The Pillars of Democracy: a Free Press

During the Cold War, the western democracies trumpeted their freedoms to the Soviet Block. Foremost among them were free elections, a free press, free trade unions, the separation of the executive and legislative branches of government, and an independent judiciary.

In this post, I wish to draw attention to a few disquieting developments concerning the second item on the list, a free press.

There appears to be an (accelerating?) concentration of media ownership, which severely biases information provided to the public. Take Rupert Murdoch, who openly boasted of his political power because of the influence he has on public opinion. He “advised” the US government in the lead up to the Iraq war, not to take notice of dissenting international voices and go ahead with invading Iraq anyway. His rightwing Fox News played a leading role in brainwashing the American public. At this very moment, the British Labour government is wary of “taking on” Rupert Murdoch, since he owns The Times and The Sun. In Australia, which has the greatest or one of the greatest concentrations of media ownership in the Western world, it would be almost political suicide not to have the support of the media barons including Murdoch. Therefore, Kevin Rudd, on his pilgrimage to the US, made sure to meet Rupert Murdoch. In the United States, Rupert Murdoch has just made an offer of 6 billion US $ to take over ownership of the company (Dow Jones) which owns the Wall Street Journal plus various other items.

Media companies are treated like any other commercial company, and – from an economic point of view, or better from the point of view of shareholders – it may often make sense to form larger entities. This may be one reason why cross ownership laws in the media “industry” are continuously being watered down in a number of countries. Another reason: various parties want to keep the press on their side. This seems to me a serious danger to Western democracy.

What can one do about it?

(Just a reminder: a diverse and free press has been an important cornerstone of “classical” Western liberalism)

13 Replies to “The Pillars of Democracy: a Free Press”

  1. What is disturbing (somewhat) in Australia is the reliance of Media on both the government and the primary opposition for funding. Without the huge influx of advertising revenue heaped upon them by the major parties during election campaigns, the economies of these media companies would surely collapse. I am a great believer that “he who pays the piper calls the tune” and goes part way to explaining why no mainstream media promotes the ideas of minor and alternative political parties in this country. Clearly, if any biggish media company did that, it would lose all of its election time income stream.

  2. On the other hand, we live in a time where the traditional “Media” is rapidly and uncontrollably mutating, with a diverse range of alternative news sources available in the Blogosphere. I don’t think we need fear concentration of Media ownership, since ever-diminishing numbers of us rely on the Old Media for information anyway.

  3. Chris: Yes, I agree to a point. Nevertheless, why do parties and commercial companies invest so much money advertising in the various Media (see Marco’s comment)? They normally want something in return for their money and that is the expected effect on viewers and readers. Are there studies that have quantitatively evaluated the effectiveness of the Blogosphere vs. traditional media? If not, it would be worth some research money.

    I don’t know, but suspect that the majority of the population will be more influenced by commercial and political propaganda in the media.

  4. I don’t think that the advent of severe fragmentation of the media will make the “press” (or whatever fragment we might watch) any freer than it is now. A non-anonymous Blog can be censored by the powers that be, and an anonymous one can be discredited because the source is hiding behind anonimity. The only option left as an insurance against these “threats” is having some kind of relationship or dialogue with those making the rules. Preferably a profitable one with either those in power or with those with credible potential power. Whether the power is a university head, industry peak body or the government of the land, this is the catch 22. At least in countries with two-party preferred political results, the press can pick one side of the argument or the other (that is still way better than with dictatorships). I think this explains why there seems a divide between what “news analysis” a left-leaning individual believes over what a right-leaning one does. This seems to have been exacerbated with the advent of the internet, with people choosing which fragments to read in the first place.

  5. Thinking more, I think you are both right, and we ought to be concerned. I remember back to how the takeover of the local paper in our provincial Queensland city by Murdoch was almost immediately followed by a degeneration of the intellectual and moral standard of the community.
    And with the advent of the internet, it is certainly true that the common ground for discussion has largely evaporated, since I don’t trust other people’s sources and they don’t trust my sources.

  6. Marco: how do you define Left and Right?

    Chris: As you know, this is what some Democrats in the US, and many people in the UK are concerned about.

    Some countries have laboriously worked to keep Murdoch out altogether, but it is not just a question of Murdoch, it is a much wider problem concerning Media concentration in general.

  7. Left and Right are a continuum of a line on which one point on it describes one’s political affiliation. It is a crucial concept in political science especially in sorting out coalitions. In a previous discussion with Dave and Chris about the Iraq war, I had mentioned That Saddam Hussein was supporting suicide terrorism by offering free accomodation for families of suicide terrorists etc. I had been under the impression that this was an undisputed fact and that Saddam had claimed and boasted of it at some stage in the past, etc. Dave was under the impression that it was an unproven allegation trumped up only to garner more support for the war. It appears that the main “left” and the main “right” parties in Australia and the US were putting such an opposing spin on these kinds of information, that depending on the source it could vary from “almost certainly true” to “almost certainly false”. The media has stopped being reliable with any information that can be significantly “spun” like that. I am of the opinion that conclusions derived from game theory should be more immune to arguments about the verifiability of details such as that. In my middle-east game theory model, it matters little which entity is sponsoring terrorism. The fact that terrorists are getting funded means that somebody is, and that somebody is probably calling the tune. But I digress. The level of support has for one or the other major parties tends to determine what kind of news we read.

  8. Marco: this is not really a definition. In which beliefs or opinions do leftists and rightists differ?

  9. From this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald (8.5.07).

    In an article discussing Murdoch’s attempt to take over Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, the following statement can be found:

    “the reputation of the Journal and Dow Jones for serious, accurate and objective work……..would be damaged if Rupert Murdoch and News Cop take over….while at Fox News one man’s political opinions have become the editorial and news policy”.

    This is also only an opinion, that of one of the shareholders, but it seems to me well in agreement with the facts.

  10. I think ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have had different meanings in different times and different places, and today are only the badges worn by different gangs, with no more intellectual content than the ‘Greens’ and ‘Blues’ of Justinian’s Constantinople. On the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ policies with no logical connection to one another are merely bundled together as marks of a particular caste.

  11. One critical assumption of the “Left-right political continuum” as a line, is that citizen’s political views are highly correlated. This appears to be a reasonable assumption and unfortunately allows us to pigeon-hole people quite readily. Hearing one political view of a friend or stranger, leads us to assume a whole raft of other political views. I know I have done it to some extent in my discussions here, yet I hate it when it leads others to false conclusions about myself.

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