1. bookVolumen 35 (2014): Edición s1 (August 2014)
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2001-5119
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01 Mar 2013
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Keynote Speeches

Publicado en línea: 13 Mar 2020
Volumen & Edición: Volumen 35 (2014) - Edición s1 (August 2014)
Páginas: 30 - 63
Detalles de la revista
License
Formato
Revista
eISSN
2001-5119
Primera edición
01 Mar 2013
Calendario de la edición
2 veces al año
Idiomas
Inglés
Defending Whose Democracy?
Media Freedom and Media Power

Natalie Fenton

Rarely has the relationship between media and democracy been so centre-stage. Whether regarding regulatory reform brought about by phone hacking in the UK, concentration of media ownership in Italy, Hungary, Australia to mention but a few; or in relation to social media and the internet as a supposed means to increased access to information and citizen production and circulation of non-mainstream content leading to greater so called media freedom. The debate on whether or not and in what form the media are related to the nature and practice of democracy is raging; and rightly so.

Yet too often this debate, usually cast in populist terms, belies complexity. We are frequently told that one leads to the other. In one formulation, ‘free’ media are seen as a pre-requisite for democracy to flourish. Here we see an ill used interpretation of the concept of ‘freedom of the press’ used to defy explanation and justify most anything ‒ who can be against freedom, particularly press freedom when the press have such a crucial relationship with a healthy democracy? Such a knee-jerk response is frequently no more than a cheap disguise for the promotion of free-market capitalism which is then seen as a direct path to enhanced democratisation on the gravy train of commercial media.

Alternatively, it is proposed that ‘freedom’, as a free floating concept more generally connected in this instance to democracy (or more accurately, usually Western forms of capitalist democracy) will inevitably lead to a free media. But once more, dig a little deeper and this free media is largely construed as a media free at the point of profit. Both approaches present varying degrees of media determinism that forge a type of logic that then lends support to arguments for the inherent liberating and democratising impact of new media forms, such as the internet, regardless of actual content or the broader context of which they a part. Media Freedom in other words finds itself morphed from a complex concept into a simplistic notion that has assumed a level of normativity and developed a common-sense relationship to liberal democracy. To have one must be to have the other thereby denying a more critical analytical interpretation of its contemporary neo-liberal translation.

What such approaches all too often fail to point out is that the relationship between media and democracy also depends on the existing state of the media and of the market and indeed on the state of actually existing democracy in each individual context – where context is likely to be state-led because of the prevailing dominance of state legislatures but not state-bound due to globalisation. Thus, this relationship also depends on political culture and media policy; the nature of the economy and the market; media and communication technologies and formats as well as social and cultural issues such as literacy, poverty, religious differences and daily rituals (Curran, Fenton and Freedman 2012). This combination of factors all impinge, sometimes directly, on the relationship between media and democracy as each of these factors have an effect on media circulation and on media consumption and influence how and to what extent democracies can function effectively – yet are all too frequently side stepped leaving us analytically moribund and politically stagnant.

In these sets of complex relations, news media are given a particular relevance with regards to citizen participation in political life. News provides, or should provide, the vital resources for processes of information gathering, deliberation and analysis that enables democracy to function. In an ideal world, unfettered by commercial pressures of failed business models, new technology and plummeting sales and circulation figures, this would mean that news media would survey the socio-political environment, hold the Government and other officials to account, provide a platform for intelligible and illuminating debate, and encourage dialogue across a range of views. This is an ideal relationship, however, and it’s hinged on a conception of independent journalism in the public interest linked to notions of knowledge, political participation and democratic renewal. But news media have been beset with many challenges over the last decade that have introduced considerable stress-lines to these ideals. A huge growth in the number of news outlets including the advent of and rapid increase in free papers, the emergence of 24 hour television news and the popularization of online and mobile platforms, has meant that more news must be produced and distributed at a faster rate than ever before. In a corporate news world it is now difficult to maintain profit margins and shareholder returns unless you employ fewer journalists (Fenton 2010). But fewer journalists with more space to fill means doing more work in less time often leading to a greater use of unattributed rewrites of press agency or public relations material and the cut and paste practice now known as churnalism (Davies 2008; Lee-Wright, Phillips and Witschge 2011).

If you combine the faster and shallower corporate journalism of the digital age with the need to pull in readers for commercial rather than journalistic reasons it is not difficult to see how the traditional values of professional journalism are quickly cast aside in order to indulge in sensationalism and deal in gratuitous spectacles and dubious emotionalism. Set this alongside the fact that in many places, such as the UK, there are an ever-smaller number of global media institutions dominating the media landscape; then, the simple notion that more media means better democracy starts to look rather tenuous (Media Reform Coalition 2011).

The larger and more concentrated media empires become, the more concerned politicians are to maintain good relations with owners and senior executives and editors (Davis 2002). Political Parties, the police and other institutions are reluctant to investigate wrong-doing in the news media, hinder the expansion of large media conglomerates or introduce new regulation of news organizations and journalistic practice. Such patterns and relations have resulted in certain public policy areas being avoided for fear of either hostile reporting or media owner conflict. And, for the same reasons, politicians are more likely to discuss populist policies. As such, a media system that may have many platforms and points of distribution but is dominated by a few, powerful voices and a news media increasingly run to secure financial reward or political influence is unlikely to foster greater participation in political culture.

Theories of democratic political participation have long since recognized the roles the media play in activating political citizenship and participation. Media coverage plays a significant role in creating awareness and engagement. News matters at a fundamental level to society. But a simple abundance of news, one that just assumes that the more news we have the more democratic our societies are, speaks to a naïve pluralism that has been shown to be blatantly false. More news does not necessarily help democracy, even if consumption is high, if the nature of news content serves the interests of the news industry over and above the public’s information needs. In such cases contemporary coverage can actually lead to a mood of anti-politics, thwart political participation in the public sphere and diminish democracy (Coleman 2012).

Partly because the relationship between democracy and media is so complex and contingent it is also never fixed and constantly open to contestation – although the terms and extent of that contestation may be constrained under particular circumstances. The media, as democracies, are not homogenous, static entities. Both are ever changing, both contain power and shape the space where power is competed for, albeit in different ways. As a consequence, both also contain difference and division as well as being subject to social forces and indeed social movements that may challenge established and vested interests (Freedman and Fenton 2013). When this happens and it most often happens at the point of crisis – whether due to the failings of democratic systems or the dismal behaviour of some parts of the media – it is then that the opportunity arises to rethink the relationship between media and democracy. We are at this point now in the UK and it is a battle that is being hard fought but one that is severely unbalanced in relation to media power. The tabloid press in particular, have thrown their might, money and megaphone behind a campaign designed to claim freedom as their right to publish whatever they like in the pursuit of profit; a response that equates markets to freedom and increased regulation to creeping authoritarianism.

The dominant section of the Press Industry campaigning against independent self-regulation put forward by Lord Justice Leveson after a year long public inquiry, sponsored the establishment of the Freedom of Speech Network that unsurprisingly, subsequently received handsome coverage in the mainstream press despite very little coverage of the hacking scandal itself throughout the length of the Leveson proceedings (Bennett and Towned, 2012). The familiar retort of this press lobby is to compare those calling for improved self-regulation of the press overseen by a recognition body that will review the practices of press self regulation every 2–3 years in a manner recommended by Lord Justice Leveson to authoritarian states such as Zimbabwe.

The discursive binary of freedom or authoritarianism is of course, a fake dichotomy that quickly falls apart once the notion of power is injected into the debate. Most people may be able to speak in this public sphere but we can not all speak at the same volume or be heard in the same way. So-called freedom is never unfettered or unstructured. It is always worth asking who or what in this unregulated nirvana has power? Certainly not your average person in the street or even your average journalist, but rather those corporate entities that ever more dominate the media landscape. Once power is taken into consideration then a critique of freedom takes on a rather different mantle from the crude assumption that we all begin from a level playing field and everyone approaches access to freedom from the same vantage point. These issues are exemplified in the recent hacking scandal in the UK.

The Case of the UK: Marketisation and Deregulation of the Press

In the summer of 2012 the News Of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch, stood accused of illegal, unethical behaviour through the systematic phone hacking of politicians, members of the royal family, celebrities and murder victims and their families. Murdoch subsequently closed down the News of the World and several ex-editors and journalists found themselves under criminal investigation. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, publicly embarrassed by his employment of Andy Coulson (a former Editor of News of the World: 2003–2007), as his Director of Communications, who was arrested by the Metropolitan Police Service in July 2011 for allegations of corruption and phone hacking, then called for an inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson to investigate the issue.

