds new ways of promoting their agenda within the legal framework. Then the laws change again. Then the media adapts their strategy again…

  5. Perhaps I misunderstand, but I am deeply skeptical of your second contention…do we need a government provider of media? Does that really offer anything other that FALSE security, FALSE utopia?

    I believe that anyone, including Gina Rhinehart, should be able to provide media to the masses and to receive compensation from the provision of that media for whatever palliative opioid it provides to those masses … ~outside~ observers can still obtain value from such media and the reaction of the masses … I never watch ANY television or listen to ANY programming, but highly biased content like MSNBC or CNN or Fox News or BBC or __ is useful in meta-context because I know the content is biased, I know something about those biases, I know something about the people who are suckered by their favorite programming.

    Media that is believed to be unbiased OR media where the biases are not yet understood is dangerous … only FOOLs believe that any source of media can be unbiased. The government-provided or “public” media which you seek would seem to be especially dangerous because of the ABSURD and impossible pretense of unbiasedness. It is not that media are unbiased — it is that you do not know who has cornfuckulated the biases.

    Diversity of content matters — there is no such thing as an unbiased source AND there never will be — the best that we can hope for are media where the spin is obvious enough.

    Macrorealism is a utopian impossibility that simply will not be achieved in this existence … the more that we seek it, the more likely we are to be decieved because macrorealism rests on the naive and quaint classical world view that (i) physical properties of an object or news event exist independent of the act of observation and (ii) measurements and reporting are noninvasive, i.e., the reportage of any meaningful observable event at any instant of time does not influence the subsequent evolution and development of the actor’s behavior in shaping that event. Hopefully, we can agree that a true view of REALITY differs fundamentally from these two contentions … there is something to the notion of “regard all dharma as if a dream.”

Leave a Reply