SET THE MEDIA FREE
The media have been a recourse against abuses of power within the democratic structures of our societies. It is not unusual for the three traditional areas of power - legislative, executive and judicial - to make mistakes and operate less perfectly than they might. This is more likely to happen under authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, where the political realm is mainly responsible for violations of human rights and attacks on liberties. But there are serious abuses of power in democratic countries too, even when laws are the result of democratic votes, governments are elected through universal suffrage and justice is (at least in theory) independent of the executive.
An innocent person can be wrongly accused (as in the infamous Dreyfus affair in France); parliaments can pass laws that discriminate against sections of the population (as with the treatment of Afro-Americans over more than a century in the United States, or the current treatment of people from Muslim countries under the USA Patriot Act); and governments can pursue policies that damage a sector of society (as with illegal immigrants in many European countries).
In a democratic framework the media have often seen it as a duty to denounce such violations of human rights. Sometimes journalists have paid the price - they have been physically attacked, murdered or have disappeared; this is still happening in Colombia, Guatemala, Turkey, Pakistan, the Philippines and elsewhere. This is why, in the phrase attributed to Edmund Burke, journalism is the "fourth estate". Thanks to the civic responsibility of the media and the courage of individual journalists, this fourth estate has provided a fundamental and democratic means for people to criticise, reject and reverse decisions (unfair, unjust, illegal and sometimes even criminal) against innocent people. It is the voice of those who have no voice.
Over the past 15 years, with the acceleration of globalisation, this fourth estate has been stripped of its potential, and has gradually ceased to function as a counterpower. This is shockingly apparent when you look closely at the realities of globalisation. A new type of capitalism is on the rise, not just industrial, but financial, based on speculation. We are witnessing a clash between the market and the state, the public services and the private sector, the individual and society, the personal and the collective, egoism and solidarity.
Real power is now in the hands of a few global economic groupings and conglomerates that appear to wield more power in world politics than most governments. These are the new masters of the world who gather annually at the World Economic Forum in Davos and lay the groundwork for policy decisions by the globalising trinity of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and World Trade Organisation.
Within this geo-economic framework there has been a decisive transformation in the mass media, striking at the heart of their structure as industries. The mass communications media (radio, newspapers, television, internet) are being realigned to create media groups with a world vocation. Giant enterprises such as NewsCorp, Viacom, AOL Time Warner, General Electric, Microsoft, Bertelsmann, UnitedGlobalCom, Disney, Telefónica, RTL Group and France Telecom have realised that the revolution in new technology has greatly increased the possibilities for expansion. The digital revolution shattered the divisions that previously separated the three traditional forms of communication (sound, text and images) and allowed the creation and growth of the internet. This has now become a fourth form of communication, a means of self-expression, information-access and entertainment.
Subsequently the media companies began a further stage of group restructuring by bringing into a single frame not only the classic media (press, radio and television) but also all activities in mass culture, communication and information. Previously these three spheres were independent: mass culture with its commercial logic, its emphasis on popular programming and its basically commercial objectives; communications, as advertising, marketing and propaganda; and news and information, represented by agencies, radio and television news, press, 24-hour news channels - the many-sided world of journalism.
These three spheres, previously separate, have gradually become integrated into a single sphere in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the elements of mass culture, communication and news (1). And these giant enterprises, which are assembly-line producers of symbols, now distribute their messages through a wide variety of outlets, including television, animation, film, video games, CDs, DVDs, publishing, Disneyland-type theme parks and sporting events.
The 1940 film Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’s approach to the superpower status of a US press baron, modeled on the early 20th Century newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. But by today’s standards even Kane’s power was relatively limited. As the owner of a limited number of papers in a single country he would have been small fry in comparison to the mega-power of today’s corporate media giants (2), although this is not to deny that he could have made his mark both at national and local level. The modern hyper-enterprises have been concentrated, and have bought their way into a wide variety of media sectors in many different countries on every continent. They have acquired such economic weight and ideological importance that they are now major players in globalisation itself. Now that communications - as extended to include information technology, electronics and telephony - are the heavy industry of our time, these companies are constantly seeking to increase their scale by non-stop company acquisitions. They are also pressuring governments to break down the laws that were designed to limit concentration and prevent the creation of monopolies and duopolies (3).
