Is it true that the news media - when free, plural and independent - promote effective, responsive and accountable governance? Working with Professor Pippa Norris of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, CommGAP has produced a major study making the case for Yes as rigorously as we can. That study is now being prepared for the printers, and should be available soon. Yet there are times when I think; why do we need to go to great lengths to make what should be an obvious point?
And it reminds me of a point I made to a government Minister once. I said to him: the greatest compliment to the potential of the news media to promote good governance is paid daily by authoritarian regimes everywhere who always seek to muzzle the press. For, if an independent news media were not a potent force for accountability why are these regimes so afraid of having one? Okay, the compliment is a back-handed one but it is a compliment nonetheless.
What I did not say to that Minister is what I now add: that the real compliment is being paid to the power of public opinion. When authoritarian regimes muzzle the news media the real target is domestic public opinion. These regimes are afraid of what informed public might mean for regime survival. For, they don't need PhDs in political philosophy to figure out that public opinion is the basis of power and legitimacy, a point made here only last week via Hannah Arendt. It is point we have also made here in the past via David Hume, the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment.
We have regimes around the world who seem to believe that if their citizens were to really know what is going on, and could engage in open debate and discussion about government, about public affairs, goodness, that would be really dangerous....really dangerous! That is why I believe that the greatest argument for efforts to make the news media independent and plural everywhere we can is the determination of unaccountable regimes to muzzle the media. We should always remember that it is not the media they seek to keep down. It is their own citizens.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Terje S. Skjerdal