Hackgate, as it became known, reveals the mechanisms of a system based on the corruption of power. It is not a distortion of a functional system, it is part and parcel of a system that is fully integrated into neo-liberalism. Phone hacking did not happen just because those who did it knew they could get away with it and editors thought on balance it was a business risk worth taking (in other words, that any subsequent pay-outs to victims would be easily offset against increases in sales). Indeed, many editors denied that they had any knowledge of illegal practice occurring. The problem is much broader and deeper than any slippage in ethical practice would seem to suggest and rests not with the individual journalists but with the system of news production they were part of. The reasons phone hacking took place are complex and involve the increasing entanglement of political and media elites as news coverage has taken on an ever more important role in policy making and elections (Davis 2002); the failure of the Press Complaints Commission (the newspaper industry watchdog) to uphold ethical standards and enable adequate self-regulation of journalists (CCMR 2011; Couldry, Phillips and Freedman 2010); alongside the broken business model of newspapers with plummeting circulation and readership figures and the migration of classified advertising to online sites such as Craigslist in the US and Gumtree and eBay in the UK (Fenton 2010; Levy and Nielsen 2010). But one thing is clear – the illegal practice of phone hacking did not have the primary motive of the press as fourth estate holding truth to power. Rather, in a thoroughly marketised and deregulated newspaper industry the mission was to gain competitive advantage and increase newspaper sales.

The practice of phone hacking has been widely condemned. However, a common response from the news industry itself has been to direct responsibility for phone hacking towards the law and inadequate policing, claiming that it was not the concern of the media industry but rather a result of failures in criminal investigations and prosecutions. The solution must lie therefore with the police and the enactment of the law and not through further regulation of the profession or industry which should remain ‘free’ to do effectively, as it pleases. ‘Freedom’ in this sense becomes a narrative device to sidestep the deeper, systemic problems of the newspaper industry of which these ethical misdemeanours are but one symptom. Freedom of the press stands in for all activities of the press regardless of whether they have democratic intent or not.

As soon as the value of news to society is invoked, the contribution of news to the public sphere and consequently its relationship to a healthy democracy follows suit. In this manner, the relationship between journalism and democracy is understood as causal. Once we accept this inevitable sequential relationship it is easy to slip into commonsense assumptions: the more news we have the more democratic our societies are; the less news we have the less democratic we are. Abundance comes to stand in for pluralism and for freedom in the same breath. Of course, democracy is far more than the quantity of news and many so-called developed democracies have a plethora of news media but a public sphere that is severely impoverished (Aalberg, Aelst and Curran 2010). But this kind of short-cut libertarian defence that in fact aligns freedom with established and vested power interests’ ability to do whatever they like within the law means that any form of regulation that may encourage news organizations to behave in particular ways, is assumed to be detrimental to democracy and involvement of the state in any form whatsoever in relation to the press becomes nothing more than state censorship.

Interestingly however, the UK newspaper industry has never once referred to the notable state subsidies to the press in the form of VAT exemption that total some £750m per year as state interference or censorship.

Such arguments, that we see echoed in the proposition that the internet because of its potential for information pluralism, must, by its very nature, deliver more democracy, reveal a particular ideological premise. This was made explicit in the comments by David Price QC, an expert on the law of defamation and privacy:

There is something Orwellian about describing this as the ‘Media Freedom and Regulatory Standards Bill’, as if they compliment each other, when they are direct opposites….It makes the mistake of assuming more regulation will help us get to the truth more easily. We get to the truth by having ideas tested in the marketplace, not by further regulation or by the great and good deciding what is true or ethical.

(David Price QC quoted in The Times, 7.1.13)

This Bill was proposed by Leveson as a means of offering statutory underpinning to a voluntary self-regulatory framework. Because of the concerns over Press Freedom the Bill was then replaced with a Royal Charter. Royal Charters are archaic instruments of the Privy Council overseen by the Queen and ironically are far less democratic in nature that any legislative mechanism allows for.

So, the marketplace, dominated by publishers who promote a very particular definition of public problems will deliver this thing called a free press that will enable a healthier democracy. Price goes on to say that he is also concerned by the reference to the regulator needing to ensure the dignity of the individual:

We have a proud tradition of ridicule and satire that has protected against abuse of power. A free press will inevitably be undignified but it is far safer than a sanitised one […..] The point remains […] that a free press and freedom of expression are indivisible rights that belong to all or none at all. Defending that principle does not mean endorsing everything or anything that the press does. But it does mean accepting the freedom of others to publish what you don’t want to read, whether your personal tastes deem it ‘ethical’ or not. Freedom is always a messy business. Nobody has to pass a test set by Lord Justice Leveson or Hacked Off to qualify for the right to free speech.

(Ibid)

It is true that if we look to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights they do proclaim a universal right to freedom of expression. The latter is more detailed and it is helpful to look more closely at it. In Article 10.i It states that

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

(ECHR 1950:11)

However, article 10.ii – far less often read or cited – qualifies Article 10.i by stating that:

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

(ECHR 1950:11)

As Baroness Onora O’Neil (2012) argues, the much quoted Article 10 when seen in its entirety, does not assume that freedom of expression is an unconditional right, or that it may not be restricted or subject to regulations. The Declaration proclaims a qualified right to freedom of expression, but leaves it to legislatures and to courts to determine which qualifications and restrictions are and are not needed and acceptable at a given time and place. Baroness O’Neill goes on to argue that an individuals’ right to freedom of expression cannot be transferred directly to the speech of powerful organizations stating that, “it is simply a mistake to see the speech of the powerful as self expression” (O’Neill 2012: 9).

This mythology of naïve pluralism assumes that journalists already operate with full independence and in the interests of democracy; that news organisations have democratic intent at their core. But much (although by no means all) tabloid journalism runs counter to the public interest and has little democratic intent. As Trevor Kavannagh, Associate Editor of the Sun noted in his own evidence to Leveson:

…news is as saleable a commodity as any other. Newspapers are commercial, competitive businesses, not a public service. (6 October 2011): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/oct/06/trevor-kavanagh-leveson-inquiry-speech.

News in these formulations is primarily for profit – this is a marketplace that operates on market principles. But of course, news is no ordinary commodity – it offers the possibility of directing the public conversation and hence is of relevance to politicians keen to convince voters of the benefits of their particular policy formulations. This puts news proprietors in a particular position of power. The owner of the London Evening Standard and the Independent, Russian billionaire Evgeny Lebedev tweeted after his appearance at Leveson: “Forgot to tell #Leveson that it’s unreasonable to expect individuals to spend £millions on newspapers and not have access to politicians”.

In the UK it would seem, there is a relationship of sorts between news and democracy but a largely dysfunctional one whose breaking points pivot on issues relating to the commercialism and marketisation of news as well as concentration of ownership and deregulation. The notion that somehow truth will emerge victorious in this so-called marketplace of ideas is clearly misconstrued and we would do well to remember that just as journalism can be democratising, so it can also be de-democratising (Fenton 2012).

Hackgate reveals the mechanisms of a system based on the corruption of power and one that displays many of the hallmarks of neo-liberal practice. Rupert Murdoch and the news culture he helped to promote was part of this process in the UK that began with the defeat of the print unions at Wapping and continued with the lobby for extensive liberalisation of media ownership regulation to enable an unprecedented global media empire to emerge. And where did we end up? Hackgate enabled the naming and shaming of what many had believed to be the case for years: systematic invasions of privacy that wrecked lives on a daily basis (Cathcart 2012); lies and deceit of senior newspaper figures; the wily entanglement and extensive associations of media and political elites (Coleman 2012) (during the Leveson inquiry it was revealed that a member of the Cabinet had met executives from Rupert Murdoch’s empire once every three days on average since the Coalition was formed);

20 Cabinet ministers met senior Murdoch executives 130 times in the first 14 months of office. See the full list on Number 10s website: http://www.number10.gov.uk/transparency/who-ministers-are-meeting/

and a highly politicised and corrupt police force (Rebekah Brookes, Chief Executive Officer of News International 2009–2011 and former Editor of News of the World and The Sun, admitted to paying police for information in a House of Commons Select Committee in 2003 but denied it in 2011 (BBC News UK, 15 April 2011) and over a quarter of the police public affairs department were found to be previous employers of the News of the World (Warrell 2011)). This was certainly a media freedom of sorts but certainly not one that was defending democracy even in its most populist formulations.

Freedom of the press has always been associated with the ability of news journalists to do their job free from interference from government (Muhlmann 2010). Clearly this is crucial for independent news production and a healthy public sphere. Self-regulation has become the sacred mantra associated with the freedom of the press ‒ the only means to ensure governments can’t interfere in, dictate the terms and thwart the practice of journalism. But this denies the influence and power of a corporate culture that wreaks its own havoc and sets its own agenda often far more blatantly than any democratic government would ever dare. If you are relatively powerless (say a journalist in relation to an editor) then self-regulation can be meaningless, particularly when the person in power does not share your views. Most recently, with the threat of compulsory redundancies at the Independent newspaper, Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists has commented that a workforce that is paid “bargain basement salaries […] is fearful and compliant” (Press Gazette, 2 August 2013).

But it is not only journalists whose freedom is circumscribed by corporate compliance. Our ability to exercise our own democratic freedom as ordinary members of the public is premised on the basic fact that governments are not distorted by private interest of multi-media conglomerates. When governments as well as journalists are beholden to corporate power then freedom is hard to come by for all but the most powerful.

