Posted on Oct 23, 2021
Like the confluence of great rivers events fundamental to the future of democracy have arrived on the political scene, writes Chris White.
The surprising thing is that they largely escape the notice of the general public. They have featured little, if at all in the press and media. That a free press is essential to a democratic future is undeniable but an over simplification.
This is a political commentary column more generally classed as opinion although this reporter attempts to avoid offering opinion.
By way of background the European Commission last year proposed an Action Plan to support the recovery and transformation of the media and audiovisual sector. The official announcement stated that the sectors “…are essential for democracy…”.
This week the European Parliament adopted its own initiative report with 577 in favour, 46 against and 76 abstentions. So why would anyone not support a proposal that will serve an industry that in the words of Rapporteur Latvia Dace Melbarde: “Despite being largely driven by private market players, the media sector has a strong public good component and is critical for the healthy functioning of our democracies”?
Perhaps those who abstained or voted against had an instinctive recognition that the democratic flow is heading the wrong way.
Significantly on the day of the EP vote the United Kingdom’s media industry magazine UK Press Gazette almost exclusively reported on a major research study commissioned by Oxford University that found, as their headline stated: “Readers value media impartiality and like comment clearly signposted."
The 68 page report that this reporter has read is compelling reading and its conclusions flowing into the confluence confirm that the democratic debate is in turbulent waters.
That democracy depends on a free press is well attested world wide. That the media is seen by many to be biased in its reporting, omitting certain facts or unwelcome views is a strong message in the Oxford report.
The participants in the survey “associated impartiality with objectivity, being fair, being honest and truthful, reporting both sides, being transparent and open to everyone and allowing a direct reflection of reality”.
It appears that the public feel that headlines have increasingly become alarmist and that bias through omission is common especially on television and radio. Science and false equivalence as in introducing comment adverse to a scientific report by experts not qualified in the matter has dominated the Covid pandemic as during the Brexit debate.
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The Oxford report states that there needs to be more recognition of the new challenges to impartiality; better training to journalists about the dangers of undermining impartiality; that news organisations should be more transparent over their policies around difficult issues like inclusion and exclusion, whether by algorithm or human intervention and that there needs to be clearer and consistent labelling and signposting of different content types, (news, analysis, opinion) to overcome consumer confusion in digital contexts.
It is, to express an opinion, a damning report. Now a bigger question in the maelstrom surrounding the fourth pillar of democracy is how government financial support and support for financing as set out in the EU will actually work?
The media in certain countries has long been criticised for accepting government grants implying that criticism of government is stifled. Will media outlets supported by EU institutions become slaves to politicians, officials and press departments?
Thereby lies the dilemma. Democracy is in crisis, the media is in crisis, society is in crisis. A comment wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ is taking on ever greater significance.
Everyone should pay attention. Everyone should remember that Lenin opposed a free press as do all autocratic leaders. Perhaps that English expression ‘Take the shilling’ is taking on a more contemporary meaning.
The Oxford report can be found on the Press Gazette website:
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