The Power and the Story: media’s claims on democratic legitimacy



Journalism is in a delicate state in the world. The time at the turn of the century when it seemed to be secure in freedom, is gone. As June Jodie Ginsberg, the CEO of Index on Censorship, has observed “it does seem as if the world is more authoritarian now,” notes John Lloyd, author of The Power and the Story: The Global Battle for News and Information.

Authoritarian leaders are increasingly confident of their rule, and the subaltern role of their news media. As democratic states in Europe and America weaken, they assert more firmly that journalism is too important to be left to journalists, since politicians can better judge what information and opinions will secure good government, he writes for Prospect (UK):

It is the autocratic leader, in large command of what can and cannot be said and shown—while providing the most engrossing, patriotic and popular entertainment—who now provides a template for despots and semi-democrats. It’s a style honed in Russia and China, applied in Turkey, Egypt and Ethiopia, elements of which are adopted in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. In democratic states a weak but electorally-effective form was pioneered under Silvio Berlusconi’s Italian premierships in the 1990s and 2000s.

The threats to independent journalism no longer come only from direct forms of state control, according to a new book (above) published by the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Where advocates of a vibrant public sphere once mobilized against the suppression and censorship of news, they now must also contend with the more complex challenge of media capture:

Media capture is shown to be a growing phenomenon linked both to the resurgence of authoritarian governments as well as to the structural weaknesses presently afflicting media markets. In this environment, political figures and economic elites are colluding to undermine the independence of privately-owned media, and efforts to stop this collusion by activists, regulators, and the international community have proven to be ineffective.

Lloyd’s survey of the state of the free press is a timely reminder of how vital it is to democracy. The former FT journalist points again and again to the links between the practice of journalism and liberal democracy, John Gray writes for The New Statesman:

Proper journalism requires freedom to investigate and to publish. More, it must be able to provoke some response from the authorities. In the absence of these conditions – which exist only in liberal democracies – journalists are powerless. If any overall message can be gleaned from Lloyd’s account it is that journalism is an intrinsically liberal enterprise, threatened by the same forces that threaten liberalism itself

In 2003, the Southern Metropolitan Daily in Guangzhou, China, published a daring investigation into the death of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker picked up by police for lacking proper documents and then dumped into a detention centre. The Daily’s revelations triggered popular outrage that resulted in significant systemic reform, notes Steve Coll, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. It was a time of rising confidence and achievement for independent investigative reporting in China, a risky endeavour for editors who must continually test the state’s tolerance. Since then, however, the space for such journalism has narrowed greatly, as President Xi Jinping has consolidated power and pressured civil society, he writes for The Financial Times:

These days, as John Lloyd writes in The Power and the Story, Chinese reporters have learnt that they can occasionally “swat flies” with their investigative work, but not “beat tigers” such as security services or leaders of the Communist party. The regression is in line with worldwide trends. During the 1990s and mid-2000s, Lloyd reminds us, professional and independent journalism expanded in the developing world and formerly communist states, even under authoritarian regimes. Yet during the past five years, with strongmen and populism on the march, that progress has been reversed. …..Lloyd recognises that journalism’s claims on democratic legitimacy as a check on state and corporate power transcend the technology of the day.

“In the medium run, perhaps more worrisome than economics is the assault on journalism’s legitimacy and constitutional protections,” Coll adds.

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