header image

The Media and Democracy

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2008/12)

4-6 December 2008

Ditchley’s last conference of 2008, with log fires blazing against the frost outside, brought us back to the state of the media.  This time we tried to analyse the health of the media and of democracy together;  and, in welcome partnership with the BBC World Service Trust, we included the developing world’s experience of these issues.  This created an ambitious canvas to cover, but the relevance of the debate was recognisable in the intensive engagement of our participants. 

No-one was in any doubt about the weight of pressures on the traditional media.  Media companies were businesses, and journalism was a profession, harder hit by twenty-first century change than almost any other.  Newspapers and their advertising were in financial crisis;  blogs, Facebook and other modern phenomena turned any member of the public into a potential journalist;  and virtually free access to information on the internet under such pervasive instruments as Google affected advertising choices and therefore business models.  Some participants believed that the house was on fire.

So Ditchley entered yet another of its ping-pong games between optimists and pessimists.  The optimists pointed to the huge opportunities created by change and new technology.  Society was increasingly creative and there was innovation everywhere.  If there was a risk of market failure for some businesses, others would grow up to take their place.  So long as there was diversity, plurality and engagement, there would be plenty of sunshine breaking through the clouds.  Greater transparency made governments more accountable, whether or not they favoured transparency.  This did not put the pessimists to bed.  Business models were failing too rapidly.  Most of what was new tended to be of lower quality.  If the media industry had to consolidate, diversity would be affected.  Commercialisation of the media was driving out responsibility for reporting the facts.  If good journalism meant poor business, the trend would be appalling for the health of democracy.  The current picture did not mean a lack of interest in serious reporting or a lack of demand for quality, but supplying it without subsidy was becoming increasingly difficult.  Some participants saw this as a gap opening up between the collapse of the old model and the arrival of a new audience/readership who would pay for quality.  But no-one was clear on how this transition would be managed. 

We tried to analyse how these trends might be affecting the health of society itself.  Was an increase in sensationalism and popularism amounting to a death of culture?  Were audiences becoming so fragmented by diversity that serious mainstream journalism was being crowded out?  If trust in politicians and journalists was equally low in public esteem, did this mean that democracy itself was beginning to suffer? 

Plenty of people thought these questions needed to be answered.  Greater freedom, diversity and personal security produced a greater focus on the individual, with less respect and apparent need for government.  This empowerment of the individual might not yet have settled on a balance which gave state structures and the macro-needs of society enough of a place.  Political parties seemed to be behind the times, at least until the Obama campaign phenomenon showed that there was another way of doing it.  Politicians found that, in creating laws for the freedom of information, they had not succeeded in building greater trust.  Parliament and other traditional, formal institutions seemed to be  losing out.  Yet, even against this gloomy background, there were arguments against excessive pessimism.  This was a “creation” society and was well capable of setting its own rules.  Young people were innovative, engaged and perfectly capable of the right kind of adjustment.  The British, perhaps over-represented in this company, were more inclined to see the dark side because they expected top-down solutions to problems such as these.  The United States, on the other hand, had a more vibrant bottom-up society which was more likely to find the answers.  As for the rest of the world, whose voices intervened at regular intervals in this discussion with gentle mockery at the state the Anglo-Saxons were getting themselves into, they sounded all too pleased to swap their problems with ours in most respects.

In other words, few wished to suggest that democracy was seriously sick.  We could still agree that good journalism mattered and that ways could be found of preserving it.  Public service broadcasting was a key issue in this context.  Democracy was rather more vulnerable to the rise of extremism, against which the media could play a vital role in pursuing intelligent analysis and establishing sensible norms:  indeed, local media needed the support of the international media in the fight against fanaticism.  There were nevertheless some problems which needed attention.  The sometimes rancid relationship between government and the media, especially in the UK, had been taken too far.  Representative democracy was changing its character if individuals believed that they could now participate directly;  and yet the way in which they were doing this was not strengthening the fabric of society.  The themes of quality and “media literacy” came into our discussion, suggesting that government, the private sector and individual members of society alike ought to take more trouble to understand the context of modern trends and set in hand or support policies which built a more responsible society. 