Globalisation now also means the globalisation of the mass media and the communications-information companies. These big companies are preoccupied with growth, which means that they have to develop relations with the other estates in society, so they no longer claim to act as a fourth estate with a civic objective and a commitment to denouncing human rights abuses. They are not interested in correcting the malfunctions of democracy and creating a better political system. They have no interest in being a fourth estate and even less in acting as a countervailing power. And even when they do constitute a fourth estate, that estate is just an adjunct to the existing political and economic estates and operates as a supplementary, media power to crush people.
How do we react to all of this? How can we defend ourselves? How can we resist the offensive of this new power that has betrayed society and gone over to the enemy? The answer is simple. We have to create a new estate, a fifth estate, that will let us pit a civic force against this new coalition of rulers. A fifth estate to denounce the hyperpower of the media conglomerates which are complicit in, and diffusers of, neoliberal globalisation.
In some instances the media have not only ceased to defend their citizens but have even acted against them, as in Venezuela. There the opposition swept to power in 1998 in elections that were free and democratic, but the main press, radio and television groupings launched an all-out war against the legitimacy of President Hugo Chávez (4). While he and his government had respected the rules of democracy, the media, in the hands of a few magnates, used manipulation, lies and brainwashing to poison minds (5). In this ideological war they have abandoned any role as a fourth estate and instead have been determined to defend the privileges of a caste by opposing any attempt at social reform or at a slightly fairer distribution of Venezuela’s wealth (see Venezuela: the promise of land for the people).
Venezuela is an exemplary case of the new international situation, in which media corporations are running rampant and openly operating as guard-dogs of the established economic order: a new force operating against the people and civil society. The operations of these big groups are no longer confined to the business of media; they are also, above all, the ideological arm of globalisation. Their function is to contain demands from the grass roots and, where possible, also to seize political power; Silvio Berlusconi, owner of Italy’s biggest media conglomerate, has succeeded in achieving this by demo cratic means.
The media-based dirty war in Venezuela against Chávez is an exact copy of what was done in 1970-73 by the El Mercurio newspaper (6) in Chile, against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende - this was the campaign that led to the coup against him. And this kind of campaign, with the media setting out to destroy democracy, could happen tomorrow in Ecuador, Brazil or Argentina, against any legal reforms that attempted to modify the social hierarchy and inequalities of wealth. The powers of the traditional oligarchy and the classical reactionaries have now been joined by the power of the media. With a single voice, claiming to speak in the name of freedom of expression, the media attack anything that defends the interests of the majority of the people. That is the media face of globalisation, and it reveals in the clearest, caricatured way the ideology of globalisation.
Mass media and economic liberalisation are now intimately linked. This is why we think it urgent to analyse how the people of the world might demand a more ethical approach from major media, to require a commitment to truth and a respect for codes of conduct, so that journalists can operate in line with their consciences rather than the interests of the groups, companies and editors that employ them.
In the new war of ideology that globalisation has forced on us, the media are used as a weapon. Since we now face an explosive multiplication and over-abundance of information, our news is being contaminated - poisoned by lies, polluted by rumours, misrepresentations, distortions and manipulation.
What is happening here has already happened in the food industry. For a long time food was a scarce commodity and it still is in many parts of the world. But when the countryside began to produce in abundance, particularly in western Europe and North America, thanks to the revolution in agricultural technology, we found many of our foods were contaminated, poisoned by pesticides, which then caused illnesses, infections, cancers and other health problems. (Sometimes causing mass panics, as with mad cow disease.) People once died of hunger. Now they have a chance to die from eating contaminated food.
News was once a scarce commodity and there is still, in countries run by dictatorships, an absence of reliable, comprehensive and quality news. But in democratic countries news and information overflow on all sides. They are suffocating us. The Greek philosopher Empedocles said that the world was made up of four elements: air, water, earth and fire. Information has become so abundant in our globalised world that it is now almost a fifth element.