Understanding the role of the news as an industry and news organizations as corporate entities in these relations is crucial to our understanding of how ‘freedom’ can be more easily claimed by some to the detriment of others. ‘Freedom of the press’ as an ethical practice does not somehow magically transcend the market it is part of. Far from it, rather, it has become embroiled in a particular political-economic system. This is a system that tells us that productivity is increased and innovation unleashed if the state stays out of the picture and lets businesses get on with it. Productivity in the market and hence news as a commodity takes precedence over the social and political concerns of news as a mechanism of democratic process. In other words, the less ‘interference’ in the form of regulation, the more liberalised the market, the better the outcome (Jessop 2002). In neo-liberal democracies the power of the market is just as significant as the power of government. In the UK, there is certainly no rush to regulate for a healthy relationship between news media and democracy, yet there is plenty of urgency about the need to deregulate media for the benefit of the market.

The industry response to the hacking scandal in the UK largely conformed to this neo-liberal premise. Freedom of the press expressed purely as the need to get the state to butt out and give commercial practice free reign is about nothing more than enabling market dominance to take priority over all other concerns. Freedom of the press expressed in this way is not a precondition or even a consequence of democracy so much as a substitute for it. Freedom requires accountability otherwise those with the most power will be free to do as they please while the powerless are ignored or worse. The journalistic ethics on offer in this rhetoric is not the coming together of journalists for the general promotion of journalism in the public good and for the public interest – as one may find in such organisations as Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders claims to be “the largest press freedom organization in the world, with over 120 correspondents across the globe.” (http://en.rsf.org/rsf-usa-23-11-2009,35024.html). It works to expose limits on press freedom and support journalists who are being persecuted.

. Rather, it is a post-state capitalist logic (Boltanski 2011) that has become normative.

In the context of the hacking debate the phrase ‘freedom of the press’, has become a term that has been emptied of its real meaning by becoming one of what Hardt and Negri (2009, p.120) call “false universals that characterise dominant modern rationality”. But the process of assigning meaning can never be total and will always reveal contradictions. As such, the relationship between capitalism and democracy (or capitalism and political freedom) should not be taken for granted. One of the areas of media that has been invested with the power to expose these contradictions is the internet – and it is to these debates that we now turn.

Free at Last: Deliverance via the Internet?

Just as individuals cannot claim the right to freedom of expression in the same manner as media conglomerates, neither can the so-called freedom of individuals online fulfill the emancipatory claims made of them. Most recently the notion of media freedom has been applied to information pluralism on the internet and claimed as a democratic gain. In this debate access to the internet (both as a producer and a user) is fore-grounded as the means to communicative and democratic freedom. The Internet, we are told, not only delivers communicative abundance but also brings power to the individual enabling them in Castells’ terms to engage in self mass-communication. This liberation of the self comes via a form of creative autonomy (Castells 2009: 136) unleashed online. Castells argues that a new form of communication has emerged “where self-generated messages created by individuals can reach global audiences” (pp. 58–71) giving rise to unprecedented levels of autonomy imbued with emancipatory possibilities.

Similarly, in Benkler’s (2006) analysis, the Internet has the potential to change the practice of democracy radically because of its participatory and interactive attributes. He argues that it allows all citizens to alter their relationship to the public sphere, become creators and primary subjects engaged in social production. In this sense the Internet is ascribed the powers of democratisation. This may be the result of the networked individual (in other words the individuals expanded relations to others), but it is primarily the liberation of the individual over that of the group that is emphasized.

So, in these formulations, autonomy and freedom unsurprisingly sit side by side and they also sit at the heart of the networked politics of new social movements. It is in these networked forms of radical politics that genuine emancipation and true political freedom is said to reside. It is worthwhile therefore, pausing to consider how freedom and autonomy are often construed in the most recent of new social movements such as Occupy. The conceptualization and enactment of autonomy in the networked sociality of contemporary radical politics has been forged through a connection to anarchism and autonomous Marxism. These approaches imagine the network as an ever-open space of politics. From this perspective, the network is not simply the expression of networked-individuals, but the manifestation of self-constituted, un-hierarchical, and affinity based relationships. Much post-marxist theorizing has claimed that this heralds the emergence of a new (networked) subject of history that is non-hierarchical, with open communication and self-generating information and identities that function via networks of activism and activists. Such networks are often staunchly anti-bureaucratic and anti-centralist, suspicious of large organized, formal and institutional politics. This is a form of politics that cannot be identified by a party name or definitive ideology and is often liable to rapid change in form, approach and mission. It is a politics that makes a virtue out of a solidarity built on the value of difference that goes beyond a simple respect for otherness and involves an inclusive politics of voice. Marchart (2007) has called this a type of ‘post-foundational politics’, while others have claimed that the space of new media enables a broader range of voices and types of material to be communicated to a wider audience without the constraints of needing to comply with or follow a particular political creed or direction other than the expression of an affinity with a particular cause

The rejection of meta-narratives of political ideas in favour of autonomous political subjects and values is seen as being directly conducive to the pluralism of online mediated spaces. The principle that no-one speaks for the collective, that each takes control of their own political activism as being allied to every individual’s ability to produce online. Thus, the Internet and the newly creative and autonomous political subjects it inspires is taken as evidence that radical politics can arise horizontally and take the form of networks, rather than hierarchical hegemonies as in a traditional politics of the Left.

There are of course, different ways of conceiving of autonomy. The type of autonomy expressed by post-Marxist discourse theorists that operates within a hegemonic frame (Laclau and Mouffe 1985) needs to be clearly distinguished from the post-hegemony autonomist theorists (Day 2005; Holloway 2002). The former stresses articulation and contingency and recognises that, although the singularity of multiple voices in pluralism must be recognised and respected, ultimately it is neither feasible nor necessarily desirable that each of these singularities occupies a permanently unified space, politics or language. In other words, while the singular authenticity of plural voices is constitutive of the whole and must be recognised as such, it is necessary, to transcend the particularity of the singular to form a collective identity and ultimately, a counter hegemony.

Post-hegemony autonomist approaches, on the other hand, all too frequently overlook the critical contextual factors of state boundaries, prevalent political infrastructures and ever dominant economic constraints that raise critical questions regarding the political efficacy of new social movements and many contemporary forms of radical politics. Frequently, such approaches either disregard the impact of the politics of new social movements on a state polity or base the success of such movements on their ability to function external to a state polity and, as a consequence, they are not well placed to assess the nature and consequence of the political act in a broader context of political structures, leaving wide open the critical question: how open to contest and revision is politics today?

Inequalities of power found in regimes of (mis)representation are both replicated and found in different manifestations online to lay challenge to the apparent limitless plurality on offer via the Internet. Research on the digital divide notes that internet users are younger, more highly educated and richer than non-users, more likely to be men than women and more likely to live in cities (Norris 2001; Warschauer 2003; Shradie 2011). These concerns do not just refer to access to the Internet and the huge gaps prevalent between the global North and South; they also refer to online activity within developed nations and to traditional divides between the well educated middle class who dominate public discourse and those on the peripheries or excluded altogether (Hindman 2008). Plurality, or at least the ability to take advantage of plurality, it would seem, is reserved for the privileged.

Castells does contend that, with the expansion of the Web 2.0 project, the creative autonomy of subjects is constantly threatened by multimedia businesses, who seek to recommodify autonomous communication. But nonetheless, he continues to maintain that “…the construction of communicative autonomy is directly related to the development of social and political autonomy, a key factor in fostering social change” (p. 414). One will lead to the other. Castells (2009:300) argues that social movements that engage in oppositional politics – “the process aiming at political change (institutional change) in discontinuity with the logic embedded in political institutions” – now have the chance to enter the public space from multiple sources and bring about change. In his argument the multiple prospects for intervention and manipulation coming from a myriad of social nodes combine to create a new symbolic counter-force that can shift dominant forms of representation. The counter political response swells to such a size online that it simply cannot be ignored offline and is in turn, taken up by the mass media. By using both horizontal communication networks and mainstream media to convey their images and messages, they increase their chances of enacting social and political change – “even if they start from a subordinate position in institutional power, financial resources, or symbolic legitimacy” (Castells 2009: 302).

Such accounts depend on an implicit assumption about the consequential relations between pluralism, networked communication and political demand. So the argument goes, technological ease of communication leads to abundance of information which is automatically a political gain. The Internet we are told, delivers beautiful and bountiful information and political pluralism bringing forth the means to communicative and ultimately democratic freedom.

But the sheer abundance of information available to us has also been argued to breed misinformation and lack of understanding (Patterson 2010) because the daily habits and rituals of news seeking have changed. People are no longer required to sit in front of the television for a set period of time each day or to read the newspaper over breakfast. Instead we do news snacking. But there are so many other more tempting treats on offer that ‘healthy’ news snacking is rapidly replaced by the more immediately gratifying tasty tit-bits of entertainment. Even more worryingly Patterson identifies a pattern whereby in a high choice media environment the less-well informed are more inclined to opt for entertainment while the better informed include the news junkies leading to increasing inequality of knowledge between the more informed and the less informed. Patterson (2010:20) also argues that speed “increases sensation but decreases learning” noting that about 60 per cent of those who regularly read a daily newspaper spend at least half an hour doing so compared to only 40 per cent of those who read an online daily newspaper.