Rather than adding complexity to the subject matter, our discussion of the media and democracy in the developing world gave a sense of proportion to our discussion so far of the developed world.  Different countries and different media experiences in Africa and Asia of course presented a mixed picture.  But, at its best, the media was capable of generating huge interest and dynamism in countries with younger or only partial democratic systems.  Even where the institutions of the state were weak and financial investment was inadequate, the media were showing how government could be called to account and the interests of society served.  There were still too many places where the heavy hand of the state caused severe difficulties, where – as one participant put it – subjection had replaced citizenship because independence made only the political elite true citizens.  But there were advances in freedom of expression and freedom of the media which were supporting accountability and individual rights.

Even where the state media dominated, governments were finding that they could not afford financial support for public service broadcasting.  The resulting commercialisation of state media, while opening up opportunities on some fronts, was also producing noticeable distortions.  With internet access too low across many parts of the developing world, radio remained the most available medium.  Its power in local politics was well illustrated in Kenya in early 2008 when violence erupted over languages selected for radio.  Gradually, however, use of the web was emerging and micro-public spheres were being created.  This trend might accelerate quite fast.  In addition, as journalism and the diversity of instruments improved, the power of narrative was making itself felt in the developing world, perhaps more so than in the developed world.  But this power would not be enough to countervail poor governance unless financial and institutional backing for a free media also made progress.  In this context, we were warned that some important countries with a history of state control of the media were increasingly resisting multilateral efforts to promote free media.

We were asked to remember that, outside the advanced democracies, different countries were at different stages of development towards sophisticated systems and that the lessons we were trying to learn from the US and UK experiences did not necessarily yet apply elsewhere.  In Russia, for example, for all the talk of democratic practice being on hold, there was a vibrant media debate in Moscow which could be regarded as providing a more lively political opposition to the groups in power than, say, in the United States.  The form which the expression of opinion took did not necessarily matter when it came to its effectiveness. 

While this discussion did not easily lead to any firm policy conclusions or recommendations, there were areas of focus which emerged as valuable or as needing further concentrated effort.  One of these was public service broadcasting, which we covered in some depth.  The British system was seen as almost unique in its characteristics, including the nature of the licence fee and the maintenance of the (usually) high quality of the BBC.  But there was nervousness about the costs of preserving this quality if the public service broadcaster was also required to reach large audiences and maintain a commercial approach for at least a part of its output.  In the United States the role of public service broadcasting was less central because the success of commercial business models was higher.  But that did not mean that a debate about quality was irrelevant.  In both environments, and perhaps elsewhere as well, the credibility and the innovation of the media was best represented by the news sector, in which public service broadcasting had to play a role.  But there was a long argument to be played out in a number of different jurisdictions about the right public service broadcasting model and it was hard to predict at this stage what the outcome would be. 

Another strong theme, perhaps in the end the most significant one for policy focus over the next period, was education.  We interpreted “media literacy” as meaning not so much the literary quality of journalism itself as the capacity of the public to receive the media’s product with discernment and to judge what was healthy for their own interests beyond the short term.  It was felt that there was a need to insert a stronger sense of civic responsibility into the education curriculum.  Throughout the conference participants constantly returned to the need for young people, and perhaps older generations as well, to understand better the modern context for a healthy democracy.  With communications technology racing ahead as it was, public participation in the media was the only modern guarantor of a healthy media sector and the exercising of public judgement by a “literate” society was a necessary requirement for securely-based democracy.  Not just schools and universities, but also business management training and government accountability processes, should build in an approach that served these needs. 

These thoughts tied in with the theme of quality in journalism and in the use of instruments of modern communication.  If the public understood the benefits of having the best true picture of the world presented to them, then good journalism had a prospect of again becoming good business.  Transparency needed to be more overtly linked with responsibility and the building of trust.  If the government was not able to manage this through policy direction, in other words through a top-down approach, then the relevant parts of the private sector should be encouraged to fill the gap.  We wondered whether philanthropic foundations could help, for example by building on models of ‘citizen journalism’, or whether companies like Google might be persuaded to take an altruistic approach on behalf of society.  Neither of these thoughts, especially the latter one, generated much confidence.  But we were clear that both the power of innovation and the funding that resulted from commercial success ought to play a part in constructing a system where diversity and openness were accompanied by social responsibility. 

In short, we found ourselves concluding that there were still huge strengths in the media industry, though more in the modern than in the traditional forms of it, and there was still dynamism in the evolution of democracy.  It was politics that had not yet found the right balance:  between government and individual, between plurality and democratic security, between freedom of choice and education on the constraints.  That, we felt, was where the next concentration of effort should lie. 