But at the same time, as people are now beginning to realise, news is contaminated. It poisons our minds, pollutes our brains, manipulates us, intoxicates us, and tries to instill into our subconscious ideas that are not our own. This is why we now need to establish an ecology of news, to sort real news from a flood of lies. The enormity of the situation was apparent in the invasion of Iraq (7). We need to decontaminate our news. Just as we can now buy less-contaminated organic foods, we need organic news. People should mobilise to demand that the media owned by the global groups show respect for the truth, because news is only legitimate when it is really engaged in a search for truth.
That is why we suggested setting up Media Watch Global (L’Observatoire international des médias) (8). It will at last give people a peaceful civic weapon against the emerging superpower of the big mass media. It is an outcome of meetings of the global social movement held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and expresses the concern of the people of the world in the face of the new arrogance of the giant communications industries at the height of their globalisation offensive.
Big media companies push their interests to the detriment of the general interest, and confuse their freedom with the freedom of enterprise, held to be the first of liberties. But that freedom of enterprise cannot be permitted to override people’s right to rigorously researched and verified news, nor can it serve as an alibi for the deliberate diffusion of false news and defamation.
Press freedom is no more than the extension of collective freedom of expression, which is the foundation of democracy. We cannot allow it to be hijacked by the rich and powerful. It implies a social responsibility and its exercise must remain, in the final instance, under the control of society. That is why we propose the creation of Media Watch Global, because the media now constitute the only power without a counterweight, which creates an imbalance damaging for democracy. The strength of the organisation will be moral: it will judge media honesty on the basis of ethics, and will seek to remedy media shortcomings by reports and studies which it will prepare, publish and distribute.
Media Watch Global will act as an essential counterweight to the excessive power of the big media groups. It is needed because these groups, in providing news and information, impose the single logic of the market, and the single ideology of neoliberalism. Media Watch Global will be an international association, with the objective of exercising a collective responsibility, in the name of the higher interest of society and the right of citizens to be properly informed. We attach the greatest importance to the World Information Summit in Geneva in December. The association intends to act as a whistle-blower, warning society against the epidemic of media manipulations in recent years.
Media Watch Global will have three levels of membership, each with identical rights: professional and occasional journalists, both active and retired, from all the media, mainstream or alternative; academics and researchers from all disciplines, and particularly media specialists, because universities are now one of the few places partially protected from the totalitarian ambitions of the market; and media users, ordinary people and public figures known for their moral stance.
In all countries the existing systems for regulating the media are unsatisfactory. Since news is a common good, its quality cannot be guaranteed by organisations made up only of journalists, since they often have their own interests. The codes of conduct of individual media enterprises, insofar as they exist, are often unsuitable for judging and correcting the doctoring, suppression and censorship of news. It is vital that the codes of conduct and ethics of news are defined and defended by an impartial body that is credible, independent and objective, within which academics have a vital role. Ombudsmen, or mediators, useful in the 1980s and 1990s, have now become commercialised and degraded. They are often exploited by companies as a part of image-management and as a way to help artificially reinforce the media’s credibility.
One of humanity’s most precious rights is the right to communicate freely our thoughts and opinions. No law should be allowed arbitrarily to restrict press freedom and the freedom of speech. But these freedoms can only be exercised by media enterprises if they do not infringe other rights that are equally sacred, such as the right of each citizen to have access to uncontaminated news. Under the pretext of freedom of expression media enterprises should not be allowed to disseminate false news, or conduct campaigns of ideological propaganda.
Media Watch Global believes that the absolute media freedom that the owners of the major communications groups pursue so insistently will necessarily be detrimental to the people of the world. These big corporations need to know that a counterpower is being created, one that will bring together all who are part of the global social movement, all who are fighting against the expropriation of our right of expression. Journalists, academics, newspaper readers, radio listeners, television viewers and internet users will come together to create together a weapon of debate and democratic action. The globalisers proclaim the 21st century "the century of global enterprise". Media Watch Global says it will be the century in which communication and information at last belong to the people of the world.
by Ed Emery. First appeared in Le
Monde diplomatique in October 2003.