There is a fascinating story in this week's edition of The Economist ('Calling the shots' May 3rd 2008 page 72). It is about the media in India. Apparently, some top Indian newspapers are signing 'private treaties' with businesses. According to the story, the newspapers accept payment for ads in the form of shares in the advertiser's firm. The magazines very legitimate concern is that this increasingly popular practice is exposing Indian newspapers to growing conflict of interest... The magazine also quotes an India media activist , Sevanti Ninan, and he says this practice will "grow and grow in a media which anyway has little notion of conflict of interest." The great danger in a situation like that is that headlines will be bought and paid for without the public knowing who is doing the paying. The integrity of the newspapers in question will be greatly damaged if this is revealed, but the real problem is that the public will not know the truth and public opinion will be manipulated by hidden puppet masters.
We need to start with fundamentals here. People like me argue all the time that the news media are a force for good governance. We argue that the news media play three fundamental roles summed up beautifully by Pippa Norris of Harvard as follows:
- Agenda setter, that is, helping to set the public agenda: what issues are important for our political community to focus on and deal with?
- Civic forum, that is, a forum for public debate and dialogue on the key issues of the day, leading - one would hope - to the emergence of informed, considered public opinion on the great questions of the day.
- Watchdog, that is, watching those in power or other powerful forces in society, and barking furiously once transgressions against the public interest occur. (See: The role of the free press in promoting democratization, good governance, and human development by Pippa Norris.)
In fact, CommGAP and Professor Norris and the Kennedy School of Government will be examining these issues in detail at a workshop later this month.
Now, the focus of the worldwide struggle for press freedom has been to stop government control of the news media . This is important work; and it has led to the rise of more media systems that are free of state control, and are plural and independent. But corporate control of the media is not without its problems. There are many countries today where people are rightly worried about the concentration of media ownership in a few hands. Or, as in the India story, there are many places where certain businesses threaten the integrity of news coverage and editorial comment. And these situations perturb people for the simple reason that once certain forces dominate the news media it hampers the ability of the news media to serve the public interest. Suddenly, the bulldog grows an invisible collar, an invisible chain, and invisible handlers. Who needs that?
The upshot of these comments is this: improving the media system in your country so that it better serves the public interest is a task that never ends. It should always be a part of efforts to improve the quality of governance (including accountability). Big business needs to be held accountable as well. The crusade is not simply about ending government country of the news media.
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