In June 2007, just a few days before he left office, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech on the relationship between government and the news media. Speaking to Reuters news agency, he diagnosed the relationship between politics and the media to be in tatters. He made his position rather clear: The media "is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits." He said that reporting is driven by sensationalism, the need to attack and to exaggerate. Commentary, he maintained, is now at least as important as actual news. In fact, it is often indistinguishable from the news.
This is more than a Western politician complaining about inconvenient coverage. Sheila Coronel calls this the "watchdog's dark side." Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord talk about watchdog journalism as part of the "politics of permanent scandal." The dark side of watchdog journalism does not contribute to improving government. Rather, it feeds cynicism toward politics - not helpful even in the most established democracy. On the other hand, as Tumber and Waisbord point out, watchdog journalism in developing countries successfully contributed to holding corrupt politicians accountable. A strong investigative press is often a crucial aspect in bringing about democratic reform. Coronel suggests that watchdog reporting serves democracy because it keeps alive the belief that someone guards the public interest: "it sustains the belief among both journalists and citizens that exposure and vigilance can check the abuses of power. It keeps the faith."
Where does this leave Tony Blair? Not entirely in the wrong. What if a free media is not a watchdog guarding citizens' rights, but a "feral beast," sinking its teeth into any politician's throat? Legislation providing for a free press is not sufficient to establish a democratic press. The media itself must be accountable for its own actions. Journalists must know that their first duty is toward the public, not toward their shareholders. Codes of conduct and a sufficient degree of self-regulation must be in place, preventing media frenzy that may result in biased reporting, disregard of facts, or plain disregard of the public. Media assistance donors are aware of that and provide journalism training to promote, among other objectives, professional ethics. For instance, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), UNESCO, and Internews support the establishment of press councils and professional codes to strengthen the media's ability to self-regulate.
"At present, we are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact," Blair stated toward the end of his remarkable speech. There is no doubt that democracy needs a free and independent media system. But upholding freedom of the press comes with a subscription to another democratic value: balance.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Joe Thorn