Media: enforcing law but creating political cynicism

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Media: enforcing law but creating political cynicism

In the last couple of months we have been inundated with information about corruption, fraud, tax avoidance, behold of information and all sort of criminal practices by senior politicians. Perhaps the most noticeable one is that related to Conservative MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Labour MP Jack Straw, who were caught in video stating their intentions using their government contacts to benefit a private company.

This, however; is not a new phenomenon, neither a unique feature of UK politics.  In 2009 a sex scandal involving the then Italian President, Silvio Berlusconi, came into the public eye; a scandal that is still taking place.  Two years later the former French President, Jacques Chirac, was involved in allegations of, as was found guilty of corruption. More recently, Mexico’s current President, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Finance’s Minister, Luis Videgaray, also have been related to financial improprieties. This not only demonstrates that in the prevailing climate of social distrust, where both citizens are becoming increasingly disenfranchised from politics and where politics seems to be progressively more disentangled from social needs; the future political scenario seems negative. More worrying, perhaps, is the fact that in most of these cases, if not all, law has been enforced not by the governmental institutions, but by an “anxious and hungry media political scandal machine”. Many would argue it is the judiciary system who will legally judge Peña Nieto in Mexico, and who has imprisoned politicians in the UK since 1906, including Terry Fields in 1991 and David Chaytor in 2011.  Notwithstanding this, it is undeniable that the discovery, even deterrence and public punishment of these crimes has been done by the respective national media. Leaving aside the fact that the governmental institutions in charge of prosecuting this type of crimes have been clearly failing, the above condition presupposes two major issues.

First: Is the media fulfilling its social responsibility as “government’s watchdog” or is it exceeding its private capacities over the public sphere? In the middle of all “the debates about the debate”, politicians and media editors engaged in –what the Telegraph called– brinkmanship around whether to have one, two or multiple debates between two, three or eight party leaders; and after months of intense accusations 3 debates have now been agreed.  It is true that the media’s raison de’etre, at least as initially seen by Habermas, is to provide society with the required information for it to debate and decide on the matters that affect it. And broadcasting the debates will effectively contribute to the “realization” of a public sphere surrounding the UK elections. What is objectionable, however; is that through the mediatisation and aggrandizement of this issue, the media not only has reported a news event, it created one for its exploitation and –arguably– commercial benefit (to the point that The Times setup a website for the debates about the debate exclusively). A condition that seems to have become a constant in British politics and media. Let me illustrate this point by referring to my previous arguments. Whilst investigative journalism through archival research, freedom of information acts, and the consultation of public records, among others, has allowed reporters to uncover the financial mishandlings of senior officials and politicians in Mexico; in the UK, rather than uncovering a truth, reporters have created fictitious settings, skillful traps in Straw’s words, to facilitate, induce, or trigger illegal conducts. An argument that, I am sure, will be highly controversial; but as stated by Sir Bernard Crick, what is the role of a scholar if not to develop bold and provocative arguments? The above does not mean the Mexican media is the model to be emulated. There are many problems that still need to be tackled, starting by a limited freedom of expression exemplified by the recent dismissal of Carmen Aristegui and her team –arguably– obeying to their discoveries on President Peña Nieto’s financial wrongdoings. Even less that politicians like Straw and Sir Rifking are not guilty or should not take personal responsibility for their acts. If proved they acted against the law, politicians should face legal consequences as any other citizen would. What it does show is that government-media-society interrelations need to change, which takes me to my second point. When reporters accept –in the UK case– to have contacted 12 MPs to deliberately organize improper parliamentary conducts, it is inevitable for me not to remember and refer to Flinders’ work on the need for Defending Politics: “the media has become increasingly cynical, mercenary and demagogic to the point t which it no longer supports democratic politics but actively undermines it”.  In Defending Politics Flinders depicts how the media is full of “malaise, decline, corruption and challenges unmet” about politics and politicians. It is perhaps due to this and the arguable media’s impact on public perceptions that in 2011 less than 9% of European citizens believe politicians act with honesty and integrity.  Although I do not agree in that “the real demons may in fact be the people creating the news rather than the people featuring in it”, the above mentioned arguments do support Flinders’ view that the media has forgotten the critical difference between the “public interest” and what “interests the public”. Hence, it is true that every healthy public sphere and democratic regime requires of an inquisitive and critical media. A watchdog, we would say, to make politicians and authorities accountable when the system seems to be failing.  However, immersed in a highly competitive world and on its desperate search for creating news that sale, rather than inform; some media outlets have distorted into –what Flinders calls– attack dogs. “Attack dogs” that, by cultivating, rather than picking up news, are not contributing to the effectiveness and development of a healthy public sphere, but triggering further political cynicism.

By Jose Angel Garcia