Media and good government


We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash, director of Free Speech Debate, gives a personal introduction

Here is one of the most important reasons we need freedom of expression. How can we make good decisions on any issue unless we know the relevant facts and hear the arguments of others? How can we build strong, self-governing communities unless we listen to voices representing all who live in them?

“To block people’s mouths is worse than blocking a river,” says Duke Zhao to King Li of Zhou in the fourth century BC Chinese Discourse of States. “Tell him the truth, even it offends him,” Confucius admonishes in the Analects [14:22]. The self-governing medieval Russian republic of Novgorod had a ruling council referred to as the veche, a word that derives from the Slavic root for “speech” – rather as the term “parliament” derives from the French parler, to speak. We find in the history of many civilisations and countries the idea that good government needs free and fearless speech.

However, it was the citizens of the tiny Greek city state of Athens who some 2,500 years ago first linked free speech to the revolutionary idea that people should govern themselves. They called it democracy, which in Greek means “government by the people” (demos = people + kratos = rule). They practised this novel form of government by coming together in a physical “place of assembly”. A herald asked, “Who wishes to address the assembly?” Then any free man could stand up, speak his mind and propose a public policy measure. Up to 8,000 of the approximately 30,000 free men in the city state typically attended an assembly.

Yes, it was only free men. Women and unfree men would have to wait another couple of millennia. The Athenians nonetheless pioneered two very important ideas. They called them parrhesia and isegoria. By parrhesia – derived from pan-rhesia, the ability to say all – they meant that people should be free, and unafraid, to speak out loud everything they believed to be true. Isegoria meant everyone should have an equal right to speak and be heard. These twin ideas, now extended to all women and men, remain fundamental to freedom of expression in our time.

In some places, ordinary people can speak freely and directly to each other, in neighbourhood, village, school or university assemblies. But most of our communities, not to mention our states, are far too big for everyone to get together, listen to anyone who wants to speak and then decide by voting. So we rely on what we now call media – that is, intermediaries, channels of communication.

For more than five centuries after Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press in 15th century Germany, this meant mainly words and images printed on paper: books, broadsheets, pamphlets or newspapers. The 1791 first amendment to the US constitution gives a special hat-tip to Gutenberg’s invention. It says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” In the last century, radio and television reached a wider audience. The men and women whose job was to write and broadcast through these media were called journalists.

Today, anyone with access to the internet or a mobile phone can disseminate words, images, information and ideas. In this sense, we can all be journalists and publishers. In recent years, news of earthquakes in both China and Turkey was spread by often anonymous micro-bloggers and users of social networks. A George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious journalism prizes, was awarded for the anonymous forty second video of the death of Iranian protester Neda Aghan-Soltan. A tribute to the unknown citizen journalist.

Many of us can also receive more of what these media produce. Thirty years ago, most people in developed countries used to get their news (and some of their opinions) from one daily newspaper and a handful of radio and television channels. Now, anyone with regular, uncensored internet access can view thousands of sources, journals and channels at the click of a mouse. Good examples include Livestation (English and Arabic), Current TV (English), and LiveJournal and TvTube (various languages).

This superabundance of media, and hence of the human voices you can hear through them, creates an unprecedented chance for the positive and – in the broadest sense – political use of free expression. Yet we are still a long way from realising that potential. In practice, most people on this planet are still informed and influenced by a limited range of media, with a few television channels in each country playing a crucial role. Both private and public powers shape and limit what we receive and impart: be they the state, telecommunications companies, Ayatollahs in Iran, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Rupert Murdoch in Britain.

And this is before we even get to those very numerous places where journalists (including citizen journalists) are censored, bullied, imprisoned or shot just for trying to “seek truth from facts” (as in the old Chinese saying) and then to speak that truth to power.

Here’s a useful tool developed by European researchers, which helps you to measure how far your country has open, diverse media. These researchers distinguish no less than six areas of “media pluralism”, which is the technical term usually used. For example, is there diversity of ownership and control? Or is too much of a country’s television, press or internet dominated either by the state or by a few individual media barons and corporations. In Mexico, for example, the national television market has been dominated by just two companies, Televisa and Azteca. Are all the main ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in your country adequately represented in the media? (Answer almost everywhere: no.) And come to think of it: why only those in your country? What about news and views from the rest of our interconnected planet?