The likes of Castells and Benkler’s argument actually has little basis in an account of people’s actual usage of the new media landscape. Understanding the daily habits and rituals associated with media use is crucial to analysing how the abstract possibilities of all technologies develop into everyday political culture. And if these accounts offer no analysis of actual media use, then they must also fail also to address the question of context. The experience of living in mediated worlds involves being part of the wider framings of social and political life, wider myths of social ‘order’ (Wrong 1994) specifically in relation to the particular types of framing of politics (and what lies beyond politics) at particular historical moments. Once this is taken into account we can begin to surmise how neoliberal discourse maybe a powerful and largely successful attempt to reshape the framing of the political for a whole generation and remains powerfully in force in the individualistic values that saturate much life and action online. Bennett and Segerbergs (2013) work on social media and social movements is instructive here as it reveals how this heavily personalized means of communicating protest leads to connective rather than collective responses; a more individualized means of political agency.

Once we have taken account of the depth and breadth of contextual factors and situated them in a broader understanding of prevalent framings of meaning, then we must ask ourselves – has the networked communication of the internet integrated people better into public politics, made public politics administer against inequality and made centres of economic power politically accountable. I would argue, precisely the reverse in many countries with two or three decades of neoliberal politics and neoliberal culture which, arguably have eroded the integration of trust networks, increased inequality and increased the autonomy of corporations through deregulation and liberalization in a digital age where media usage is ever more surveilled, monitored and monetized.

Conclusion: The Problem of Politics and the Importance of Power

To thoroughly interrogate the relationship of media to democracy requires a consideration of power – who has it and how is it used? To engage with a full consideration of power requires media scholars to embrace fully the social dimensions of mediated life and the political consequences of our actions and those of others. If we inject an analysis of power into the relationship between media and democracy then we are encouraged to take account of those who hold it and those who seek to claim it and then to critique how each is accountable to the other. The political cannot be understood outside of relations of power or without the social. It also requires us to avoid the assumptions and pitfalls of neo-liberal formulations of democratic life – discussed here in relation to particular interpretations of media freedom.

In seeking to understand media and democracy in the digital age, we must also be prepared to take stock of this thing called democracy. Democratisation, whichever way you choose to see it, requires the real and material participation of the oppressed and excluded, of the victims of the political system. Democracy conceived of as access to communication and information can only ever take us to first base. It may well offer possible changes in the dynamics of action. It may even enable an expansion of the realm of the contestable and in this sense extend the public sphere. But acknowledging this should not give way to a fetishization of notions of plurality, autonomy and communicative or media freedom. Political participation is not just about access or voice, although both are crucially important. Ultimately, participation is about limiting the control of a few privileged people or dominant corporations who rule. If participation is about sharing power, is it possible to share power at the level of the nation state, to reach a level of sovereignty by and for the people? In other words, we need to ask how do political systems work where representative democracy has gone askew? And then to question the role of the media therein and interrogate how the dynamics of political life and action are changing.

One simple yet terrifyingly complex goal would be to reconnect democracy with equality (social, economic, political, cultural and technological). This would serve the critical purpose of immediately flushing out differential power relations and enabling a deeper understanding of what it means to give more control to more people. Reconnecting democracy with equality premises the discussion on the sort of conditions that might be needed for us to come together as collectives to shape common action and to live together better and that includes the conditions of mediated practice. To consider who amongst us can lay claim to being a political actor and why and in what circumstances would we want to? It is these sorts of questions that address the organization of life by capital, and seek to re-establish the value of publics such that we can re-imagine democracy and its relationship to the media in a more substantive and radically progressive way, that should be at the heart of our analyses as critical media scholars.

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Radical Media Ethics
Responding to a Revolution

Stephen J.A. Ward

Aug. 9, 2013

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. Henry David Thoreau

When we do journalism, media ethics is the responsible use of the freedom to publish. When we reflect on our work, media ethics is normative interpretation of practice. Normative interpretation starts with a social practice such as law or journalism, and around which there is usually some agreement on who is a practitioner and on clear examples of the practice. Interpretation articulates the purpose of the practice by considering it “in its best light.”

Ronald Dworkin discusses normative interpretation in law, ethics, and art in Law’s Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986) and in his more recent, Justice for Hedgehogs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). The phrase “in the best light” is taken from these writings.

Given this purpose, it says what the practice requires in terms of standards.

For example, I evaluate journalism according to two tiers of criteria. The first tier identifies “base conditions” for the building of a robust press. The base conditions include freedom of expression, independence of newsrooms, and sufficient economic stability. These conditions must be realized to some extent before we can dream of other things. The second tier consists of “democratic” criteria. It says that once the freedom to publish is established, media should promote egalitarian, participatory democracy. I stress citizen participation in all aspects of media, but I also favor certain types of participation. I look for media spaces that allow reasoned dialogue across differences – what I call dialogic journalism. And I want news media to be globally minded. Journalism should have an ethical impulse to promote human flourishing and democratic structures worldwide, reduce conflict, build cultural bridges, and advance social justice. The philosophical basis of this view is my ethical cosmopolitanism.

But what happens when we have a practice where there is no consensus about norms and no agency to enforce standards to protect the public? This is media ethics today. Our media revolution creates multiple interpretations with competing norms and, sometimes, a remarkable ambivalence about the need for any ethical rules.

Media ethics, like media, is in turmoil.

Trends

Most of the turmoil is generated by two macro-trends. One is the emergence of a “mixed news media.” News media is “mixed” because many types of practitioners use many types of technology to create many types of content. The other macro-trend is a media with global impact and reach. Mixed media puts pressure on a mainstream ethics designed for a different era. Globalization challenges parochial notions of journalism’s duties.

In mainstream North American media, one reality is angst about layoffs of thousands of journalists, as ad revenue migrates to Google and other online giants. The once proud legacy media, their future value now uncertain, are sold for bargain prices. Magazines go digital only, while papers reduce print publishing and erect pay walls online. Beat reporters are laid off, or reassigned. Recently, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its 28 photojournalists. Images will now come from reporters and citizens. Examples of this new media ecology were on display recently as Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post. The NY Times unloaded the Boston Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry for 4% of what the Times paid for it over a decade ago. And IBT, a digital-only media company, bought Newsweek, and paid the once dominant magazine the faint compliment of still having “some cachet”. ‘Journalism is dying’ is a common phrase.

Alongside this angst, there is a less noticed revolution going on inside these smaller mainstream newsrooms. Editors combine old and new media to re-connect with dwindling audiences with their smart phones and a thousand sources of information. The idea is to change a news organization from a “fortress” to a community convenor. The mantras are: Digital first. Innovate or die. Connect or be disconnected. Share or be ignored. One editor put it this way: “content – curation – community”. It is now cool to experiment. Creative thinkers, who run incubators and accelerators, are hired to help the legacy folks understand the new media universe – the way a teenager clues in her parents about a new device. Conferences on the future of journalism, where workshops explain how to use Facebook as a reporting tool, invite the heads of Yahoo or Gawker to headline the event, not the editor of the Cleveland newspaper. Meanwhile, the Washington Post starts an internet TV site and creates its own programs; the Wall Street Journal creates a video site where citizens learn about issues such as ‘Obamacare’ in edgy, interactive ways.

For interactive video experiments, see http://graphicsweb.wsj.com/documents/prescribed/

Crowdsourcing melds work by the professional and the citizen. For example, the New York Times creates a site where human rights groups and other people can post video from fighting in Syria.

http://projects.nytimes.com/watching-syrias-war

The glut of information encourages new aggregators and new gatekeepers, only they are called “filters” of content. In Silicon Valley, a new start up called Ozy media promises to identify the best online stories for what it calls the “change generation.”

See: http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2013/07/25/laurene-powell-jobs-backs-ambitious-media-site.

Listen to the promo for the site: “It’s OZY Time… Almost! Hungering for the newest, neatest, next-est? … Worldly but not wordy, deep but not dull, OZY is the field manual for people who want to do more and be more.” Or, listen to this description of a new project, written by the Nieman Journalism Lab: “The French business daily, Les Echos, is about to release an aggregation tool that allows editors to identify the best business articles by surveying the what is topical on their journalists’ Twitter accounts. The article says, pompously, that the daily is “betting on an algorithms + human aggregation strategy both for its readers and as a B2B play.” No one in news media talked this lingo a few years ago!

Partnerships are now all but necessary. Some organizations like the Guardian newspaper see an opportunity for a new “open journalism” where citizens and professionals collaborate. Oregon Public Broadcasting is sharing stories with dozens of local newspapers around Oregon to construct an online wire service for editors.

Ethical Issues

I am sure you sense a host of ethical questions hovering around these trends. Does working quickly eliminate verification and tolerate inaccuracy? With whom should you partner? How do we validate citizen content? In the search for interactivity, do we lose sight of the slow, lonely work of investigative journalism? Are these new kids on the block really journalists?

Not even the US Senate Judicial Committee can define ‘journalist’. In that august forum, politicians are struggling to devise a federal law to shield journalists from revealing sources. But first we need to define a journalist. The bill defines a journalist as a person who has a “primary intent to investigate events and procure material” in order to inform the public “by regularly gathering information through interviews and observations.” But some politicians fear this would include citizen journalists and those who work for WikiLeaks to reveal government secrets. So, the debate on who is a journalist continues.

