You might be interested in this article from The Guardian today 16.8.04
“A crisis in the fourth estate
In the chase for higher ratings and circulation the media are falling prey to populism and so failing in their primary duty – to keep the public properly informed, argues J?rgen Kr?nig
Monday August 16, 2004
The dream that the new information age would be one of greater enlightenment, of a rational discourse and greater participation has not come true. Governments feel haunted by an aggressive media. That the media act as if they were a kind of conspiracy attempting to keep the population “in a permanent state of self-righteous rage” is the complaint in London. In Germany, one day, a red-top such as Bild demands tough action against the pension crisis; when politicians act, it accuses them of “stealing the pensions”.
To avoid any misunderstanding: a natural tension between politics and the media has always existed and that is right and necessary. Without a free press there is no public sphere, no informed citizen and thus no democracy.
The fourth estate, however, is more powerful than ever. It is shaped by two dominating principles – sensationalism and simplification, which the American sociologist Robert McChesney, in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, defines as the consequence of “hyper commercialisation”. It has led to ever fiercer ratings and circulation wars, which inevitably leads to what is called “dumbing down”. To succeed, the media industry tries to appeal to the lower instincts of people.
Of course it is one thing to pander to lower instincts. But they have to be there in the first place, and so has the willingness to be pandered to. In the end, people have a choice. One has to face an unpalatable reality: a Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi, whose media outlets are giving the people what they want – fun, games and entertainment – is more “democratic” than the cultural elites, who tried imposing their values and standards on the masses.
The appeal to the lowest common denominator is shaping the content of TV and popular culture more than ever. For programmes to be successful, they have to promise to be ever more outrageous – explicit sex, exhibitionism, violence and voyeurism have become their vital ingredients. Highly successful reality TV formats such as Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here are tellingly equipped with an element of direct democracy. Audiences are asked to vote; it does not matter if they use their right to vote once or dozens of times. Most of these programmes belong to the category of “sado-maso TV” – the participants must accept they are to be humiliated, they have to satisfy lower human instincts such as gloating and voyeurism; for their moment of TV fame they must do ghastly things, eat worms, dive into snake-infested swamps or wade through S***.
In the “democratic age” news and information have been transformed. The way politics is covered has changed radically. Papers don’t “report” news, they quite often present it according to their preferences and prejudices. The growth of columnists has led to the birth of a “Commentariat”. It contains a few excellent and analytical minds, but all too often reasonable, balanced voices are drowned out by journalists who seem untainted by facts or deeper knowledge but replace this with gleefully presented prejudices.
A lot of modern political journalism ignores context and complexity, presenting everything in black and white, while the nature of politics most of the time is a balancing act between contradictory interests and demands. No surprise, then, that politicians are losing control over the political agenda. The much-maligned spin doctor was an attempt to win back the initiative. It failed a long time ago.
News has become more superficial and sensational. The need for images and pictures is greater than ever. News is too often degenerating into “disastertainment”. Public service broadcasters are not immune to this trend. Ofcom registered a decline of up to 25% in their political content over the past decade. But more has changed than just the extent of coverage.
Sensationalism and oversimplification are affecting the output of all media. There is less room for a balanced approach, for analysis instead of going for the crass headline or extraordinary story. The merciless hunt for weaknesses and inconsistencies of politicians and other public figures has become prevalent.
Furthermore, the rhythms of politics and the media are drifting apart. After the end of the great ideological divide, politics is more often than not undramatic, complex, not easy to understand and therefore more difficult and boring to report. Quite often results of political decisions, in education or welfare, can be judged only years after implementing them. That is the opposite of what the modern media want. They have a 24-hour mindset, shaped by the demand for ever shorter soundbites. They are impatient, short-termist, they want results here and now.
Media language has changed, too. What we are observing is an adjectival degradation. Every report, coming from inside governments or institutions outside is, if it contains some form of criticism, therefore “damning”, “devastating” or “scathing”. Warnings, which most of the time were not heeded anyhow, are “stark”, differences of opinion between politicians of the same party are “dramatic splits”, developments are “alarming” – the consumer of the media is confronted with a permanent linguistic overkill. Official language is evolving in the opposite direction, it is becoming more sanitised, cautious, bureaucratic and politically correct.
All this has contributed to change democratic politics for the worse. The electorate has become hostile and distrustful of the media and politicians alike. Trust has broken down threefold, between people and politicians, media and people, journalists and politicians, with the latter now observing each other with deep distrust and mutual antipathy. A vicious circle has established itself.
Journalists claim that the political culture is not appealing to the public; driven by commercial considerations and market pressures, the media are therefore reducing their political coverage even further. The chances of the public receiving the information they need to participate in the rituals of democracy are declining even more.
The Phillis committee, set up to look at government communications, has confirmed this bleak outlook. Politicians have given up trying to get their message across via newspapers, which they regard as hopelessly partisan and biased; newspapers no longer believe much of what the government is saying. Which leaves public service broadcasters in an even more important and responsible position. If public service broadcasting, torn between commercial pressures and public duty, surrenders even more than it has done already to the culture of contempt, there will be only a few niche outlets left in the fourth estate willing to promote and practise a fair journalistic approach to politics. Sections of the BBC were operating on the basis of a strong antipolitical bias, like many of their colleagues in the press, regarding all politicians at the end of the day as “lying bastards”, who could never be trusted.
Self-criticism is not popular among the media. Indeed, sometimes it seems that’s the media’s only taboo. Some journalists and broadcasters are aware of the danger. Andrew Gowers, editor of the Financial Times, wrote earlier this year, after Lord Hutton had delivered his judgment, “for while the crisis at the BBC is deep-seated, it is merely part of a broader malaise; journalists’ reflexive mistrust of every government action is corroding democracy”. And Martin Kettle remarked in the Guardian that the Kelly and Gilligan affair “illuminates a wider crisis in British journalism than just the turmoil at the BBC”. He remains deeply sceptical about the willingness of the fourth estate to address this crisis.
Democracy and civil society need informed citizens, otherwise they will have difficulties in surviving. Without media organisations aware of their own power and responsibility, an informed citizenship cannot be sustained. What our democracies have got today is an electorate which is highly informed about entertainment, consumer goods and celebrities, while being uninterested in and/or deeply cynical about politics, equipped with short attention spans and a growing tendency to demand instant gratification. Politics in western democracies is mutating into a strange kind of hybrid, a semi-plebiscitarian system, in which the mass media represent the new “demos”.
If this trend cannot be reversed the political arena might become even emptier than it is now. It might only be filled again, if seductive populism calls. When democracy is running out of control, it is the politicians who suffer first. Once the demos in ancient Athens and during the French Revolution had developed a taste for more power, it looked for and found its victims as easily as authoritarian tyrannies did and disposed of them.
? J?rgen Kr?nig is the UK editor of Die Zeit”