Then, crucially, there’s political pluralism. Does one party, tendency or interest group dominate too much of the media? Is every TV station or paper biased in one direction or another? Does that matter, so long as all the main political tendencies have their widely accessible television and radio channels, newspapers and websites? The motto of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel in the US is “Fair and Balanced”, but in practice Fox is anything but. Is that OK, provided that you have other channels that are equally unfair and unbalanced from the opposing points of view?

Or should we aspire to what is sometimes called “impartiality”? This does not mean scientific objectivity, which is impossible in human affairs, but rather a serious attempt to (a) separate fact from comment, news reporting from expressions of opinion, and (b) offer – in one and the same place, be it TV channel, journal or website – some fair representation of the main contrasting views on any issue to be found in the wider society.

Even established liberal democracies handle these things in very different ways. They also differ in what the state, the courts or public authorities regulate, and what is left to the market and society. Britain, for example, has until now let the press regulate itself, but has mandatory, public regulation of radio and television, by an authority called Ofcom. The man who scrutinised the editorial content of British broadcasting for many years notes that, “Whenever I visited the US, I was reminded that if Ofcom’s equivalent, the Federal Communications Commission, ever enforced impartiality on broadcasters it would be in court for breaching freedom of expression. What’s enshrined in British law is illegal in American law.”

In India, there is a lively debate about whether self-regulation is sufficient for the country’s no-holds-barred, helter-skelter media. The chair of the country’s Press Council calls his country’s media “anti-people”. Even the editor-in-chief of The Hindu, N Ram, says, “We need some kind of disciplinary authority. Self-regulation alone does not work.”

Different countries do things differently. How they do it changes over time. There’s no single, universal “correct” method. What matters is the result: open, diverse media. That’s why we, the people, need constantly to be scrutinising and pressing for more openness, diversity, representativeness, accuracy, depth and courage in our media.

These days we don’t have to confine ourselves merely to asking for more open, diverse, better media. We can do it ourselves. That’s why our draft principle says, “We require and create…”. You don’t have the magazine you want? Start your own. Yes, there’s a fair amount of cyberutopian hogwash talked about this. Most people who blog, tweet or otherwise “speak” by internet and mobile device remain solitary voices in obscure corners of the Tower of Babel. There’s a vast “long tail” of the very many reaching the very few. At the other end, there are still relatively few that reach many.

Yet there are sufficient examples of individual initiatives that do take off, and reach the many, in ways that would never have been possible until the internet age. Here are just a few. The amazing OhmyNews in South Korea, written almost entirely by citizen journalists. The “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, set up by Wael Ghonim, which helped spark the Egyptian protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak. The Drudge Report in the US. The Chinese blogger Han Han. Russian bloggers like Alexei Navalny, exposing corruption in high places.

Please add what seem to you good examples here, with some explanation of why they belong on this “We create” list.

There’s one other way in which we need to watch out for open, diverse media. There’s a fair amount of evidence by now that the internet can reinforce false, distorted versions of reality. Online, a slightly unbalanced person can find the 937 other people across the world who believe that Che Guevara is still alive or that Edam cheese is responsible for cancer. They close themselves in what Cass Sunstein calls an “information cocoon”, constantly reinforcing each other’s false and sometimes poisonous worldview, in a downward spiral of online groupthink.

Some argue that this trend will be reinforced by the increasing customisation and personalisation of search engines, web pages and mobile apps, led by companies’ double-edged desire to offer a more personalised service to customers and to deliver those same customers more carefully sliced and diced to paying advertisers. When all of us walk around in our own little filter bubble, in “The Daily Me”, there will be no shared public sphere any more. Far from getting together to exchange facts and opinions, in a magnificent global version of a “place of assembly”, we will all be sitting around in our own individual portable cubicles, inhaling only the vapours of the like-minded.

This is a danger. But there is no reason to despair. We are not the atomised, passive objects of some irresistible force called “the media” or “the internet”. We can educate ourselves and our children in media and internet literacy, so we are aware of these effects and know how to read around them. We can support online publications, aggregators and intelligent curation sites, which counter this effect by offering a broad range of contrasting views. We can cultivate resources such as, which separate fact from factoid. We can work to make Wikipedia an even better source than it is now.

When all is said and done, the post-Gutenberg world gives us unprecedented chances to create the open, diverse media that we need.


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