The recent tragic events of 7th January in Paris, when members of the editorial board of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were assassinated and several police members killed in an attack by radicalised Islamists, brought about attention to the issues the protection of the freedom of the public media and preservation of democracy.
Many took to the streets of Paris - mainly citizens of “white middle class” background (as one of the participants described them), media intellectuals and politicians - and rallied in support of the freedom of media and democracy; the two, by default taken as inseparable, almost synonymous pillars of the modern democratic society, and, according to some authors, its economic prosperity.
Traditionally, since its beginning, democratic free-press aimed to free itself form influences of institutions of non-democratic state, royalty or dictatorial governments. Erich From made a historical distinction between “freedom-from”, eg restrictions, and “freedom-for”, e.g creativity.
Here I am asking questions about whose influence and restriction free-press wants to be “free from” and what is that freedom giving it freedom-for in a modern, democratic society. Can media claim to be both, democratic and free from any influence from public institutions of a democratic state-system whose members are elected in democratic election or by those elected in such manner?
We argue therefore that we need to take a fresh look at a (not so new) distinction between two main types of (free) press in and media in a modern democratic society:
a) the commercial, liberal: mainly advertising and sales financed and public influence free press, i.e. “democracy-free media”, and,
b) public and democratically elected institutions influenced and partially, or fully sales or mandatory license fees funded but commercial interest influences free media.
Almost inevitable hypothesis rising from such distinction is that, in a parliamentary democracy, it is the latter group, the public institutions controlled, that is likely to be inherently more democratic than the private, commercial interest driven, liberal one, which aims to be protected from influences of public, democratic institutions, despite its owners and editors still being broadly democratically oriented.
In his 2012 report upon inquiry of UK media, prompted by the phone-taping scandals, Lord Leveson states:
“...Although the contrary is often asserted, not a single witness has proposed that the Government or that Parliament should be able to step in to prevent publication of anything whatsoever. Not a single witness has proposed that the Government or Parliament should themselves be involved in the regulation of the press. I have not contemplated and do not make any such proposal”
Can hence, someone conclude that even Lord Leveson can not utter the possibility that the commercial media and press may be enjoying more than a deserved share of unquestionable freedom from interference by public institutions to print whatever is in its interest to publish or to suppress important truths that may offend power structures of big business, which press is itself part of. On the other hand, the press appears hardly likely to ever allow anything that can possibly undermine its own authority , power, or its right for those freedoms to be published.
Any contesting voice against itself seems impossible unless it may be isolated to a specific issue like widespread illegal phone-tapping, a form of market and power gain from unfair competition.
The press and media's monopoly (or oligopoly) over “truth” is not a new phenomena and manipulation of the truth for protection of business interests by the commercial press was voiced long before Noam Chomsky's numerous works. For example, as far as the times preceding and following WW2 in the seminal books by the US based investigative journalist George Seldes such as “The Lords of the Press” and “1000 Americans” respectively in which he portrays mechanisms and examples of manipulation of media and of the democratic process in a mutually coordinated manner by about 1000 commercial media owners. Though not new, it still needs to be reiterated again and again just as the commercial media frequently makes us believe their semitruths by repeating them throughout the media market in an almost fully coordinated manner.
We need not emphasise that this is not to deny that full freedom of the press is crucial and that press should not be prevented in making revelations such as the US Watergate or the UK parliamentarian's expenses and questions for money scandals. Many more of less prominent but similarly controversial cases have been also revealed by dedicated and brave investigative journalists working for private media, sometimes risking their lives or careers, backed only by the laws ensuring freedom of information in public interest.
