Friday, April 27, 2012

Mass Media and Democracy

This article by Bagehot of The Economist discusses the tenuous relationship between mass media corporations and UK democracy. The author points out that mass media can have significant influence on an election outcome and public policy, and may work in favor of incumbent political parties or against them. Mass media corporations are driven by profit and thereby readership, and may be driven exclusively by a particular agenda or ideology (with profit as a secondary consideration). See the Reemergence of Media Barons. Mass media can also shape the discourse of an election, and thereby impact the election outcome. The FDA acknowledges that this ability to shape discourse is decreasing through the rise of social media. However, most recently in the 2012 Alberta election, the FDA believes that the Alberta mass media played a decisive role in shaping the discourse through biased coverage throughout the 28 day campaign period, and including inclusion of leaders from only four of the nine registered parties in the only televised debate. Shortly, the FDA will be publishing a report on mass media coverage during the Alberta election. The report is based on data collected by the FDA in the Alberta press, radio, and television during the last 14 days of the campaign period.

Interestingly, Bagehot attributes the first-past-the-post system with the power of mass media over elected officials and election outcomes. The rationale is that the first-past-the-post system forces parties into the center in order to attain the most votes; whereas proportional representation systems by making most votes count allow for broadness in political perspective (and more diverse mass media). Paradoxically, another reason in favor of proportional representation: more diverse points of view in government and society as opposed to the status quo and narrowness in government and society....A democracy and society based on proportional representation would in theory would be significantly more interesting, inspirational, diverse etc. than the archaic, rigid first-past-the-post system and any governments which emerge from it.
 
This article in the UK Guardian sheds light on the relationship between mass media and the UK government, and how mass media influences public policy:

Murdoch Apologises Leveson Inquiry

Are British newspapers a menace to democracy?

BAGEHOT spent today in Singapore on the final leg of a trip watching the British foreign secretary at work in Asia. A future column will discuss Britain's new foreign policy plans, but this week's print column—written from the road—examines a furore back home triggered by the latest hearings of the Leveson inquiry into press ethics. Ripples from the debate about the British press, and its unhealthily swaggering relations with the country's political leaders, reached Asia all week. To my slight surprise, I found myself watching Leveson coverage live at Hong Kong airport, courtesy of CNN, caught up on more footage late at night on streaming video, and my Blackberry hummed with endless headlines.

Why is a row about British domestic press regulation global news? Is it because British newspapers and newspaper tycoons really are a menace to democracy? I am not sure. In part, of course, it is because Ruper Murdoch, the tycoon whose evidence made most waves this week, is a global media baron. But in part, I argue in this column, Britain simply has a very odd media market. Here's the column:

WHEN Britain’s biggest tabloid claimed credit for a Conservative general election victory with the front-page headline “It’s the Sun wot won it”, its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, was not pleased. Giving evidence on April 25th to a public inquiry on press ethics, Mr Murdoch explained that he had administered “a terrible bollocking” to the Sun’s then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie. A “tasteless” claim, he said. “We don’t have that sort of power.”

The inquiry—chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, a judge—this week shone a light on ties between the media and politicians. The most dangerous revelations were e-mails apparently detailing contacts between News Corporation, Mr Murdoch’s company, and David Cameron’s government during the firm’s abortive bid to buy BSkyB, a satellite-television outfit. The relationship was sometimes friendly, sometimes tense, but always close—and rarely craven on the part of the media firm.

Another milestone in the Sun’s political coverage does not seem to have earned a proprietorial rebuke. It happened in 1992, on the night that Britain was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The prime minister of the day, John Major, telephoned Mr MacKenzie to ask how the Sun would be covering the story. “Actually,” Mr MacKenzie replied, “I have a bucket of shit on my desk, prime minister, and I’m going to pour it all over you.” Asked if this tale was true during his own appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, Mr MacKenzie enthusiastically re-enacted it.

Mr Mackenzie’s cheerful thuggery is unusual, even in Fleet Street. But the fact that he talked to a prime minister that way and kept his job suggests that relations between the British press and politicians are pretty unusual. Does that mean that the press wields democracy-threatening power?

The answer is complicated by the oddity of Britain’s media market. In America, News Corporation is just one of five important media firms. In contrast, its British arm is a local titan. The Sun has 2.6m readers in a country of 60m people: scale that up, and an American equivalent would sell 13m copies a day. Seven British dailies have circulations larger than the biggest-selling French national newspaper.

That many titles have been out of control is not in dispute. Just ask Lord Justice Leveson, hearing allegations of illegal phone-hacking, bribery and paparazzi intruding on funerals. But press savagery towards the rich and powerful also taps into an ancient British tradition, that of instinctive derision for the strutting toff or politician, amid the battle-cry: “Who does he think he is?”

If prodded, politicians will insist (through gritted teeth) that press savagery is vital to democracy. They are more skittish about whether they think newspapers decide elections.

In his memoirs, Tony Blair—whose 1997 win was preceded by an endorsement by the Murdoch press—writes about a 1995 flight to address a News Corporation conference in Australia (a pilgrimage that outraged the left). Mr Blair explains himself with a rhetorical question. Murdoch newspapers had hitherto been “rancorous in their opposition to the Labour Party”. On being invited into the “lion’s den”, Mr Blair argues: “You go, don’t you?”

Addressing the Leveson inquiry, Mr Murdoch told how relations with Mr Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, soured after his newspapers switched their support from Labour to Mr Cameron’s Conservatives. Once he and Mr Brown swapped tales of Scottish ancestors and their young children played together, he said. When his papers turned, Mr Murdoch claims that Mr Brown called to declare “war” on his companies. As for Mr Cameron, when the furore about press abuses took off in 2011, he declared that all party leaders had turned a blind eye to warning signs, because they were “so keen to win the support of newspapers”.

Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. Former Blair aides have credited Mr Murdoch, a tireless Eurosceptic, with helping to keep Britain out of the euro. But arguably their greatest day-to-day influence is indirect. British political leaders are drawn from an increasingly narrow, metropolitan pool. When tabloids bellow that they know the mind of the ordinary voter, it requires some self-confidence for an Oxbridge-educated, sushi-munching minister to ignore them.

Britain is an outlier in other ways. In lots of European countries politics encompasses angry extremes, with the hard-right and far-left attracting hefty votes. By contrast, newspapers in such countries are often small-circulation, centrist, and prim. Britain does things the other way round. Partly because of first-past-the-post voting, the big parties cluster at the political centre. The brass-band blare of dissent comes from a fiercely partisan press.

Call my diary secretary

Optimism may be hard this week. But the current stink could signal a general cleaning of the stables. Political leaders have already opened their diaries to disclose meetings with proprietors and editors. In parallel, fresh scandals over party fund-raising have revived efforts to reach a cross-party deal on donations, perhaps by capping the sums that individual donors can give.

Such reforms could help, says a senior politician. Donors, editors and proprietors have less influence than is commonly assumed. But they have enjoyed excessive access to party leaders, who for years devoted too much time to meeting them. Transparency over diaries should reduce such contacts. A cap on donations would do the same. If politicians meet media bosses and donors more sparingly and simply as professional contacts, that would be a good thing.

Such a change is overdue. Journalists and politicians can never be truly friends. Lowly reporters and MPs always knew this: given a big enough story, each will turn on the other. For too long, their respective bosses seemed to forget. Not any more.

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