The media and democracy

Democracy is about so much more than just voting for your leaders. There are many other facets like freedom of speech, freedom of belief, the right to a fair trial, the list goes on. One very important facet is freedom of the media. But equally important is an informed citizenry. Importantly, freedom of the media is not necessarily sufficient to achieve the latter. Why? Because any media source has its biases, which people are exposed to and influenced by. The key, therefore, is not just to have free press, but diverse press. These two objectives are not necessarily mutual. So how do we achieve both?

Many libertarians advocate zero government intervention in the press. I believe this needs to be broken down into two separate arguments:

1) Should the government regulate existing private sector media?
2) Should the government fund independent media to provide an alternate source to the private sector media?

I believe the answer to (1) should be ‘no’, and the answer to (2) ‘yes’. If we were to do (1) we would effectively undermine freedom of speech and expression, dictating to people what they can and can’t say, or dictating who has the right to say it. This has been a big issue recently in Australia in relation to Gina Rheinhart – Australia’s richest person – who has been seeking large stakes in the Australian media. Many oppose this because, as a rich and powerful woman, she might have a right-wing bias. I’m sure she would. But any stakeholder in the media will have their inherent biases. So legislatively preventing her from having a stake in the media would be a very dangerous path to follow – it would put the government in the position of passing judgement on who can, and cannot, have a stake in the media, which would introduce systemic bias in itself. This has been a contentious issue in Australia recently, with the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, attempting to implement a ‘Public Interest Media Advocate’ to make decisions on this issue. It hasn’t received a very warm welcome. In relation to question (2) however, if we were to not do this, we would risk complete monopolisation of the media by a small number of private players, which may undermine diversity of views.

The significance of monopolisation of the media cannot be understated. Historically, this is how every dictator in history – Fascist, Nazi, Communist or otherwise – either came to power, or maintained a grip on power. Thus, centralisation of the media is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously, and for this reason I support government-funded independent media. Diversity of views is essential to the democratic process, and monopolisation of the media all but ensures that diversity of views in mitigated. In Australia, the ABC and SBS – the two government-funded sources – are the only media players I refer to when watching TV (which, admittedly, I hardly ever do). The others are typically shallow and populist, and I cringe to watch them. Personally I’m grateful for the existence of the ABC and SBS, and in particular their status as non-private sector players in the media market. If they were to either cease to exist, or become privatised, diversity of views in Australia would suffer.

There is one issue, however, which is far more important to diversity of views – consumer behaviour. If consumers choose to obtain all their information from a single source, then it’s largely irrelevant how centralised the media is. The internet is our biggest blessing when it comes to disseminating different viewpoints, but one which is, sadly, under-utilised. Personally, on a daily basis I read at least half a dozen major news sources from around the world, plus numerous minor ones, and additionally many blogs. This information is at everyone’s disposal in the internet age. The problem is that people are daft, and have too much faith in the mainstream media, to stand up and make use of this wealth of information that sits at their fingertips. Thus, in my mind, independent media, while important, is not the sole solution to the problem. The solution is a cultural paradigm shift, whereby the population is aware that all media has its inherent biases, and therefore the onus is on them to seek out a cross-section of different sources. In the digital world this can be done in a matter of seconds.

If media diversity is a priority, which it should be, then our number one goal should be to make people mindful of the need to seek different opinions and never take any one source to be the literal truth. I pity the poor soul who has their TV permanently tuned to Fox News. If they spent just ten minutes each day online reading competing international sources, voters would be far more informed, the quality of political discussion greatly enhanced, and leaders far more accountable for their policies.

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