To their credit, a large number of mainstream associations, from the BBC to the Canadian Association of Journalists, are articulating new ethics for the integrated newsroom. For example, guidelines are being produced on how to use social media when reporting a breaking story. The same reflection on “best practices” is occurring among responsible online publishers.

For discussion of “best practices” for using Twitter and social media, e.g. the idea of “tweeting with integrity”, see www.journalismaccelerator.com

This new ethics is a work in progress. It seeks to integrate traditional ideas of verification and unbiased journalism with online values of sharing and opining. Sometimes, however, it seems the mainstream is trying to square the circle. Editors encourage journalists to “brand” themselves with personal comments on their own online sites yet warn them not to undermine their impartiality. In this context, what is acceptable commentary is a vague and wavering line, and crossing the line can get you fired.

Trends are also causing worries about independent journalism. The proliferation of publishers raises thorny issues. Some people react positively to the saying, “today, anyone with a laptop can be a publisher.” There is joy in Mudtown, USA, as people share and tweet, skirt the former gate-keepers, and watch media corporations lose power. Yet this enthusiasm ignores ethical downsides – the harm that can come from publishing. It ignores who is doing the publishing, whether it is a cyber-bulling teenager or a Holocaust denier.

Do we, as citizens online, have “digital responsibilities”? Some people appear to think not. They seem to think that there is something about online publishing that argues against a restraining ethics which, however, is needed for mainstream journalism. When the web site Reddit, Twitter, and then re-tweeting mainstream journalists misidentified a Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, the potentially harmful links among social media and the mainstream, both working to be first with news, became evident. A New York Times Magazine article noted rightly that, not long ago, such a rumor would have taken time to reach the public – hopefully, enough time to debunk it before publishing. But not now. Interestingly, some people interviewed responded to criticism with a passive attitude: This is the world we live in. We can’t do anything about it. Another reply was that Reddit and similar sites are “contained spaces of speculation.” The nature of their platforms means that no one is responsible to verify what is shared or ‘voted up’ on a site. Another view was that retweeting doesn’t mean you say it’s true. These defences only cause me to worry more.

Another implication of ‘everyone is a publisher’ is that powerful corporations and advertisers can easily do journalism to attract customers to their web sites and Twitter feeds. This is called “brand journalism”. Rather than the hard sell of advertising, which lacks credibility, corporations use journalists and their story-telling to brand products, and trade on their credibility. For instance, Cisco Systems of California, which sells computer networking equipment, employs journalists to write stories on the technology sector on its web site, The Network.

http://newsroom.cisco.com,

The site for Red Bull energy drink features stories on ‘extreme’ sports.

http://www.redbull.com/us/en

In many cases, these journalists agree to never criticize their brand, or highlight the competition.

However, brand journalism is often engaging. Public distrust of mainstream media means that many people don’t care (or don’t know?) who produces the journalism, Red Bull or News Corporation. So what’s the big deal? The deal is this: Either, the idea of editorial independence is being compromised; or, independence is being redefined. Pick your favorite interpretation.

Similar questions arise for new forms of “agenda-driven” journalism. Take, for example, the decision by right-wing political groups in the United States to train journalists to write about politics from their point of view. Libertarian groups such as the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity have funded websites in dozens of states to cover legislatures. Like the corporate branders, these web sites, such as www.wisconsinreporter.org, recruit professional journalists. The reporting reflects a political ideology such as lower taxes, less government, and individual liberty. These reporters claim they are non-partisan journalists who report the facts like other journalists. They say they follow the tenets of impartial reporting as found in the code of the Society of Professional Journalists.

So, from our perch amid the media revolution, how do we evaluate politically driven journalism or corporate brand journalism? Aren’t these developments new forms of journalism that diversify the public sphere? Even if the sites are partial, what is wrong with that? After all, don’t we know that there is no such thing as objective journalism, and that mainstream media pursue their own agendas? Does it matter who produces the journalism? Or, do we feel uncomfortable because such arguments seem to prove too much. They seem to undermine the notion of independent journalism in the public interest.

Traditional notions from media ethics are not very useful in clarifying these issues. For example, traditional news objectivity implied that all forms of opinion journalism were equal – all were subjective expressions of opinion. But today, in a world of opining, we need notions that help us distinguish between better and worse analysis. In a world of advocational journalism, we need a basis for distinguishing advocacy from propaganda. Once we leave the island of objective ‘straight’ reporting, we find ourselves on a roiling sea of multiple forms of journalism, multiple publishers, and multiple funding models. Our once clear and simple distinctions blur and collapse, and we are not sure what to say.

What to Do?

Given these trends, what should we do? One area where change can come, on an institutional level, is public policy on media. This is not one of my areas of expertise, but I will say this. I favor agencies that reduce media concentration. I favour strong support for public broadcasting, and incentives to create alternate media such as hyper-local web sites, low-power FM stations and other starts ups that serve communities inadequately covered by large media. Also, in this interactive world, there is potential for new forms of accountability. For example, we can set up citizen-based, online media councils that monitor complaints but also advance media education.

Perhaps however, despite what I have said, you still feel that we “do gooders” are out-numbered and out-resourced by irresponsible media users. The latter are shaping negatively the evolution of media. Rather than despair, we can respond in several ways.

First, we can extend our criticism beyond the mainstream to include popular and powerful online operations such as Reddit and Twitter. We should hold to ethical account everyone who publishes. No one has a “get out of ethics” card because they operate a trendy media venture. I was dismayed when I read the responses of some of the writers who caused the misidentification of Tripathi. The responses struck me as smug, unreflective, or incredibly insensitive to the potential harm of publishing on the fly, especially where everyone becomes a breaking news reporter. Therefore, I believe the ethical ‘heat’ has to be turned up on online mis-practices. We need to question the often glib, hypocritical and self-serving justifications offered as rationales for unethical practice. Maybe it is time for a sixth estate – a coalition for ethical practice that will challenge the current online fifth estate. Just as the latter monitor the ethical lapses of the mainstream, we should do the same to them.

Most importantly, we need to question the philosophy behind the rationales. The philosophy, more often than not, is an over-enthusiastic gospel about the democratic virtues of unrestrained and unfiltered online voices. We need to counter with a better theory of democratic media. We need to argue, strenuously, that democratic media is more than a free media online, unrestrained by “old fashioned” mainstream talk of responsibilities. We need to advance a concept of dialogic, democratic media that shows that unrestrained free expression, by itself, is not enough for healthy pluralistic democracies. Democracy in a plural society is more than a clash of voices, more than communication unmediated by mainstream media. It is more than media participation. Democracy is civic participation in defining the common good through a communication exchange where participants listen and learn. Participants engaged in reasoned and informed debate. In their media practices, they are ever mindful of the impact of publishing on others. Citizen journalism is not only the right to self-express oneself and to clash verbally with others. It is also the right and duty to communicate as a responsible citizen willing to challenge my own assumptions, not simply to point out the presumptions of my interlocutors.

Fortunately, new technology gives us another option, something beyond criticism. We can create new and counter-balancing media structures committed to ethical ideals. One such structure is the development on nonprofit journalism. Across the United States, centers for nonprofit investigative journalism have sprung up, financed by foundations and individual donors. Jon Sawyer left mainstream media to create the award-winning nonprofit Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C. He wanted to fill the need for independent foreign reporting. At the same time, journalism schools increasing do the real-world journalism in the public interest that is lacking among commercial media. Other forms of nonprofit work, such as NGOs, are leading the creative use of media for advocational journalism and social engagement. For example, the non-profit women’s media outlet, World Pulse, which has 18,000 members, aims “to harness the power of women to accelerate women’s impact for change.” Earlier this year it completed its “Girls Transform the World” campaign to draw attention to the education of girls around the world. The site, started by a young female journalist in Portland, Oregon, used crowdsourcing to get girls and women to identify and share stories on barriers, while seeking solutions. The result was a compilation of 350 stories from hundreds of people in over 60 countries, which formed the basis of a communique sent to the G20 leaders.

These new media entities have potential as stand-alone initiatives. But they can have additional impact if they unite with others. There are powerful web sites where global bloggers, professional reporters and others track human rights abuses. There are global networks of nonprofit journalism centers. And professionals can help citizens around the world. For instance, Fred Ritchin, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, has created the PixelPress website, which helps humanitarian groups develop digital media projects. There are many centers, such as my Turnbull Center, that are anxious to find partners and projects that will have positive impact on the leading edges of journalism. We can develop counter-balancing global networks of citizens and journalists gathered under the umbrella of media ethics and global democratic journalism. New media, legacy media and education units can join to shape the media universe.

For most of my life, media criticism consisted of studies that noted the sins of mainstream journalism from scholars and former journalists sitting on the sidelines. Today, the critics can join the players on the field. They can do what I call “media ethics activism” which is summed up in the phrase: “If you don’t like the media you’re getting, create your own media.”

In these ways, and in other ways, we can preserve, at the heart of our media systems, a significant core of responsible communicators. Negative macro trends can only be balanced by positive macro-sized resistance.

