How and why the media should bolster democracy

There can be few figures in Irish politics north and south who’ve attracted the opprobrium that the Republic’s Justice Minister, Michael McDowell routinely endures from both his political rivals and the media in general. This week he has mostly been taking flak over his Nazi propaganda remarks about Fine Gael’s Richard Bruton. Earlier he was picked out and accused by Phil Flynn of blackening Flynn’s name. His tough line on immigration and his very public ruck with Frank Connolly have made something of a hate figure primarily amongst those on the left of Irish politics. Although at least one blogger has a crush on him. But recently he gave a fascinating talk that revealed some classically liberal values at the core of his thinking.McDowell can have an intimidating presence. Something reminscent of an African chief, he is large both in physical and intellectual stature. Judging by early reactions to his RTE/UCD Lecture on Broadcasting Society and the Law, he can cast a shadow over sections of the Irish media as well as his political rivals.

The lecture itself is well worth re-visiting. In it he draws heavily on the work of British journalist, John Lloyd, whose essay What the media are doing to our politics, has led to a vigorous debate on the role of the media in a democracy in Britain. The pointed question McDowell asks is: where is the Irish John Lloyd?

And finally:

Indeed even the most serious discussion on the Irish media has tended to focus on media ownership and the allegedly nefarious nature of proprietorial influence. Too often this gets further reduced to a black hat/white hat game of heroes and villains.

This is something McDowell takes on board in his lecture:

In a prosperous Ireland with a growing population, Irish editions of British newspapers are engaged in a proxy circulation war. Their editors are engaged in “hand to hand” fighting for Irish readers as never before. In terms of choice of paper, the Irish newspaper reader has never had it so good. Whether that can be said about choice of quality newspaper content is highly questionable. Indeed recent developments have evoked distinctly audible murmurings about circulation wars leading to “a race to the bottom” in terms of standards.

He notes that the sometimes traumatic changes currently being faced by the media do not threaten them with extinction, but, that “the relationship between society and the media [is] changing very rapidly”. He then turns his attention to agenda setting journalism and the at times none-too-subtle encroachment into the political space:

There are signs that a minority of journalists and programme makers have decided they want to be political players – that their legal obligations of impartiality and objectivity are boring, outdated, style-cramping counsels of perfection. There are signs that some of them want to be agenda setters. There are signs that some feel that they are better at choosing the battlefields for elected politicians than are those politicians themselves.

These signs are by no means universal – perhaps not even general. And I do not want to exaggerate them for effect. I believe that in general our public service broadcasters are delivering in accordance with their vocation and the law. But it would be idle to ignore the signs to the contrary.

Of course it is tempting to become part of the story. Of course it is tempting to drive the story onto centre stage. Of course it is tempting to hype up the story. Of course, it is tempting to dumb down the story or to de-complicate it for effect. There is a human desire to make, rather than report, history. It is a desire that public sector broadcasters should recognise and resist. If you are a public sector broadcast journalist, you are a different beast; you are not as free as a print journalist to succumb to these temptations. Nor is your editor free to ask you or encourage you to do so.

I believe that public service broadcast journalism is and should remain the most effective defence against over-weaning media power transforming our democracy into a “mediocracy” with all that is entailed in such a transformation. The ultimate question I pose for your consideration is this: “What form of public service broadcasting journalism serves the common good in the long term?”

Along the way he quotes from the end of Lloyd’s essay on the felt relationship between a free press and elected politicians:

Representative democracy and discursive politics are everywhere under pressure. Most media, and many new political movements, implicitly or explicitly prefer some form of plebiscite – through polls, or mass rallies, or audience figures – to the voting of representatives. It is clear from 20th century history to what dangers that leads. The strength of the British state, as of many others, has long been the ability of elected representatives to make the judgments and effect the compromises necessary to relatively peaceful, relatively prosperous, relatively equable and civilized life. The media have been the beneficiaries of that: time, now, to take a more active hand in its protection.

Can we imagine a journalism which is civic? One which defies its own natural instincts to make celebrities of itself; which acts as an adjunct to activity and reflection; which presents to its audience first drafts of history which are absorbing and subtle, strong on narrative but attentive to the complexity and context of every story; which is not struggling with political power, but struggling together with that power’s best instincts to make the contemporary world at once comprehensible and open to the participation of its citizens. If we can imagine it, we should be able to create it”.

That this message comes from the Minister of Justice, and not from within Irish journalism itself, is a poor reflection on the maturity of the debate in Ireland north and south.