There was plenty of hard-bitten media experience around this table and yet the sharing of different perspectives, geographical or professional, threw up a conversation of great freshness and interest.  Ditchley owes a great deal for this to the spirit of the participants, and especially to our chairman, who steered between a free-for-all and an over-disciplined discussion with great judgement.  As for the optimists and the pessimists, each individual will have to add up his own score.  But we all felt we had learnt a lot from these two days.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

PARTICIPANTS

Chairman     :     Mr Richard Manning
Trustee, BBC World Service Trust.  Formerly:  Chairman, OECD Development Assistance Committee;  Director-General, Department for International Development.

AUSTRIA/ UNITED KINGDOM

Mr Edward Mortimer
Senior Vice-President and Chief Programme Officer, Salzburg Global Seminar.  Formerly:  Director of Communications to the Secretary-General, United Nations;  Foreign Affairs Editor, Financial Times (1987‑98).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

BANGLADESH

Mr Mahfuz Anam
Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star (1993-);  Columnist;  Publisher, Prothom (1998-), Weekly (1997-) and Anandadhra (1997-), Bangladesh;  Founder and Chairman, The Freedom Foundation, Bangladesh;  TV Interviewer.  Formerly:  Chairman, Asia News Network (2007-08).

CANADA

Mr Mitch Diamantopoulos
Head, University of Regina School of Journalism (2007-);  Director, Saskatchewan Labour Market Commission (2006-).  Formerly:  Director, Hullabaloo Publishing (1992-2007).

Mr Michael Goldbloom
Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Bishop’s University.  Formerly:  Publisher, the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette.

FRANCE                                     

Ms Françoise Crouïgneau
President, Ajef (Financial and Economic Journalists Association);  Contributor, La Tribune (2008‑);  Vice-President, European-American Press Club.  Formerly:  Editor-in-Chief, Les Echos (1989‑2008).

FRANCE/ UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Mr Axel Krause
Author and Contributing Editor, TransAtlantic Magazine, Washington DC and TV5, Paris;  Secretary General, Anglo-American Press Association of Paris;  Board Member, French Economic and Financial Writers Association, Paris;  Ditchley Foundation Representative in France.

POLAND

Dr Beata Klimkiewicz
Assistant Professor, Institute of Journalism and Social Communication, Jagiellonian University, Krakow.  Formerly:  Deputy Director, Institute of Journalism and Social Communication;  Journalist, Polish Public Television and Print Media.

SOUTH AFRICA/ZAMBIA

Professor Fackson Banda
SAB LTD-UNESCO Chair of Media and Democracy, School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa.

UNITED KINGDOM

Ms Kate Adie
Freelance Broadcaster;  Writer;  Presenter, BBC Radio 4.  Formerly:  BBC Chief News Correspondent.

Mr Anthony Barnett
Founder, OpenDemocracy.net;  Journalist.  Formerly:  Co-Founder and Director, Charter 88.  Author.

Mr Charlie Beckett
Director, POLIS, and Lecturer, The London School of Economics/ London College of Communication;  Broadcaster;  Journalist.  Author.

Sir David Bell
Chairman, The Financial Times (1996-);  Director, Pearson plc (1996-), Economist Group (2007-);  Chairman, Media Standards Trust (2006-), Common Purpose Europe (1996-);  Trustee, Common Purpose (1994-).  Formerly:  Financial Times:  Chief Executive (1992-96).

Mr Alastair Brett
Legal Manager, Times Newspapers.

Mr George Brock
Member, British Committee, International Press Institute;  The Times (1981-);  International Editor, The Times.  Formerly:  The Times:  Saturday Editor, Managing Editor (1997-2004).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mr James Deane
Head of Policy, BBC World Service Trust (2007-).  Formerly:  Managing Director, Communicatio for Social Change Consortium (2004-07);  Executive Director, Panos Institute, London and other posts at Panos (1986‑2004).

Ms Molly Dineen
Documentary Director/Producer;  Winner, British Academy Award 2008, for The Lie of the Land.

Dame Elizabeth Forgan DBE
Chair, Scott Trust;  Non-Executive Director, Department for Culture, Media and Sport;  Trustee, British Museum.  Formerly:  Chair, Heritage Lottery Fund.

Professor Peter Hennessy FBA
Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary College, University of London (1992-);  Fellow of the British academy.  Author and Broadcaster.  Member, Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

The Rt Hon Tesssa Jowell MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Dulwich and West Norwood (1997-);  Dulwich (1992-97);  Minister for the Olympics (2007-).  Formerly:  Minister for London (2007-08);  Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (2001-07).