Finally, there is an important educational aspect to reform. If it is media ethics for everyone, and if publishers are proliferating, we need to introduce media ethics, and media literacy, early in our education system. Universities need to teach media ethics across the curriculum, not confine it to journalism schools.

Hopefully it is clear from what I have said that, within the field of media ethics, we need a radical approach. Radical in philosophy and conceptualization. “Radical” means from the root. Farmers talk of a radical root on plants that seek water. We need to re-invent media ethics from the ground up. Piecemeal improvements are not sufficient. A conservative strategy of defending existing norms at all costs is foolhardy. Three areas need this foundational approach: (1) meta-ethics – a new view of ethics as interpretive, social, naturally emergent and contested; a form of activism. (2) Applied: Applying this understanding to new issues and areas of journalistic work, plus guidelines on using social media and so on. (3) Transposing parochial notions of journalism into global forms. The greatest task of moral theory is to transform itself into an explicit and well-developed global ethics that challenges dominant forms of parochial ethics, from ethnocentricity to narrow forms of nationalism and political realism. In media ethics, we need to radically transform a nation-based approach to the norms of media into a global, interactive media ethics. In short, we should be radical in the ways of moral invention, envisaging a global ethics and a global media ethics for our interconnected world.

I explored the ethics of a global journalism in Global Journalism Ethics (Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) and Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

For applied ethics, we need to provide guidelines that recognize differences among multiple media formats. Also, we need to focus on types of journalism that are not discussed or are underplayed by traditional media ethics. Earlier I said traditional ethics leaves us wondering what to say. A new mixed ethics would give us something to say about the quandaries and complexities of today’s news media. But, why isn’t traditional media ethics enough, conceptually? Let me explain. Traditional media ethics is strong on abstract principles that cover all forms of journalism ‒ such as acting independently and seeking the truth. But it is weak on specifying guidelines and protocols for different forms of media. Traditional codes of ethics stress objectivity and impartiality but say little about how such ideals apply to satirical journalism, opinion journalism, editorial cartoons, and advocacy reporting. Now add to this list social media, blogging, mobilizing media and so on. Ethicists are confronted with the age-old philosophical problem of unity and difference. A future media ethics should be unified by allegiance to general principles of truth and independence but it will have to develop an ethics of difference that allow forms of journalism to follow different protocols and norms. For example, I want the online editor and the investigative journalist to seek truth and to be free, but it seems ludicrous to demand that they work in the same way. So we face a huge conceptual problem: How do we allow new media writers to work in their own fashion yet not give up the ghost of ethics? Creating a consistent, ecumenical ethics is not going to be easy. This is the huge problem of integrated ethics. Next to the construction of a global ethic, it is one of the two great media ethics problems of our time.

So, imagine a media ethics of the future. What would it be like? It should consist of this:

Ethics of new media ecologies: Future media ethics will guide journalism according to alternate economic models, from nonprofit journalism to brand journalism.

Ethics of how to use new media: Future media ethics will say more useful things on the responsible use of new media, including what journalists should (or should not) say on their own web sites and when newsrooms should use material from citizens and the Internet.

Ethics of interpretation and opinion: The era of news objectivity as “just the facts” is dead and gone. Interpretive journalism grows. Ethicists need to fill this gap giving meaning to “informed commentary,” “insightful analysis,” and “good interpretation.”

Ethics of activism: Activist journalism will proliferate. But, when are journalists ‘agenda-driven activists’ and when are they ‘investigative journalists with a valid cause’? Rather than dismiss activist journalism, how can we think more subtly about opinion and advocational journalism?

Ethics of global democratic journalism: As I have said elsewhere, new thinking in ethics will need to reconstruct the role of journalism in global terms.

We need an ethics that responds to the evolution of media, yet insists that we use our freedom to publish in responsible ways that serve democracy.

If we do all of this, we will be truly radical.

Cosmopolitan Narratives
Documentary and the Global ‘Other’

Ib Bondebjerg

Globalization is a phenomenon much discussed in contemporary society, and rightly so. But it is by no means just a dimension linked to modern societies and cultures. In fact, globalization as such is as old as civilization. Globalization is a complex phenomenon, both now and in a historical perspective. Therefore, a simple and descriptive definition is a good starting point:

Globalization can be defined as the movement of objects, signs and people across regions and intercontinental space (…) Globalization can be located on a continuum with the local, national and regional. At the one end of the continuum lie social and economic relations and networks which are organized on a local and/or national basis; at the other end lie social and economic relations and networks which crystallize on the wider scale of regional and global interactions. Globalization can be taken to refer to those spatio-temporal processes of change which underpin a transformation in the organization of human affairs by linking together and expanding human activity across regions and continents.

(Held et al. 1999: 15).

Defined in this way and removed from more normative and political discussions focusing on the consequences of different forms of globalization, it seems obvious that all societies and cultures are dependent on globalization. No society or culture can exist in splendid isolation from other near or distant parts of the world. Societies need to find ways to communicate and exchange ideas and goods in order to be open, creative and dynamic. If we were to close borders and ways of interacting, we would also narrow down our mental and cultural space. Globalization is a fundamental and necessary dimension of our societies and cultures, and it has been ever since we started leaving the East African savannah thousands of years ago.

Globalization has always been with us, but what has changed historically is the form and intensity of global processes. Globalization used to be dependent on very slow processes of communication and very physical and material forms of transportation. Furthermore huge divides, even bigger than today, existed between developed and developing countries. Today, a vast part of our communication takes place through fast, digital networks that cover larger areas of the globe than before (Held et al. 1999: 327ff, Castells 2001: 207ff & 248ff). The world is not completely wired yet, and many parts of the globe are still inhabited by people who live in an everyday life culture with very little access to the basic needs, not to mention advanced communication and media. Pictures of the globe indicating electricity and communication lines show a very strong concentration in certain parts of the world, and much less in other parts. There is still a long way to go to the global village Marshall McLuhan talked about in the 1960s (McLuhan 1964).

A Cosmopolitan Imaginary Community and Reality

But even though this is a fact, even though global media industries are dominated by concentration of power in the hands of the multinationals, and even though globalization is also very much about exploitation of resources and humans – globalization is also about a growing need for a cosmopolitan mentality and imaginary. We have become part of a mediatized reality that stretches beyond the nation state, and we are entering, in different ways, into a communicative space of a more global nature than ever before in history. Although we cannot in any way talk about a global public sphere, the new digital media culture and the many new media platforms clearly make transnational communication easier. We are part of the new global imaginary Arjun Appadurai writes about (Appadurai 1996) when he points to the global mediatization of cultures, the development of a new global mediascape through which audiences globally are increasingly linked together. Despite asymmetric power structures in the global media industry, this global mediascape nonetheless offers new dynamic methods of cultural exchange and images of what previously were distant others.

Both documentary and fictional film and television have always played an important role in shaping our understanding of reality. This reality is increasingly present in our everyday life and politics as a global reality. Whether we accept it or not, the nation state is no longer an undisputed frame of reference for our social, political and cultural life. The present financial and ecological crisis clearly demonstrates that we are in it together and that no nation can solve problems isolated from other parts of the worlds. Appadurai therefore talks about the consequences of our more transnational world and the role of media in a more cosmopolitan and diasporic culture and public sphere. Where Benedict Anderson (1983) talked about the role of media in the creation of an imagined community of nations, Apadurai speaks about the necessity of a transnational, cosmopolitan imagined community:

Benedict Anderson did us a service in identifying the way in which certain forms of mass mediation (…) played a key role in imagining the nation (…). My general argument is that there is a similar link to be found between the work of imagination and the emergence of a post-national political world (…). But as media increasingly link producers and audiences across national boundaries, and these audiences themselves start new conversations between those who move and those who stay, we find a number of diasporic public spheres (…) The transformation of everyday subjectivities through mediation and the work of the imagination is not only a cultural fact (…). The diasporic public spheres (..) are no longer small, marginal or exceptional. They are part of the cultural dynamics of urban life in most countries and continents.

(Appadurai 1996: 21–22)

Sociological thinkers like Gerard Delanty, The Cosmopolitan Imagination (2009), and Ulrich Beck, The Cosmopolitan Vision (2006), have also clearly defined the social, cultural and political challenges following the more and more intensified processes of globalization. For Delanty they include, among other things, the need for a new global, political vision and for other images of our different global others:

The global public impinges upon political communication and other kinds of public discourse creating as a result new visions of social order. To speak of cosmopolitanism as real (…) is thus to refer to these situations, which we may term the cosmopolitan imagination, where the constitution of the social world is articulated through cultural models in which codifications of both Self and Other undergo transformation.

(Delanty 2009: 37).

For Ulrich Beck the main point is that cosmopolitanism can no longer be seen as some kind of abstract ideology for a global elite. Globalization is entering all dimensions of our societies and everyday life in such a way that cosmopolitan answers are clearly needed. Ulrich Beck’s analysis of the modern forms of globalization points to a strong need for global crisis management, a need to deal with the fact that modern societies are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, a need to deal with a transnational and increasingly borderless world with people, power and money flowing freely, and with strong conflicts in the traditional nation states following this development. Beck is not predicting the death of nation states, but rather a fundamental change in the conditions of the existence of nation states. In his discussion of cosmopolitanism, he actually states that “cosmopolitanism without provincialism is empty, provincialism without cosmopolitanism is blind” (Beck 2006: 7). We cannot live in the whole world, we have to have some forms of belonging of a more regional, local and national nature. But we need cosmopolitan narratives to experience and imagine this new reality and the connection between us and the global others.

