Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Modern media: Necessary evil or saviour of democracy?

I sat in on the Media Inquiry in Melbourne this afternoon, and listened to the ever thoughtful Paul Chadwick.

It was an absorbing session, and whilst it is probably clear that the most likely outcome is some increased influence for the Press Council, and not much else, nevertheless the process seems to have been worthwhile. And, in fact, that outcome may be just about ideal.

Who wants more media regulation, anyway?

But amongst all the talk of the threats to democracy and the power of the media, it struck me that an important historical point has been lost.

Inquiries like this start from the point of view that the media is a necessary evil, that it's a loose cannon needing to be controlled or regulated in some way. The underlying theory is that some influence needs to be brought to bear against the worst excesses of greedy moguls or uncaring shareholders.

All of that may be a fair cop, guv. But it does overlook one glaring positive.

Since the rise of a global media in the second half of the twentieth century – whether that be international wire services, CNN, the BBC, blogs, Twitter or digital radio – we have lived in an Age of Communication.

Digital only defines the latter part of that age. So let’s not get hung up on “citizen journalism” or Twitter.

What struck me as I listened to the discussion this afternoon – particularly as Paul Chadwick, who is clearly a student of history, referenced aspects of the long cycle of media influence and its roots in pamphleteering – was that a key aspect of post-industrial revolution western democracy, up until the mid-twentieth century, was militaristic.

I’m not suggesting that things are particularly peaceful in all pockets of the globe at the moment, but within and between western democracies it is true to say there is no threat of imminent war. And when you contrast that with the first half of the twentieth century the difference is startling.

Right now Europe’s economy is under greater stress than it has been since the 1930’s. The US economy is marginally better. These zones have been the driving forces of economic growth for hundreds of years. And yes, we know the centre of influence is moving from West to East.

But the point is that before the rise of global media, these economic stresses – and the communication technologies of the day – resulted in an inward nationalistic mindset that led to devastating wars. Two world wars were fought, millions died. Today no one is predicting that will be repeated.

Of course there are many influences to which this political stability can be attributed, but it is worth acknowledging that one of the very important components is ... the media.

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