Mr Stephen King
Director, BBC World Service Trust (2001-);  Director, Investments (Media Markets and Transparency), Omidyar Network (January 2009);  Board of Trustees, CARE International.  Formerly:  Executive Director, International Council on Social Welfare, Montreal and London (1998-2000).

Dr David Levy
Director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford;  Associate Fellow in Media and Communications, Said Business School, Oxford.  Formerly:  Controller, BBC Public Policy (2000-07). 

Mr John Lloyd
Director of Journalism, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford;  Contributing Editor and Columnist, The Financial Times.

Ms Ruth MacKenzie OBE
Expert Adviser on Broadcasting Cultural Policy, Department of Culture, Media and Sport;  Consultant Dramaturg, Vienna Festival. 

Ms Bronwen Maddox
Chief Foreign Commentator, The Times (2006-).  Formerly:  The Times:  Foreign Editor (1999-2006).  Member, Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Professor Adrian Monck
Director, Graduate School of Journalism, City University (2005-);  President, The Media Society;  Media Commentator, The Evening Standard;  Columnist, Press Gazette.

Ms Elizabeth Padmore
International Advisor and Independent Consultant (2006-);  Associate Fellow, James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation, Said Business School, University of Oxford;  Fellow, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Alan Rusbridger
Editor, The Guardian (1995-).  Formerly:  The Guardian:  Deputy Editor (1993-95);  Features Editor (1989‑93);  Editor, Weekend Guardian (1988-89.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Richard Sambrook
BBC (1980-);  Director, BBC Global News (2004-);  Member, BBC Executive Direction Board, BBC Journalism Board. 

Ms Poppy Sebag-Montefiore
Director, Monkeybread Limited (2006-);  China Correspondent and Independent Producer, More4 News and Channel4 News (2005-);  Editor, History Workshop Journal, Oxford University Press (2007-).

Ms Rosie Sharpe
HM Diplomatic Service (1982-);  Counsellor, Whitehall Liaison Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2003-).

Mr Andrew Tyrie MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Chichester, House of Commons (1997-);  Member, Commons Select Committee, Constitutional Affairs/Justice (2005-);  Member, Joint Committee for Constitutional Renewal.

Mr Robert Webb MP
General Counsel, British Airways;  Non-Executive Director:  BBC, London Stock Exchange, Hakluyt Limited, London First;  Bencher, Inner Temple.

UNITED KINGDOM/RUSSIA   

Mr Pavel Andreev
Deputy UK Bureau Chief and Commentator for RIA Novosti, Russian News and Information Agency, London.                                             

UNITED NATIONS/JAPAN

Mr Kiyotaka Akasaka
United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information (2007-).  Formerly:  Deputy Secretary-General, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2003-07);  Japanese Diplomatic Service (1971-2001).

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Mr David Bennahum
President and CEO, The Center for Independent Media;  New Media Strategist;  TV and Radio Commentator (19996-).  Formerly:  Senior Fellow, Media Matters for America;  Co-Founder and Partner, New Tings LLP (2000-02).  Author.

Ambassador Brian Carlson
US Diplomatic Service;  US Department of State Liaison with Department of Defence (Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy);  Contributor, 2008 Defence science Board Study, Challenges to Military Operations in Support of National Interests:  Task Force on Strategic Communication.

Ms Cari Guittard
Executive Director, Business for Diplomatic Action.  Formerly:  Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs for Political Military Relations, East Asian Pacific Affairs, Diplomatic Security, Cyber-Terrorism and Media Relations, US Department of State.

Professor Jeff Jarvis
Director, Interactive Journalism Program and Center for Journalistic Innovation, City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism;  Media Columnist, The Guardian.  Author.

Professor Jane Kirtley
Director, The Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law (2000-);  Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota (1999-).

Mr Elliot Stein
Chairman, Caribbean International News Corporation (1985-);  Managing Director, Commonwealth Capital Partners (1989-);  Cohere Communications LLC (2004-), Connexitit LLC (2008-).

Ms Marguerite Sullivan
Senior Director, Center for International Media Assistance, National Endowment for Democracy;  Media Trainer and Author.

WORLD BANK/UNITED KINGDOM-NIGERIA

Mr Sina Odugbemi
Program Head, Communication for Governance and Accountability Program, World Bank (2006-).  Formerly:  Program Manager and Adviser, Information and Communication for Development, Department for International Development, United Kingdom