Media regulation: what new democracy needs

Good democracy needs good information. When an article starts like that, you can bet that before long we’ll be talking about the right of free speech, and maybe bringing in a quotation from a Founding Father or some other Enlightenment figure, maybe Voltaire saying that he disagrees with what someone says but will defend to the death their right to say it.

That’s not where I want to go with this. The information that good democracy needs is only sporadically provided by the media today, and developments of democracy – particularly the drive towards localism – mean that democracy and the media are moving in opposite directions, one centralising, the other fragmenting.

That Enlightenment vision of the press as the forge of ideas and the democratic challenge to power is still strong, even if only as a promised land that today’s Jordan-obsessed tabloids can never reach. However, the Enlightenment ideal – even if achievable – is not suited to a participative and localised democracy.

Political journalism is an elite conversation. Nick Robinson insta-analysing every political interview feels a lot closer to the gossip of Englightenment salons than it does to the lives of ordinary people. Some of the Kremlinology around the Blair/Brown relationship could easily have been a coffee-shop conversation about whether the Prussian ambassador had scandalously been seated below the Bishop of Winchester at the Prince of Wales’s dinner.

I’m not saying that we should have more policy and less personality in the media – that’s often the sort of argument that policy types make, in the same way that I might argue for spiking every article on Formula One to make room for coverage of lower-league football. Policy discussion is important, but I know that the commercial requirement and the complexity of modern political arguments don’t go together. As a policy wonk, I’m resigned to heading down to the basement of the RSA to read my “special publications” rather than finding a Sun pull-out on economic productivity.

Nor do I want a world where the Leader of the Opposition puts out demographically-tested statements about his favourite flavour of jam, while postponing any statement on policy until the week before a general election is called.

Instead, media needs to provide for new democracy, and media regulation needs to support that. What does that mean? It’s one of the things I want to discuss at our media regulation event on 25 March, but my first view is that it means four things:

1. Context as well as data. An unexplained spreadsheet is as useless for public debate as an unexplained Act of Parliament. Governments and media need to collaborate to open up processes and show the workings of public service decision-making – both bureaucratic and democratic.
2. Understand that people are interested when they’re interested. There are multiple local conversations going on in any area, and people’s interest in particular topics waxes and wanes. Media, especially on a national or regional scale, can’t see or respond to those individual issues on a day-by-day basis. Media should aim to provide resources that can be drawn on when the debate in an area turns to a particular issue.
3. A wider range of events should be seen as “news”. We need to develop away from news as “stuff that has happened”, or “stuff that has recently happened”. A democratic media should treat all contributions to the national debate as worthy of reporting, even if they don’t end up on the front page or even in a daily paper edition.
4. Relocalisation of media. With local traditional media struggling, it seems that the sector is moving in the opposite direction to government. Neighbourhood councils, localised budgeting and neighbourhood planning are putting important decisions in the hands of communities, and we all have an interest in making sure that those decisions are open and aren’t taken by a small group of the well-connected and the well-informed.

Some of those elements are present in hyperlocal media today. Can this media model be made to work financially? I’m honestly not sure. Many hyperlocal blogs and sites are people scratching their own itches, with little structure behind them, and depending on the energy of a few founders. It’s good to see NESTA and Carnegie put money into new models that might work in this area, I hope they succeed.

Perhaps success for media and democracy looks more like collation than creation, and more like discussion than editorial lines. That’s very unfamiliar to the traditional newspaper mindset – and the political one. In a fortnight, when we run our discussion event on media regulation, we can start sketching out some alternatives. Let us know if you’d like to come along.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.