Discuss the role of journalism in democracy. What are the arguments for a democratic deficit in contemporary British journalism? How might this deficit be countered?
The definition of democracy is a complex issue. In A Classical Education the etymology is defined from the Greek ‘demos’ meaning people and ‘kratos’ meaning rule (2013:17). A dictionary definition expresses in its simplest terms of a: “government by the people of a country, especially through representatives whom they elect” (Oxford Paperback Dictionary 1989:213). Many academics agree on the main characteristics or ideology of a democracy which are summarised by Strömbäck as: “(1) the political decision-makers are elected by the people in free, fair and frequent elections, (2) there is freedom of expression, of the press and of information, (3) citizenship is exclusive, (4) everyone has the right to form and join organizations of their own choosing and (5) society is law-governed” (2005:333). This is the most simplistic definition. Theorists debate that democracy is a many faceted concept and there are several theories to choose from. These will be discussed later.
The main roles of journalism are to report objectively and truthfully to inform, amuse or entertain. Within a free market economy such as Britain, there are an abundance of newspapers including online versions that vary in style and content which suit the many types of consumer. Harcup states that the free press has grown alongside democracy and: “come together in the concept of the fourth estate. Although initially referring to the parliamentary press gallery, the term has become a more general label for journalism” (2011:4-5). Hackett asserts: “By exposing corruption and the abuse of power, the press should act as a watchdog on government, which is considered the main threat to individual freedom” (2010:86).
Though democracy includes social and economic elements and journalism encompasses entertainment, advertising and public relations, this essay is mainly concerned with the political agendas that connect them. As mentioned earlier, there are many different theories of democracy and an abundance of discussion and debate from theorists and academics such as Guy Berger and Robert Hackett and there is much similarity and overlap within these theories. The chosen models for discussion here are summarised from Jesper Strömbäck’s article in Journalism Studies (2005). The following four models of democracy are coupled with the normative standards of journalism which are characterized within their principles.
Procedural democracy is democracy in its simplest terms. All that is expected of politicians and citizens is: “that they respect the rules and procedures of democracy” (2005:334). The basic requirement of free and fair elections is met though there is no obligation to participate and no constraints or conditions applied. The implications for journalism are simply to respect the democratic procedures and act as a watchdog. “Beyond that, it is up to the media owners, editors and journalists to decide how they want to use the freedom that democracy grants them” (2005:338). There is a shortcoming within this model as journalism may fail to communicate the whole story. In order to fulfill one its main functions in democracy, journalism needs to be objective.
Competitive democracy fulfills the main roles of democracy and additionally places emphasis on the competitive elective process, whereby politicians compete for the electorate’s votes. This model initially implies that: “it is the political elites that act, whereas the citizens react. As in the market place for goods, political alternatives offer their services and products…” (2005:334). However, in reality it is the electorate that has the final say by educating themselves about the candidates, their policies, their past record of achievements and their future promises. In the same way, journalism needs to oversee and report on the actions and words of political figures, their promises and whether they fulfilled them. This would require that journalism: “should set the agenda rather than let the political actors do this” (2005:339). In this way journalism would fulfill its core functions to be objective and impartial.
Participatory democracy is more concerned with active participation from the electorate than merely voting periodically. It encourages citizens to: “participate in different kinds of community activities, and learn how to cooperate in order to achieve collective goals” (2005:336). The expectation is that of a snowballing effect. The more information is gathered regarding political issues, the more citizens can make informed choices. The knowledge acquired enables citizens to participate in influencing the outcomes of elections. The significance of this model for journalism is that ordinary people get the opportunity to have their say. “News should frame politics in a way that mobilizes people’s interest and participation in politics… news should not only dwell on societal problems but also show when problems are solved” (2005:340). This best fits the perception of public journalism which covers citizens’ concerns and connects them to those in government. In turn this will lead to solving any problems that arise.
Deliberative democracy requires that discussion occurs in the public sphere before decisions are made and that: “when citizens or their representatives disagree morally, they should continue to reason together to reach mutually acceptable decisions” (2005:336). The expectation is that all citizens are; interested and knowledgeable in political issues, impartial, rational and willing to compromise when there is disagreement that cannot be resolved. This model requires journalism to be deliberative as well: “… it is important that people are politically interested and engaged, which requires media and journalism to mobilize people’s interest and engagement” (2005:340). Furthermore: “…journalism should provide an arena for everyone with strong arguments and direct its attention to those who can contribute to a furthering of discussion” (2005:341). As this model: “presupposes that citizens have some basic knowledge about issues and factual conditions as well as how society and political processes work” (2005:340), this may prove too ambitious. There is always the risk that: “the media often set their own agenda or follow the agenda of the elite” (2005:342).
