The media have been accused of undermining democracy. But, argues Richard Sambrook, an independent press is essential to freedom

Democracy and the media – freedom of speech or a free press – have developed in tandem for more than 300 years. They are, in many ways, umbilically linked. If democracy began as the will of the people, journalism was their voice. It was a relationship fully understood by those who drafted the American constitution. The first amendment, laying the foundations for democracy, also gave the right to freedom of speech and enshrined media rights.

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There are three times more democracies in the world than there were 30 years ago, and a free press has grown with them. There is little doubt that international broadcasting played a role in the end of communism in eastern Europe. Over the same period the media have also grown – exponentially. Today, as well as the major TV and radio networks and newspapers of the 1970s, we have cable, satellite and the Internet services pouring information into our homes and offices.

The past 12 months have been good for democracy, with remarkable elections in India, Spain, the United States, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Kosovo and more, and, at the time of writing, elections were scheduled for January in Iraq.

However, the past year also saw marked divisions – political ones reflected in the bitterly fought American election; international policy divisions over Iraq; and terrorist violence in Spain, Russia and the Middle East. Such divisions place the media in the spotlight with their neutrality scrutinized, questioned or attacked. As a BBC executive once remarked, when opinion is sharply divided, the media are on the rack. The “middle ground”, on which much of modern objective journalism attempts to sit, all but disappears.

The media’s problems have been exacerbated by errors made in such a politicized climate. The BBC, CBS News and others have faced editorial crises and had to apologize for mistakes. There is a sense among many that the media are “a problem”, overly powerful, irresponsible and undermining democracy, intentionally or not.

With us or against us?

When, in one of the presidential debates in America, George Bush said “in all due respect, I’m not so sure it’s credible to quote leading news organizations about – oh, never mind”, he was reflecting an exasperation felt by many political leaders. The interim administration in Baghdad closed the office of al-Jazeera in order, it said, to “protect the people… and interests of Iraq” because the TV news channel was considered to be inciting violence. The following month – shortly after Russia’s government was criticized for withholding information about the siege in Beslan – Vladimir Putin demanded that journalists take a stance against terrorists so that news coverage did not help them meet their goals. While politicians and others question the legitimacy of some media activities, these attitudes, ranging from scepticism to hostility, can appear threatening to the traditional independence of news organizations.

The ubiquity of today’s media, driven by technology, means their voice is so strong that politicians cannot afford to ignore them. In the battle to win public opinion, political news management has become a science. If the media reject the narrative offered by the political machine, they are seen as opponents in the minds of many politicians: “You’re either with us or against us.” Politicization of the media and the intense attacks on them are a natural consequence. As one recent book argued, the media are now no longer functioning as an inquiring check on the excesses of the political class. Instead, they have become an alternative establishment, dedicated to a theatrical distrust of politicians and a calculated indifference to the real-life intricacies of world policy-making.

From the media’s perspective, of course, things are different. It has been the traditional role of the “fourth estate” to hold politicians to account, to ask the difficult questions, to be sceptical, to press for answers, to verify. They see it as their role to test the political narrative which they believe has often been shown to be unreliable – not least, for example, over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. There is no question that a free press can be politically hazardous.

On the morning of March 11, 2004, 10 bombs exploded on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring 2,000 others. With four days to go before the country’s general election, the ruling Popular Party claimed the attacks were the work of ETA, the Basque separatist movement. Within hours of the explosions, security experts were interviewed on international news channels including BBC World, all of whom agreed that, given the methodology of the bombers, ETA was unlikely to be to blame; ETA denied it. Investigators now believe an Islamic group linked to al-Qaeda was behind the attacks.

The bombings seem to have been an attempt to influence the election. The Spanish electorate turned on the government – partly because it was judged to have misled the public – rejecting the prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, and voting the opposition Socialist Party into power. The media questioned the narrative being offered by the government in the hours after the attack and established a more likely cause. This was endorsed by the electorate, with dramatic political consequences.

Voter turnout in both the Spanish and the American elections was some 10 percentage points higher than in 2000, reversing the trend of recent years and suggesting that when the stakes are high, the public engage and vote, their judgments formed by media coverage.

Whom to trust?

This was, of course, exceptional. Until this year, for many people in mature democracies politics seemed to have declining relevance to their lives. Public trust in both politicians and journalists has been falling. The growing consensus was that the media and politics combined to alienate many people. They would hear or see the sound bites, the false dichotomies, the theatre of political debate, and believe it to be fake. Research suggests most of the public aren’t at the extremes on most issues – they are somewhere in the middle. Media coverage of political debate strengthens divides, but most of the public prefer unity. They know their lives aren’t defined by black and white issues; there are shades of grey. So when they watch politicians on television, they don’t know whom to believe or trust. According to recent research, just one in 10 Americans thinks he or she can completely trust what news organizations are saying.

Information overload

Once, the news gave them clear information on which to base choices about their lives. Now they are so overwhelmed by information that news and politics only raise anxieties: the war on terror, climate change, wavering economies. The future holds fear. As a consequence, more and more people in developed countries are seeking refuge where they are comfortable, in communities, in the online communities of web-logs (“blogs”) or bulletin boards, in partisan news which affirms their own instincts, and so on. They are all sources of information which offer an emotional connection that traditional media or politics lack.

In the face of these and many other tensions, some have concluded that the media and politics are engaged in a mutually destructive embrace. I don’t agree. Let me give you, at the start of a new year, three reasons for optimism.

Reasons to be cheerful

First, politicians who believe they would be stronger with a subservient press are wrong. Such a world is no longer possible. The strongest democracies, and the strongest economies, are those where ideas flourish and debate is energetic. All media are now global. I can watch news channels from a dozen countries on satellite or cable, and read newspapers from around the globe on my computer. As the news agencies discovered with the invention of the telegraph 150 years ago, the information which travels best is that of the highest quality. The information economy is global – and the rules of the market will apply.

Second, news organizations which believe they can hold others to account without being accountable themselves are wrong. In the wake of errors, but more widely as well, it is recognized that to maintain public trust, news organizations must embrace the principle of transparency. A refusal to engage with customers or stakeholders can carry heavy penalties. A willingness to be open, responsive and accountable pays dividends.

Transparency is fast becoming as important as the content itself in the media’s relationship with the public.

Third, the democratization of the media – through blogging and other developments – acts as an alternative check on the interests of both politicians and big consolidated media companies. Internet web-logs have already proved effective at holding both politicians and news organizations to account. The blogging phenomenon cannot be ignored and will fast become multimedia. It will not take the place of conventional media. However, it will find its own place in the information ecology providing a voice for the alienated or disenfranchized, and encouraging civic participation.

We live in an unstable, complicated and divided world. The need for accurate, trusted news and information, and for open dialogue and communication is probably greater than it has ever been. The means to communicate is also greater than it has ever been. Accurate, objective news and information, which all sides can trust, provide a foundation stone of rational debate in a world that is too easily dominated by intolerance, hatred or the whims of opinion. Politicians, media and the public all share a long-term interest in sustaining that debate. After all, it’s good to talk.

Richard Sambrook
Richard Sambrook is director of the BBC’s World Service and Global News division.