Documentary Narratives and our Global Other

Documentary film and television deal with reality in a more direct way than fictional narratives. Even though fictional narratives can very easily develop cosmopolitan themes, documentary forms bring reality to us with greater authenticity. A strong fiction film with a cosmopolitan narrative is Susanne Bier’s Oscar winner In a Better World (2010). Here the story of a Danish doctor working in an African refugee camp is mixed with a dramatic, local Danish story about the friendship of two boys tested by the life of their families torn being torn apart and by conflicts in the local community linked to the family narrative. In this story the local and the global are thematically mixed, and through parallels between life in the refugee camp and life in a seemingly provincial Danish idyll, a cosmopolitan dimension of ‘us and them’ is developed into a more universal narrative of good and evil that deals with empathy and understanding of others.

The film clearly deals with the different dimensions of our mental frameworks and typologies concerning the close and distant other and stranger. As indicated in Fig. 1, we can define our social and cultural others in categories that are based on distance, both cognitively and geographically, but also on our actual contact and experience with others. Before the arrival of the modern forms of media and communication, our ability to connect with others over long distances was much more limited. Today both social media and other forms of media have expanded our images and knowledge about others, at least in mediated forms. News is important in this connection, especially the 24 hour news channels that update us on global issues and themes on a daily basis. But documentaries are in one sense more important for forming global narratives and cosmopolitan imaginaries. Documentaries can tell stories about reality that bring us much closer to the everyday reality of distant and strange others. They can create identification and empathy by showing us that people who may seem to be very different from us have universal, human dimensions, despite cultural and other differences. The phrase ‘we are all humans’ may seem banal, but it points to a fundamental truth, supported by cognitive sociology (Fiske and Taylor 1991)

Figure 1

Typology of Social Types Schemata of Others. Inspired by Alfred Schutz (1932) and Fiske and Taylor (1991)

Let us consider the images we have been receiving over the past ten years or more, where the war in Afghanistan has been on our news media agenda, and has been the theme in a growing number of fiction films and documentaries. Few of us living in modern Western societies have first hand, personal experience of who the Afghans really are or of their everyday lives and ways of thinking. They belong to the category of imagined distant others, and even though we may feel empathy for their situation and the terrible consequences of living in a constant war zone, we cannot really imagine the full reality of such a life. To this we could add a potential feeling of danger in relation to some groups in Afghanistan identified as Islamic fundamentalists and potential terrorists. Many stories presented in our daily news would feed into this uneasy image of a somewhat deviant and frightening social and cultural other. Mixed with this, however, one would most certainly also find some forms of empathy, especially when confronted with images of civilian casualties and dead children. News seen in a war perspective is not without a human dimension and perspective on the other, but such news items tend to see things from a military and political perspective. News is mainly authoritative, informational stories, not broader narratives.

But documentaries come in many forms, and the freedom to combine them is also fairly great. Documentary filmmakers have a wider spectrum of modes in their representation of reality and the themes and dimensions they can take up. In Fig. 2 I have listed four very basic modes, which capture most forms of documentaries and define four rather different approaches to reality. These different approaches also position the spectator differently in relation to the reality presented and the cinematic form of the film. These modes combine the observations and concepts put forward by other researchers dealing with the basic documentary genres or modes (most importantly Bill Nichols 2001 and Carl Plantinga 1997). Documentary as a cinematic form can be a very authoritative approach to reality, where documentation, explanation and analysis through experts and witnesses are the most important. But documentary can also speak with a much more open voice, giving us a kind of ethnographic, anthropological position from which we can observe reality and life, and where authoritative explanations are not given directly. Documentary can finally take dramatized or poetic approaches to reality, in which subjectivity and objectivity, the more symbolic and imaginary, the fictional and the factual meet or even clash.

Figure 2

Basic Modes of Documentaries (Ib Bondebjerg 2014)

Afghanistan Seen from Different Perspectives

Danish, British, American and other soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan, and they do so as part of a UN supported mission to free Afghanistan of a fundamentalist, authoritarian regime that does not recognize basic human rights. So one aim is to secure democracy and a better way of life. But can Western forces, even backed by the UN, really impose profound changes in a country like Afghanistan? That is the basic question recent documentaries have raised, and they have sometimes done so by taking a more authoritative, critical look behind the politics of the war, like in Alex Gibney’s Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side (2008). This is a highly critical, investigative documentary that delves into the dark sides of US warfare in Afghanistan, but also the whole political dimension behind the war. The cinematic form of the film follows all the classical rules of investigative journalism with witnesses, expert interviews, documents, film footage, etc., as well as a very strong authoritative and interpretative voice over. Gibney’s film follows one cinematic strategy for documentary, but other documentaries have delved deeply into the Afghan reality by bringing us inside everyday life in the Afghan war zone and behind doors that are normally closed to Western media. They have taken a closer look at what the military and war are really about and have portrayed culture, family life and culture in a country in turmoil and under huge stress.

In Janus Metz’ Danish documentary Armadillo (2010), we follow a group of Danish soldiers before, during and after they are sent to Camp Armadillo in the Afghan Helmand province. The film brings us very close to army life, both the dull camp moments and the dangerous actions. But the film also shows the precarious relations between the soldiers and the civilians, the fact that no trust is achieved and the feeling that what the soldiers are doing doesn’t really matter to the civilians. War is portrayed like a kind of surreal Sisyphean job, where things keep rolling back. The group of soldiers are portrayed with special focus on two prototypes: the daring warrior and the intellectual sceptic. Metz has described the intention of the film in the following way:

I felt it was important to make a film that provided a really detailed picture of the reality of war, and of its consequences for the soldiers, and for the civilians for whose sake we allegedly are involved in the fighting in the first place. However, what I was really interested in was raising some big existential questions about our civilization and our way of being human in the context of contemporary global realities (…) it’s also a mental journey, on a national level, through our self-conceptions as a democratic nation. It’s a film about what might be problematic about our new militant ‘humanitarianism,’ about the idea of a tough kind of tit for tat in a global game. Metz in Hjort, Bondebjerg and Redvall (2014).

Thus Metz’s film is clearly about creating a cosmopolitan, narrative film that reflects on the relation between the others and us. It is a film that questions aspects of military power in a global context where we obviously are not able to understand or act in the cultural and social context, which is Afghanistan. Other documentary filmmakers have approached this problem of a mental lack of global imaginaries by focusing more intensely on the world and mind of the other, and not so much the relation between them and us. In Eva Mulvad’s Enemies of Happiness (2006), we follow the first elected female politician in Afghanistan, Malalai Joya, as she first enters the constitutional session for a new parliament and later goes through the first election after the constitution has been approved. Like Metz’s film this is clearly an observational documentary, where we follow Malalai Joya around in the province where she lives; we see her act as an advisor in all sorts of conflicts, and we see her election campaign and contact with local voters. We also get an intense feeling of how dangerous it is to be a woman and a politician in Afghanistan. Malalai Joya has survived four attacks; she has bodyguards around her all the time, and she constantly has to change places. So the film is about the fragile and unstable Afghan democracy, but also about human courage and the beauty of the Afghan landscape and towns outside the combat zone.

Mulvad’s intention in making this film was clearly to change our image of Afghanistan by bringing us close to humans and human stories. A large part of the film deals with how Malalai Joya acts as a consultant on conflicts in her local community, in marriages and other forms of conflict. Through observation and documentation of her everyday life and activities we are given an opportunity to come very close to different types of people and human stories in Afghanistan. The film presents a possibility for identification with the other through a narrative based on reality, so to speak:

Documentary films can be seen by a lot of people without a lot of prior knowledge or understanding. They allow you to bring some fairly complicated discussions about, for example, war in Afghanistan into people’s homes. With Enemies of Happiness I was looking for very human stories in the midst of war. What do the streets look like in Afghanistan? What’s it like to go to school and to go to work in the middle of a war? Who are the local heroes? So that it’s not always about us, us, and us again, that is, about the Western world and our soldiers. I’m actually not especially interested in politics, but I am interested in the human stories that are caught up in the political discussions. I’m interested in stories that an audience can relate to emotionally and not only intellectually, even though they deal with serious current affairs issues. Mulvad in Hjort, Bondebjerg and Redvall (2014).

It is no coincidence that Metz and Mulvad both work with a basic, observational form in their films. They have an anthropological and ethnographic approach to reality, and even though they use many narrative and visual techniques, they do not offer an authoritative message. Instead they want to give us a deeper experience and understanding of the distant, imagined other, they want us to question our own stereotypes. Still another version of this can be found in films where people themselves shoot part of the film, and where the filmmaker therefore uses a kind of collaborative, observational form – ethnography through cultural interaction. This is the case in the Danish-Afghan director Nagieb Khaja’s My Afghanistan – Life in the Forbidden Zone (2012) and the American HBO production Baghdad High (2008), made by Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter. Giving the global other a visual voice takes away the director’s dominance, although he/she still has the role of editor and can combine his/her voice with that of those doing the filming.