Of the models indicated, all have shortfalls to a greater or lesser degree in the way journalism fits into the democratic process. A complete fit would be a utopian ideal. It stands though that the role of journalism should be balanced between government and citizen. This is contentious. When dealing with politicians, citizens and journalists the human element needs to be considered and their motives and agendas need to be factored in. This is indicative of a democratic deficit, though there are other points to consider specifically connected to a democratic deficit in British journalism.
Voter participation in local elections is low and in decline; implying that citizens are not engaging with their local councillors or with local issues. An article in The Guardian online examines statistics provided by the House of Commons library which show: “local election average turnouts have been shrinking – to 42.3% with the lowest ever being 1998’s 28.8%”. Interest in European elections is even less with a: “24% turnout in 1999”. The Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) vote: “was even worse with just 15% of the population voting”. For a non political comparison: “15,488,019 votes were cast during the 2010 edition of The X factor, equivalent to 23.18% of those eligible to vote” (2012).
Citizens have become cynical with regards to politics and are less trusting of politicians. Harcup gives an account of government spin doctor Jo Moore who wrote: “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?” in a: “notorious email sent at 2.55pm on September 11 2001, within an hour of the second hijacked plane hitting New York’s World Trade Centre” (2011:31-32). A controversial press release regarding Councillors’ expenses was hurriedly sent out. Understandably in the circumstances, the press release received little interest as news of the horrific events of the previous day unfolded. The contents of her email were leaked, a scandal followed and Miss Moore eventually lost her job.
Trust reached a nadir in 2009 when The Daily Telegraph exposed the scandal of MPs excessive and often illegal expenses claims. Investigative journalist Heather Brooke became interested in MPs expense receipts: “a basic question to ask in a democracy” (Brooke 2012). She applied through a Freedom of Information request and following a great deal of resistance the wrongdoing was finally exposed. Condensed within her TedTalks lecture she summarises: “The end result was, six ministers resigned, the first Speaker of the House in 300 years was forced to resign. A new government was elected on a mandate of transparency. One hundred and twenty MP’s stepped down at that election and so far four MPs and two Lords have done jail time for fraud” (Brooke 2012).
Tabloid journalism, which concentrates mainly on celebrity ‘tittle tattle’, scandal and gossip is considered responsible for the ‘dumbing down’ of news. Rupert Murdoch’s (now defunct) News of the World took this to the lowest moral level. Brian Cathcart explains in his book Everybody’s Hacked Off of the way private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was employed: “to access and listen to the private mobile phone voicemail messages of people that interested them” (2012:12). This practice was not only used to dig up celebrity gossip; other victims whose privacy was invaded include; cabinet ministers, the royal family, people in the witness protection programme and grieving families. The net was widened to include family and friends of the people of interest. None of which was in the public interest. In 2006, Royal editor Clive Goodman and Mulcaire were caught hacking Prince William’s mobile phone, arrested and subsequently jailed. To date, charges have been brought against: “more than 30 people, including police and executives at Rupert Murcoch’s newspapers, as well as journalists” (Sandler Clarke 2013).
In a free market economy newspapers are run primarily as businesses, to make profit for owners and shareholders. Wealthy press barons promote their own business empires through their newspapers such as Rupert Murdoch with his connections to Sky. Lord Beaverbrook once told the Royal Commission on the Press that he ran the Daily Express: “merely for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive”. Similarly, Robert Maxwell said of the Daily Mirror: “I certainly have a major say in the political line of the paper” (Curran and Seaton 2010:42 and 71). James Curran, Chair of the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform said: “Four publishers – Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, the Barclay Brothers and Richard Desmond – control over three quarters of national daily titles. They’ve bought the national conversation. We don’t have a truly free press; we have a press dominated by press oligarchs” (Sandler Clarke 2013).
Reducing staff levels to cut costs in order to increase profits has had a detrimental effect on the quality of news stories. This has led to ‘Churnalism’ a term defined by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News as: “…journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell the readers the truth about what is happening on their patch… churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false” (2009:59).
Whether such a deficit can be countered is an ongoing debate. The Media Reform Coalition suggests: “a 15 percent cap on cross-media ownership, giving up 20 percent of any given news market to public service obligations, and in the case of the 15 percent threshold, diluting share ownership to further undermine the power of publishers” (Sandler Clarke 2013). Encouraging and supporting investigative journalism and local journalism will ensure quality stories that hold those in power to account, in the true spirit of democracy. A final thought would be to encourage and engage young people more in politics and in their communities. This could be introduced through schools, though with the National Curriculum run by the state, such an initiative may not be feasible and will certainly not be in the interests of the elite who would prefer to keep us in the dark.
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