Manual Democracy and Media Decadence

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France is not the only democracy experiencing political difficulties with hacking and spying. The days are over when we could suppose in comfort that we were safe from attacks if we kept away from the online porn circuit or never responded to messages from the widowed wife of the central bank governor of the Central African Republic itching to transfer a few million dollars into our account.

Websites testing positive for adware, spyware, spam, phishing, viruses and other noxious stuff are multiplying. Today the figure has jumped to malicious websites, up from a year ago. The injection of malice into complex organisations and media systems and personal accounts is more than of news gossip value. This is to say that his work puts too much trust in competitive market forces; and that it contains too little emphasis on the political need to strengthen the sense of public ownership of multimedia communications media—to institutionalise, preferably on a cross-border basis, a twenty-first century equivalent of the public service broadcasting principle that was invented during the s.

But—surely—Zittrain is right about the market- and government security-driven enclosure movement that is going on under our noses. Unlike say Pledgebank, Wikipedia or Meetup, it does not invite or enable users to tinker with it, to improve upon it, to adapt it to their particular needs.

Professor John Keane

You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device Its functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates. Rather, they pose a fundamental dilemma: as long as people control the code that runs on their machines, they can make mistakes and be tricked into running dangerous code. Exactly this bad code trend is now driving the invention and application of sterile or tethered tools and processes that are bound by rules of safety, central control and typically private ownership and control of the means of communication.

The trend is understandable, especially under market conditions. Driven by market forces and security and reliability considerations, the enclosure movement is lamentable, especially when seen from the point of view of monitory democracy and its future. Democracy is a form of self-government in which the means of deciding who gets what when and how are in public hands. The privatisation of the means of making decisions is antithetical to its spirit and substance. The remarkable thing about the advent of the mass media-saturated galaxy of communicative abundance is that its generative rules—analogous to the generative rules of a grammar that enables speakers to utter infinite numbers of different sentences—encourage openness, dynamism, pluralism, experimentation, a strong sense of the contingency of things, all of them qualities that have a strong affinity with democracy.

That is why it is to be regarded as a decadent trend—and somehow to be resisted. Government media management. In the era of communicative abundance, ownership of the means of communication remains crucial, and large corporate control of media remains a problem, as it did in the era of representative democracy. The thumbprints of giant conglomerates like Bertelsmann, News Corporation and Vivendi are all over monitory democracy and its media infrastructure. The growth of media oligopolies certainly makes parties, politicians, parliaments and whole governments vulnerable to media seduction; interference, nobbling, threats and vetoes become a constant possibility.

University of Oxford

We know well about the corrupting effects of big media business in Australia. Rupert Murdoch, still a young media empire builder in Adelaide, entered the fray and played a vital role in its resolution. For quite different reasons both favoured Gorton Murdoch did so because he judged, correctly, that he would be more pliable and sympathetic to allowing Murdoch to move capital out of Australia, in search of acquisitions in the United Kingdom.

They targeted a man named Max Newton, who was accused publicly of being a Japanese foreign agent. Crudity worked. The allegation was utterly false, but within the governing parties it tipped the balance in favour of John Gorton. Far more worrying, in my assessment, is the present-day tendency of corporate media and government control methods to merge, especially in those contexts where for constitutional and political reasons mergers and alliances effectively blur the division between state and market.

Shaped by communicative abundance and monitory democracy, our times are different. Less obvious is the point that the second trend is not just a Chinese, Iranian or Russian problem. The process is more complicated, and it requires some fresh thinking. It has two sides. Let me try, briefly, to explain them in turn.

Governments hack in to the system of communicative abundance using various instruments, blunt and sharp. In recent years, John Howard did this to a worryingly unconventional degree. Get them to cultivate the image of the prime minister as a dedicated, hard-working, self-made man, a leader in whom everyone can recognise something of themselves, and what they want to be. Grant access of journalists to government plans in return for favourable coverage.

If necessary, get the police to turn up on doorsteps to ask questions of suspected infidels. Pass legislation to slap bans on reporting high-priority matters, detention without trial of suspects and witnesses, for instance. Pursue journalists who are troublemakers, especially those who refuse to divulge their sources.

Threaten them with prosecution for libel, or contempt of court. Cultivate deaf ears for requests for disclosure of information. Keep trusted commentators at the ready, on duty at all times. In his widely publicised farewell speech at Reuters 12 June , Blair rounded on journalists for their aggression, for their degradation of public life.

At the last election in , we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on entirely. Make a mistake and you quickly transfer from drama into crisis. In the s the government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a Cabinet that would last two days. It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day. Things also harden within minutes. But one trouble with his diagnosis is the way it covers up the alarming extent to which all democratically elected governments are proactively involved in a clever, cunning struggle to kidnap their citizens mentally.

These governments are not simply victims of communicative abundance. They are perpetrators of anti-democratic trends. They took the art to new heights. When embarrassing stories broke, they put out decoys. They denied. They lied. Several juicy stories confirm that the Blair governments certainly knew what they were doing. He won the bet that very day.

See a Problem?

These anecdotes are no doubt trivial, but they nevertheless reveal a bigger picture that naturally raises the question: how exactly do governments manage to get their way in a world of communicative abundance? Flat Earth News by the English journalist Nick Davies presents in my view a fairly compelling picture of the roots of this docility. They often stand accused of hunting in packs, their eyes on bad news, egged on by the newsroom saying that facts must never be allowed to get in the way of stories.

Journalism loves titillation, draws upon unattributed sources, fills news holes—in the age of communicative abundance news never sleeps—spins sensations, and concentrates too much on personalities, rather than time-bound contexts. It is said, especially by bookish types, that journalism is formulaic, that it gets bored too quickly and that it likes to bow down to corporate power and government press briefings.