We all have been, however, repeating statements expressing how we believe in unconditional right of the press to stay free from influence of public bodies and governments like some religious mantra. However, a contesting truth may be far from the righteousness image the liberal, commercial, press is painting of itself without anyone else having sufficient means or space to contest it. Despite its nominal freedom, its editorial policy and practice is too often driven by the interest of big business or mere profits. It is inconceivable that, however nominally independent, editors will not sufficiently often, consciously or semi-consciously, take into account potential gain or loss of the company’s revenue and their bonuses associated to attracting or loosing advertising from big business through their editorial actions respectively. Any editor who continuously ignores that link may be signing-up to their own, and possibly the publishing company’s financial bankruptcy, or facing a preventive dismissal by the media owners.
There are few consequences of uncontrollably free, liberal, press. As pointed out by many authors, including Seldes, and as many are aware, press and media are able to interfere with the parliamentary election process by influencing voters. That is, under the auspices of freedom of the press, the inherent influence of big business on the commercial interests indirectly influences public opinion and so the election of its democratic representatives. On the other hand, it almost seems like only those that agree with such ultimate freedom of the liberal press, or are committed to support its empowerment, may pass the post and anyone questioning it may be risking to be either vilified as antidemocratic, to be exposed as some sort of pervert, or will stay hidden from the public eye under the veil of press silence, thus, unknown to the voters.
This is not to say that the reporting of the commercial press is not under some influence of public it is trying to address, market and sell itself to too, or that its owners and editors are not democratically oriented. However, the hegemony of the commercial, free press open to be driven by the businesses interests, and its unquestionable freedom from influence of democratically elected representatives of people – the Parliament – may be potentially undermining the power of the democratic representative institutions – that is, it can be undermining actual principles of democracy.
Charlie Hebldo has, on the other hand, been undeniably one of nowadays rare examples of a fully dedicated and an unaligned, both, government and commercial influence free publication. However, like many such truly free publications, this almost ideal venture was also left “free“of the badly needed financial backing that would assure its future midst its unsustainable, low sales and its rising debt. A Balancing Act?
Hence, to avoid danger of bias in either of directions and giving control to the ruling party government and making the media instrument of its perpetual empowerment on one hand, and fully liberalising control of the media in hands of commercial interests on the other, and to maintain sustainable democratic media, an optimal solution could be to make at least a large proportion of media controllable by democratically elected parliament or by parliament rather than the government, appointed bodies of trustees with representation from both, the ruling ad the opposition parties and subsidised by the public money or mandatory license fees.
In principle, the cost of such subsidy should be then simply considered as a part of costs of maintaining democracy. There is, however, a potential danger that such cost is something that at least some of increasingly indebted governments and countries may not be able to sustain in longer term.
The UK audience is however, so far lucky to have preserved some balance of the two, the predominantly commercial, “democracy-free” media on the one end, and the “Democratic press” under, though indirect, control of democratically elected public bodies such as parliament via various appointed trusts – e.g. the Guardian and BBC on the other end. Also, in the aftermath of the assassination of Charlie Hebdo's editorial board, the French government and several private institutions have decided to provide direct financial support for continuation of the satirical magazine or to subsidise their employee's subscriptions.
But those may be some of not so many remaining bastions of balanced control and funding mechanisms that preserve strength of the democratic press and that of the core democracy. It is hence probably also worth investigating if and how many of other, heavily indebted countries already irretrievably lost it in favour of the one or the other, mostly the commercial, “democracy-free” press, and how many other may be on an almost unstoppable way to loose it.
However, above proposals are very likely to be eventually vilified as undemocratic by the majority if not the most of the liberal, “democratically free” commercial media as the two biggest of the heresies against their commercially-liberal views. Controversially, by doing so, they could be at the same time appearing as if seeking to by-pass the core basis of the liberal (free) market and unfairly impose restriction on their potential competitor - the publicly-owned and controlled media – to its entry, or future existence on the media market, and to reinforce their oligopoly on the “truth”, the audience, the revenues and their political power.
Outside the media attention and the memorial rally occupied streets, life seemed as usual: the rest of Paris, its citizens and visitors were getting-on with their normal life, queuing for museums and catching up with widely advertised January sales