What can the media do for democracy?

The News Corporation’s bid to acquire the 60.9% of BSkyB it does not already own has started a war in the world of media. It has also inspired considerable resistance from civil society. This was clear to see from the session entitled ‘Rupert Murdoch vs. Democracy’ at 6 Billion Ways. The room was full to overflowing, and the speakers didn’t hold back.

Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, took to the microphone, to deliver one of the soundbites of the day: “commercial media is not based on the selling of programmes to audiences but the selling of audiences to advertisers”. Focusing in on the specific subject at hand, Dear described Rupert Murdoch as a vicious, money-hungry shark that sees news only as a commodity.

On that point, I have to disagree. In my view, Rupert Murdoch realises that there is something more important than profits, namely the protection of the power system as it stands. And in that respect, the News Corporation is not much different than the rest of the major media outlets.

The truth is that although the public knows they can expect to hear differing views from different news agencies, they are very much aware that this is due to the multitude of business interests the agencies serve. Hence the state-owned BBC will undeniably be biased in its coverage of the war in Iraq or the recent student protests. Another example of this was seen more recently with the news that BBC Journalists have been ordered to use the word ‘Savings’ rather than ‘Cuts’ in their reports. . Meanwhile, the private television and radio sector, which gets almost 100% of their income from advertising, will do everything to keep their true clients -the advertisers- happy. The same is also true for newspapers as 75% of their profit comes from advertisments.

One great example which disputes the myth that “newspapers depend on readership” is that of the Daily Herald. At the time of its “death” The Herald had almost double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian combined, making it one of the 20 most circulated daily newspapers in the world. It was one of the most highly regarded newspapers with a devoted and involved audience. But because it was representing the rights of the wider working class, it did not get the support of the capital. Therefore it was sold off to Murdoch, who made it in to The Sun that we know today. And as much as this can be outrageous, it is completely logical as no institution of power will ever undermine itself by educating people against it.

I am sure that there are journalists who want to do the right thing and serve the public by giving them a true and unbiased view of the world, but they will able to do that only as long as what they say is not harming the interests their funders. So there might be debate between the different media outlets, but it is strictly limited within the boundaries specified by the ruling capital. We could be romantic and say that Rupert Murdoch is the arch-villain in the media world but the truth is all of the major news providers are owned by wealthy individuals or big corporations which might not be the size of Murdoch’s conglomerate but they are actively pushing forward the agenda set by other mega-corporations.

All of the above might be painting a bleak picture of the reality but there is actual, tangible change that is driving society away from the standards of the past. With the help of the internet, people are already getting increasingly aware of the situation and they are creating alternatives. Tim Hunt brought a breath of fresh air into the debate with his story of how a community of journalists in Manchester founded the Manchester Mule in reaction to the continuously growing practice of churnalism in their area. They are providing opportunities along with training to enthusiastic volunteers who want to cover the burning issues of society that get filtered out from the mainstream media. As any internet savvy individual can observe, similar projects, blogs and podcasts that aim to provide independent news channels are popping up like mushrooms all over the globe.

Of course, the mainstream media in accordance with their intellectually elitist agenda are mostly scornful of bloggers characterising them as unqualified ranters. But what makes somebody qualified to talk on global matters? An unaffordable Bachelor’s degree or maybe a job in a media institution that does not allow any dissident thought? The public is giving a loud answer to that – newspapers sales are plummeting and TV networks are constantly losing ratings with more and more people getting informed online. Now in order to support this shift in public trust, it is the responsibility of bloggers, activists and all other new media agents to push for better quality, to do more extensive research and provide ample references for their facts. We should all aim for quality when we voice our opinions online and as Tim Hunt put it, “a blog post a month is better than a blog post a day if it gives you the time to do the necessary research and analysis of a subject”.

To conclude, I want to address the question Natalie Fenton put forward during the debate: What can the media do for democracy? From my point of view, if we keep defining democracy the way it is manifested in Western and British society then the media can do quite a lot for it. If by democracy we mean a capitalistic system where business institutions are allowed and even rewarded for seeking constantly higher profits and totalitarian power at the cost of people, communities and the environment then definitely the media can help by promoting the indoctrination of the ruling class, limiting the voices admitted into mainstream discussion and setting the framework of acceptable political and cultural thought. If we want to move forward, I think that we should ask ourselves a more appropriate question: How can the people create new media to achieve a truly democratic and libertarian society? And there are many valid and viable answers to that. You just have to find the one suitable for you and pursue it.

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