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Such generalisations are undoubtedly exaggerated. There are many hardworking, honest and ethically open-minded journalists; and besides, as Michael Schudson has recently pointed out in Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press , bellyaching against journalists is on balance not such a bad thing for monitory democracy, especially if it sharpens the wits of citizens and encourages their healthy sense of scepticism about power, even the power of journalists to represent and define the world in which we live. The bellyaching nevertheless has had damaging effects; judging by their low popularity ratings, journalists are struggling to hold their own against politicians, real estate agents, car salesmen and bankers.

Media, power and decadence: some disquieting trends

Yet the problem is worse than this, Davies shows, for such complaints are in fact symptomatic of a deeper problem, one that he grasps well. They have no time in which to go out and find their own stories and carefully check the material that they are handling. The consequence is that journalists become highly vulnerable to ingesting and reproducing the packages of information that are supplied to them by the public relations industry and governments. Like a human body lacking a properly functioning immune system, the media produce lots of distorted or pseudo-news, or pseudo-coverage about pseudo-events—lots of flat earth news.

It could be called no earth news since it takes the form of important stories which journalists around the world simply fail to take an interest in, in no small measure because such subjects as the global surge in poverty, the arms trade and leveraging in the banking and credit sectors are complicated and perforce require intensive concentration and in-depth research to cover thoroughly, or to cover well. Groupthink and democracy. No earth news, flat earth news, cyber-attacks, moves to restrict freedom of information through online gatekeeping, mushrooming media oligopolies, Berlusconi-style mass media populism and organised media subservience in the face of unaccountable power: these are just some of the trends that bode ill for democracy in the age of communicative abundance.

This lecture prompts some key questions about these trends—admittedly more questions than I can table, or sensibly address. But I ask: why do we have no comprehensive account of this media decadence and its worrying power to induce rigor mortis in the democratic body politic? I could go on to ask what if anything can be done about media decadence? And some disturbing questions: does the age of communicative abundance on balance proffer more risk than promise? Are there developing parallels with the early twentieth century, when print journalism and radio and film broadcasting hastened the widespread collapse of parliamentary democracy?

A sceptic might reply by pointing out that every historical form of communication has prompted intellectual bellyaching and resistance. The failures of journalism and communication media, their propensity to let down citizens under democratic conditions, are surely a very old problem, the sceptic might add. After all, to pluck a random example out of thin air, global media carried nonsense stories at the end of the Second World War that Hitler was not dead, that he was a hermit in Italy, working as a waiter in Grenoble, as a shepherd in Switzerland, a fisherman in Ireland, and that he had fled to South America by submarine and plane.

So—the sceptic might conclude—nothing much is new under the sun, which has ever managed to shine on democracy, allowing it to flourish into our times, helped along by brave journalists and independent media. There is truth in these objections. But could it be that media decadence nowadays matters much more than during the past few decades?

These two reasons why media decadence should be worrying to democrats are tightly connected by the problem of hubris.

Political arrogance tinged with blind mistakes bordering on stupidity—the problem of hubris—is arguably the greatest ultimate challenge that faces any system of concentrated and uncontested power. They may believe absolutely in the harmonious effects of annually rising GDP; or that God blesses their power; or that a majority of people can be seduced by turning politics into B-movie show business.

Consider the case of contemporary China, whose rulers have little or no political sympathy for democracy in monitory form. Monitory democracy—detailed in the initiative called Charter 08—is accused of speaking in tongues. It is said to produce far too many conflicting points of view that are in any case not of equal worth.

Open public scrutiny of the Party and the state breeds confusion, dissension and disorder. In the field of politics, hopeful talk of digital democracy, cybercitizens and e-government has been flourishing. This book admits the many thrilling ways that communicative abundance is fundamentally altering the contours of our lives and of our politics, often for the better. But it asks whether too little attention has been paid to the troubling counter-trends, the decadent media developments that encourage public silence and concentrations of unlimited power, so weakening the spirit and substance of democracy.

Measured in terms of the wider trend towards mediated power, the Berlusconi phenomenon is no Italian anomaly. Berlusconi spent most of the past two decades mobilising his own media empire to exploit the whole political system, along the way enabling his escape from justice and safeguard his financial empire. The past few months, in the aftermath of his tax fraud conviction , have been no exception in this respect. Yet striking is the way his media machine has managed to mount a bold counter-campaign in his support.

It depicts him as a victim of a rotten judicial system, a brave figure forced to run because he is being unjustly hunted down. Sympathetic newspapers, radio and television channels and web-based platforms have morphed Berlusconi into a martyr, portrayed him as a casualty of a heavily politicised clique of allegedly Marxist-Leninist judges who in his own words are the true cancer of democracy simply because the man of the people who was chosen by the people should be judged by the people, and by the people alone. The worrying fact is that states and politicians in many different parts of the world are now heavily into the flourishing business of trying to control public and private information flows, which in spite of all the bumps and grinds they do with increasing success.

They are, but potentially for the worse. With varying degrees of sophistication and success, many governments, across the political spectrum, now routinely use crafty methods to control journalists, media firms and information flows, sometimes to the point where so-called democracies look remarkably like authoritarian regimes. Something similar is happening in more than a few Asian countries.

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Mainstream media coverage is almost never critical of the government, while the views of the opposition parties are usually given limited space. Singapore ranked th in the same list exemplifies the same trend. Directors of major media companies are filled with PAP members, or by executives directly linked to the party. The PAP secured only Yet there are signs that the ruling party is now gearing up to outflank a citizenry that has become accustomed to freewheeling blogs and online forums. The MDA now requires these sites to apply for individual licences, which must be renewed annually.