Category Archives: media ethics

When democratic institutions fail, what next..?

Set up our democratic institutions side by side, knock one over and see what happens…in the UK we began with the media, a crucial element of democracy, yet one of which large swathes are now regarded by the public with caution, if not outright distrust. And so we set up an inquiry.

Some of the fall-out of the Leveson inquiry has been to turn our attention to the government, parts of which are fatally enveloped in the mire of media’s undue influence. We can’t be simplistic about apportioning blame, since both media and politicians appear to be locked in a continuous cycle of dependence, the balance of power shifting from side to side as they wrestle over the question of who drives policy. However we have seen enough to lose more than a modicum of faith in parliament’s ability to put the needs of the public on at least the same par as their own influence and income.

And now we are faced with a crisis in the banking sector, which while not itself an institution of democracy, is required to be transparent and accountable in order for democracy to function as it should. As we’ve seen over the last few days, these characteristics are laughably absent from some key aspects of British banking. And so the trust is broken again. Depressingly there are already indications that the current scandal over LIBOR could also implicate the government on some level, though perhaps such a conclusion ought to have been inevitable.

Our government is going to have a long uphill struggle to build up public confidence in the functioning of British democracy, if indeed it is in their power to do so. Perhaps democracy, being now stripped and all its flaws revealed, can find new directions for growth. The internet is a valuable resource for many things, but I begin to see that in the upholding of democratic principles it is more than valuable – it is essential. Through social media people across the world, in countries far more restricted than our own, voices are being heard and stories are being told. Accountability is more possible because news of injustice can be more widely shared. Who knows what the internet could become in the pursuit of stronger democracy if it continues to be the place for free expression that it currently is? It is quite significant that there are movements within those great bastions of democracy, the US and the EU, to enforce greater control over internet traffic and reduce individuals’ privacy when they are online. Just knock our confidence in democracy even more, why don’t you?

I don’t hold British democracy in complete contempt. We have the core structures for it to work well if it is overhauled, and (so far) the judicial system is intact (though who watches the watchman?). It has weathered several centuries, and grown and developed over time. It has the potential to shake off the dust that’s settled and disguised the worst flaws, and be reinvigorated if we who condemn it will invest energy into it. Perhaps if new growth is permitted, British democracy will emerge stronger than it has ever been before.

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Twitter and the art of democracy

Hello to any who reads this…I’ve decided to pick up the blog again, since my time is slowly becoming more available for such things once more, and I’m buzzing with questions about the incredible upheaval that our society seems to be going through at the moment. I have also recently begun being active on Twitter, which has opened up a vast new realm of facts, opinions, news before it breaks, hilarity, satire, grief, contentiousness and oh so much more. I’ve read and absorbed more news in the last few weeks than I had in the last year BT (before Twitter, that is), but the problem therein is my maximum capacity for information. It doesn’t by any means allow for the scope of what is flying around the social networking sphere about the Leveson Inquiry, about the Queen’s Speech and government policy, about the local elections last week, about the new Israeli goverment or what’s happening in Syria, or about what people think of all those things. Fortunately, what I do find is that with practice it is possible to skim and sift, pick the stories of immediate interest, and even to build connections between facts that, on the surface, are completely unconnected. A wider picture of the living, breathing entity that is our society, both local and global, begins to emerge. The picture is undoubtedly skewed towards my preferences of who to follow (among the best being Graham Linehan, or @glinner, I have to say), but follow enough hash tags and it becomes possible to see through the eyes of people whose views differ widely to your own.

The picture is broader and wider and deeper and longer than any one mind can hold, and is by no means restricted to the two-dimensional. For example I have been following the Leveson Inquiry with great interest – and on this and closely related subjects, there is reams and reams of material to sift through. I had to delete my #Leveson column for a day or two as my brain began to go into meltdown, though I will be picking it up again tomorrow with avid interest, no doubt. But it has left me with much to think about – I have by no means forgotten all of it! – and the biggest question I am left with is this: for a man of Rupert Murdoch’s character, intellect, power and wealth, just how much control has he exerted over the exposure of his company’s illegal activities and work ethic generally? It’s just one to throw out there, really. I’m not one for conspiracies at all, but I can’t help suspecting that he had at least some idea of what was coming, and self-preservation is a natural human instinct, after all. If he anticipated the exposure he could perhaps have done something to mitigate for the worst effects, to protect himself and those close to him from the full impact of these events.

So where do I see this question fitting into the broader picture? I think it’s of particular interest that in the UK we are going through this seismic shift in media accountability alongside economic chaos in Europe signified by our own double-dip recession. At least when the government has bad news to tell us about the economy, it can do so under cover of exciting revelations at the Leveson Inquiry, and if there are some particularly indicting details about its media connections to be told, the announcements can be timed to coincide with news of supposedly positive policy changes. Or cabinet re-shuffles, perhaps. We are, after all, easily distracted. However the connection between these two significant facets of UK life runs deeper than a mere distraction technique for the government. How much of our confidence in our government’s ability to restore economic growth is knocked by the apparently inextricable links with News International staff? We are left with little faith in our government and our own democratic process – we are a nation with the wind kicked out of us, and declining economic conditions to boot. If the national confidence in itself and its government is lost, then we will of course slip several rungs down the ladder of economic prosperity.

We struggle because so much has been hidden from us, so much that runs deep into the core of what our society is or has become. But the great, the marvellous thing about Twitter, and social networking generally, is that there will always be someone who notices that which is trying to remain hidden, and thus, despite all its glorious (and not so glorious) faults, information spreads uncontrollably. Twitter offers us greater transparency than any government can, and is therefore a highly valuable cog in the machine of democracy.