Media and democracy: Public uninterest journalism

Presseurop Notebook

The failures of the press are not ethical in nature, but existential, says Stephen Rainey.

Identity is very readily marked in the expression of ideas, insights and opinions. One expresses one’s identity in words and deeds. In public, if this is unfettered, we end up with a public sphere marked by factionalism and cheerleading for presumed heroes. Closed minds close the public sphere.

The press has an unparalleled privilege in being the potential medium for the public sphere. Such a sphere is not simply self-sustaining. In large populations, with plural societies, conversations and the sharing of views in discussion can’t see the light of day without help. The media has the opportunity to mediate this process. To represent the views of this variegated group. To present these views to those who can use the insights gained from hearing them. Conversely, the media has the opportunity to present the motives, aspirations and possibilities as envisaged by those who would govern to those who would be governed.

A public sphere is an essential part of any society that would hope to make progress beyond simply reproducing traditional patterns of living. In a changing world, and one wherein plural views exist among each other, more or less constant reflection is required. This has to happen in public and in an open and authentic manner. This has to happen in the press and wider media. If this does not, or it cannot occur, there is no possibility of democratic action. Where the demos aren’t represented to the governing, and the governing aren’t portrayed openly to the demos, agenda-setting is skewed into the partial interests of unnamed cadres.

This isn’t the result of conspiracy, but dull-mindedness and a feckless misapprehension of the chances and responsibilities of the 'Fourth Estate'.

Paul Ricoeur said of democracies that they were not places without conflict, but places where the conflicts were overt and pursued openly. Under such a regime, democracy has no end. The conclusions don’t come to problems, but decisions aren’t absent. The point is to establish an inclusive work in progress, based in that ‘real solidarity’ that living around one another can found. This is a dynamic way of stating democracy. It puts problems centre-stage.

Conflicts in interest

In theory at least, the European project was intended to be an overtly problematic social-democratic experiment. The idea was that a plurality of views and opinions would be accommodated in a way not constrained by mere tradition. The modus operandi of Monnet-Schuman Europeanness was the idea of developing tentative working relationships based on the apprehension of solidarities of interest. Public interest isn’t taken as a vision, a destiny to be pursued. It is constantly re-evaluated in the light of myriad factors that colour means and ends. This aims at constituting ‘real solidarity,’ not the positing of a European essence in which all can partake or to which all must submit. The boons of this idea include that opposition, when it inevitably arises, comes not in ‘face-offs’ between groups and individuals, but over means and ends: the conflicts are mediated in the world, in concrete matters, not in ideologies.

Where the media fails to grapple with the ideas that underwrite conflicts, interests and self-expressions in the public sphere, that very sphere disintegrates. This effect is magnified by the scale of the sphere itself. Where the media fail to mediate the real interactions, concerns and possibilities of politically regulated social groups, the danger is they fall to decadence. Where the public sphere isn’t respected as such, we have seen market forces sought and quality judged by sales. Whilst this is a factor in judging quality, it cannot be ignored that market forces and consumer forces are different types of force. Consumer forces are the impulses and presuppositions made by groups of citizens. These are at least politically and socially constructed norms in themselves. In other words, they are predicated on the public sphere.

Where the media fails to grasp its chances and responsibilities in representing the public sphere, where an anaemic view of ‘the market’ is substituted for this nuanced and more complex idea, the media enters an odd contradiction. The media overlooks the foundation for the forces at work in society that themselves help to constitute the attitudes that are then pandered to in seeking market success. It is shallow, facile and can only lead to ever-decreasing circles.

The present, ongoing investigations of media ethics in the UK undertaken by Lord Justice Leveson can raise a voice in this problematic situation. But the point can be made that the problems of the media are not primarily ethical, but existential. The distasteful practices stem from a bad idea of what the fourth estate is.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.