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A DEMOCRATIC MEDIA SYSTEM July 15, 2011

Posted by wmmbb in Social Environment.
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The tribulations of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, trumpeted by the closure of The News of the World and the withdrawal from the takeover of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) have been the topic of the moment.

It seems that Murdoch has has gone beyond illustrating, at least for the moment in Britain, that it is not simply that information is power. He has demonstrated that the processing and selection of information, sometimes involving journalism and other activities such as accessing voice mail of mobile phones, is greater than the powers of democratically elected office holders, making them deferential, but also serving and reinforcing the invisible sources of power, represented by advertisers and the public relations industry. Murdoch, or his minions, not only overstepped the mark, but they were caught out doing so.

So where does the story end? The real story is what is the alternative to information driven by commercial pressures and the editorial discretion of the select few. Perhaps it is time for that story to begin.

Dan Hind has some ideas and has written two books to date. He left the media industry in 2009 “to develop a program of media reform centred around public commissioning”. Dan Hind writes for Open Democracy:

The existing mix of public service and private sector media have repeatedly failed to keep the national audience informed of matters of pressing common concern. Neither market forces nor the BBC’s fabled doctrine of balance prevented the British government from misleading its own people and launching an illegal war of aggression in 2003. For decades the media have colluded with politicians to present the public with a deeply misleading picture of economic and social reality. We now know the price of this collusion. Since 2007 the Bank of England has lent £1400 billion to privately owned banks to rescue them from their own recklessness – recklessness that the media at the time assured us was essential to the prosperity of UK Plc. As we survey the current mess there is plenty of blame to go round. But those who insisted that the media were functioning adequately, if perhaps too confrontationally, must take their full share. Though individual journalists and publications performed well, the story as a whole is one of miserable failure.

If neither market forces nor the public service ethos can be trusted to keep us adequately informed it follows that some other mechanism must be tried. In my recent book, The Return of the Public, I outlined one approach to media reform that holds out some hope of bringing significant change to the sum of things are available for public deliberation. I argue that each of us must be given some control over what is investigated and researched and over the prominence given to the results. The power to commission investigation and the power to publicise what is discovered are currently in the hands of a tiny number of professional editors and owners. These powers can no longer be monopolised by individuals who are unrepresentative, unaccountable to the public, and vulnerable to all manner of private pressure and inducement.

We need to set aside a sum of public money sufficient to support a large and lively culture of investigative reporting and analysis. Journalists and researchers can make open pitches for the money they need to conduct particular investigations or to pursue long-term projects. Those that receive sufficient support from the public will receive the money. Those that produce material that seems important to a fair number of people will be given more resources with which to broadcast their findings to a wider public.

Such a system could be run using the infrastructure of the BBC. Departments in the English regions and the devolved nations would each hold a sum of money in trust and disperse it in line with the expressed wishes of democratic publics. A clear democratic mandate would replace the focus group and the whim of the editor as the driving force in decisions about what reaches the agenda of the mainstream media.

Such a system would not preclude nonsense, but it is argued neither does the existing system of news and information in Britain, with it’s particular media landscape and other countries as well. “The balanced good sense of the professional editor”, he writes, “is all too often the triumph of special interests”.

Why is it that the expression of public opinion in a democracy, can so often be ignored other than in the belief that it can so easily be manipulated. This was the case in 2003 prior to the invasion of Iraq. David Swanson sees Rupert Murdoch as “a major crime boss being charged with a parking ticket”.

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