By Richard Barbrook
Nowadays, almost everybody believes that the freedom of the media is an essential prerequisite of a modern democracy. Yet, at the same time, many people are also convinced that the media are turning democratic politics into a branch of show business. Instead of rational debate between rival ideas, contemporary politics have been trivialised into a series of soundbites and photo opportunities for couch potatoes watching the television news bulletins.
Yet, for the Enlightenment philosophers, the struggle for media freedom was fought to create the conditions for the participation of the common people in democratic politics. In their view, citizens of a democratic republic had to decide the issues of the day amongst themselves through public debate, including in print. In the late eighteenth centuries, this participative form of media freedom was put into practice. With the help of a few assistants, revolutionary heroes such as Franklin or Marat were able to print their own publications on their own printing presses. Although the philosophers usually defended media freedom with political or moral arguments, the exercise of this fundamental right was made possible by the widespread ownership of cheap wooden printing presses.
Despite its libertarian claims, this classical liberal form of media freedom was in reality restricted to a minority of male property owners. With artisanal printing methods, only a limited number of expensive copies of any publication could be produced. However, with the industrialisation of printing, economies of scale allowed printed material to become cheap enough for almost everyone to purchase. When the new electronic media were introduced, the productivity of information production became so great that radio and television broadcasting could be paid for by subsidies from advertisers or the state and provided free to their audiences. But, although the industrialisation of the media made available prodigious quantities of information and entertainment to the public, the end of artisanal methods of production also closed off the possibility of popular participation in the media. Thus neither the direct producers nor their audiences could directly control the output of the media. Instead, its content was determined by the management hierarchies of collective institutions, such as joint stock companies, banks, political parties or the state. As a consequence, the definition of media freedom was fundamentally transformed. While still paying homage to the ideal of active citizens propagating their own thoughts, media freedom was increasingly defined as the representation of actual or supposed views of the audience. Between the Left and Right, there were bitter arguments over what was the correct form of this representation. For some, the interests of the audience were best served by the media being unbiased and truthful in its reporting. For others, the media had to serve the future interests of the people by disseminating revolutionary ideas. According to some, market competition for audiences would make the media respond to the wishes of the public. Despite their real differences, all these political positions assumed the same thing: the complete passivity of the audience. Although almost everyone could receive the output of the media, most people weren’t able to use the media to express their own views. Instead of being actors within the political process, they were only spectators of the pronouncements of professional politicians and media pundits.
Over the past twenty years, the introduction of new information technologies has intensified this centralisation of the media. For example, using satellites, media corporations are now building worldwide television news services, such as CNN or BBC’s WSTV. Although these new channels can benefit from economies of scale on a global scale, the rise of the multinational media corporations has exacerbated the growing crisis of representation within national politics. Just as the power of the world market restricts the autonomy of national democratic decision making, so the global news media can also escape from any form of influence outside the cash nexus, such as regulations for balance and objectivity. Yet the increasing productivity of the media hasn’t only created the conditions for spectacle politics on a global scale. Over the past thirty years, the spread of new technologies has also encouraged the reemergence of self produced media, such as alternative magazines, community radio stations, access cable television channels and electronic mail systems. Unlike the artisanal methods of eighteenth century printing, the modern access media are centred on collective forms of working and have the potentiality for mass distribution of their output. For example, in the cyberspace of the e mail systems, a single global network is slowly being constructed out of a network of contributors and bulletin boards which even surpasses the centralisation carried out by the most ambitious media multinationals. In recent years, the community media has become an effective source of alternative information to the soundbite politics provided by the media corporations, as during the Gulf war. Even more importantly, this form of media has also partially realised the traditional interpretation of media freedom. But, instead of being restricted to a minority of male property owners, the community media are used by all sections of society as a means of expression, including marginalised groups. According to the visionaries of community media, all citizens will be able to exercise their right to participate directly in political debates within an electronic agora. Only then will the contradictions of media freedom be finally resolved.
Richard Barbrook is a professor of politics at the Dept of Politics & IR at the University of Westminster
Photo courtesy of P0lly
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