Khaja’s film was made to give voice to those more remote provinces, which we only very rarely see in Western media. He has expressed his concern that we never get to see this reality:

My conviction, based on experience, is that the reality of the Afghans, particularly that in the villages, has been ignored by the generally superficial foreign press, which has only focused on life in the larger Afghan towns, home only to a small proportion of the population. The alternative has been the embedded tours on which the military presence often terrifies the locals and makes it impossible for them to express their true views to directors and the press.”

(Director’s statement of film, can be found on http://www.dfi.dk/faktaomfilm/film/en/76460.aspx).

Most of the film footage by the Afghans is shot on mobile phones, as cameras would be much too revealing and dangerous. Those doing the filming represent completely ordinary people, also women, with no prior film or journalistic experience. By letting them film what they find interesting we get quite another perspective on Afghanistan, a perspective that also shows the hardships of war and everyday life, as well as the universal dimensions of life. What we see are images of distant others who are in fact very much like us, although living under different social and cultural conditions.

This is also the case in the HBO film Baghdad High in which we follow four high school boys in Baghdad, Iraq. They represent different cultural and religious groups and even though this is another country, it is the same type of film sending the same message. The film is shot during a whole year and has a clear video diary style and aesthetics, where we follow the boys around and they speak in close up to the camera. Ivan O’Mahoney, who directed and produced the film with Laura Winter, has said about the film:

The daily news about Iraq was so relentlessly depressing for so many years. It was therefore fantastic to realize while making this film that there is normality amidst all the violence, and that people do lead normal lives, despite the mayhem around them. It gave me a lot of hope to see kids be kids.

(quoted from HBO 2009).

The film is based on 300 hours of footage shot by the four teens, and the four boys (Hayder, Anmar, Ali and Mohammed) present a life much like that lived by most normal young people all over the world. They dream of careers as singers or football players, they think about girls, but at the same time they are stuck in a nightmare of violence and suicide bombings in a seemingly never-ending war situation. We see them in family situations, in school situations, we follow their interest in rock and pop, dance, television and film, but we also see them performing specific religious rituals and relating to or reacting to the local political situation, the media and the situation in the country. Bringing Iraqi everyday life, the situation for normal human beings like you and me, home to an American audience was clearly a deliberate strategy taken on by alternative directors and cable channels like PBS and HBO. Given that the average American probably has an image of Iraqis as being hateful terrorists and fundamentalists, this kind of documentary representation of the ‘normality’ of Iraqi youth and their life and dreams is part of changing the global image of and discourse on us and them.

What we experience through films like this is in fact how many things we humans have in common, how many things are universal to us. We may have differences in the way we live and think, different cultural traditions, different religions, but beneath our cultural group affiliations, we focus on some of the same things, and have the same dreams and expectations. High school boys in Baghdad salute another flag and sing another national anthem, and religion plays a stronger role there, but most of the time they are thinking about girls, music, films and sports – and they want to have fun, even though bombs sometimes rattle the neighborhood.

It is the same impression one gets when watching American Director Havana Marking’s film Afghan Star (2008, HBO). Afghan star is the Afghan version of the global TV-format Pop Idol, where people compete to win the prize as best singer and get a record contract. In Afghanistan this program became the most popular TV show ever, gathering millions from all over Afghanistan. The program follows some of the contestants, both male and female, their performance and the audience in different parts of Afghanistan. The program reveals unity in an otherwise divided country, but also the deep divides between religious and secular Afghanistan, between those who believe in freedom and democracy, also for women, and those who feel it is a mortal sin when women perform in public. The film crew was given exceptional access to the families of the four contestants, also the women, and therefore the film offers us a unique insight into Afghan culture and everyday life. By using a Western pop culture phenomenon as the focus point, the film shows both the universal and culture-specific dimensions of culture. It is the same, but there is also global variation.

Creating Cosmopolitan Dialogue and Platforms

The documentary films mentioned so far are the result of the work of individual directors, commissioned by TV stations or made independently with production companies. They are also all made by Western filmmakers, although some of the filmmakers have a double identity and a background in the regions they deal with. In some cases the filmmakers work together with local journalists, co-directors or photographers. Basically the films are global documentaries in the sense that they deal with global themes, but also in the sense that they want to create a cosmopolitan dialogue. They deal with global problems in order to raise questions about our global engagement or lack of it, and they want to challenge and change our global imaginary, our way of thinking about and looking at distant others. But we also find more collaborative projects, projects that go even further than My Afghanistan and Baghdad High, in which those being portrayed also filmed themselves.

With the large-scale documentary projects Why Democracy (2007) and Why Poverty (2012), we get a global multiplatform project that tried to establish a global public sphere and dialogue around important global issues. The two projects were initiated by Danish public service broadcaster DR’s Mette Hoffman-Meyer and the BBC’s Nick Fraser, in collaboration with the NGO organization Steps. In the first project, they asked 10 filmmakers around the world to make a film about democracy and what it meant to them. The ten one-hour films were made by independent filmmakers from China, India, Japan, Liberia, the US, Bolivia, Denmark, Egypt, Pakistan and Russia and covered very different issues of democracy: from the US focus on use of torture to the Danish Muhammed cartoon crisis and experiments with school democracy in China. The films were shown simultaneously in more than 180 countries; they were made available on the project website and shown in places around the world where media were not present. The project also teamed up newspapers around the world, and in this way a global poll and discussion on democracy were established.

In many ways the project is an advanced example of a cosmopolitan dialogue; it is an example or a prototype of a global public sphere trying to establish a form of global citizenship. As Nick Stevenson (2003: 35) says:

The associated processes of the decentering of society, the rise of network capitalism, globalization, risk, reflexivity, and consumer culture have all served to reshape and to question the operation of citizenship (…) the historical tie between nation, culture and citizenship is becoming increasingly decoupled (..). Cultural citizenship is related to these changes and is more generally the struggle for a communicative society.

Naturally, establishing such a global citizenship cannot be fully accomplished by an initiative like this, but as an example of what collaborative documentary projects can do, the project is interesting.

In the second part of the project, Why Poverty?, BBC, DR and Step basically followed the same strategies, this time with nine films. The films in the project dealt very critically with the reasons for poverty in the world and the global power structures. Again the films were very different, both in form and content. In American director Alex Gibney’s film Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, the focus is on the incredibly rich and powerful people who live on Park Avenue in New York and who seem to rule politics and finances, not just in the US, but globally. The film is a classic, journalistic documentary, an authoritative, revealing analysis of the stuff power and corruption are made of. We also find very dramatized kinds of documentaries, like Ben Lewis’ ironic, satirical history lesson Poor Us, in which he describes the basic patterns and forms of social and financial exploitation that have been at play since the Neolithic Ages and up until today. In contrast, Mona Eldaif and Jehane Noujaim’s film Solar Mamas follows Arab and African women in remote, poor parts of the world; it deals with a project that is trying to educate women to become solar engineers, taking them out of poverty and the male dominance they suffer from. The film takes the form of documentation of a kind of social experiment, which clearly exposes some of the reasons for poverty in this particular part of the world.

Conclusion

Projects like Why Democracy? and Why Poverty? are examples of the power of documentaries to raise global issues and to establish a cosmopolitan dialogue between parts of the world that are normally less connected. They represent a new form of mediated, global public sphere. But documentaries in general and new mobile media and technologies as such have started developing more global narratives and have transformed our imagination of global others. More often than in the past, outside perspectives are now combined with various inside views into everyday life. If world news has a tendency to focus on big news and the negative and catastrophic, documentaries also try to tell another story: stories of different cultures, but also the universal human dimensions behind the differences. The documentary festival system, the presence of online documentary sites and the fact that some of the strong public service channels (BBC, Channel 4, DR 2, PBS) are actually trying to give voice to independent documentaries and to collaborative projects are all encouraging. Documentaries may help open our minds to more cosmopolitan dimensions, and we do see tendencies towards broadcast documentary films that have a broader global representation.

Digital platforms for independent documentaries – for instance Top Documentary, Free Documentaries or Vimeo – do exist and represent at least a small step towards a more open, global documentary public sphere. But we cannot deny that technologies and platforms cannot do the job alone. Technologies create possibilities, and digital technologies certainly create a number of new exciting possibilities – as many of the documentary films and projects mentioned above demonstrate. But technologies in themselves cannot make the change, only people can. Only continued work with creating cosmopolitan narratives and collaborative structures and projects can make a difference. Such work must be done on a much more global scale. Documentary filmmakers must work within their own distinctive context and on the basis of their specific background, but they must also continue telling stories that link them and us and that move into the lives of distant others.

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Figure 1

Typology of Social Types Schemata of Others. Inspired by Alfred Schutz (1932) and Fiske and Taylor (1991)
Typology of Social Types Schemata of Others. Inspired by Alfred Schutz (1932) and Fiske and Taylor (1991)

Figure 2

Basic Modes of Documentaries (Ib Bondebjerg 2014)
Basic Modes of Documentaries (Ib Bondebjerg 2014)

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