In most of the post-industrial democracies of the global north there is a growing worry about the fate of newspapers. Many are dying or in trouble, including some venerable titles. Agonizing essays are being written about all this, and the issue is dominating more and more seminars on the future of democracy.
The power of public opinion is the power of ordinary citizens; it is the power of aware, engaged multitudes. And there is a way of understanding the spectacular events of 2008 in terms of the power of public opinion. Let's take just a few.
1. The first is the crisis in financial markets and the global economy. Whatever technical experts eventually decide to be the origins of the crisis, there is no doubt that public opinion has played a role in intensifying the crisis. It has done so through the collapse of public confidence in financial institutions generally. For what is 'confidence' but the opinion widely shared that the financial system is sound and your savings and investments are safe? That collapsed in so much of the world in 2008, beginning in the United States. There is no doubt that restoring 'confidence' will be crucial to ending the crisis; that means, recreating majority opinion in the stability and secure management of the global financial system.
One can be forgiven for suggesting that the South African Broadcasting Corporation is a microcosm of South Africa’s changing political landscape. In a way, this correlation between politics and state broadcasting has always been the ‘curse’ of the SABC, the legally sanctioned provider of public service broadcasting in the country. Prior to the ‘blessing’ of the multiparty democratic elections of 1994, the ruling National Party used the state broadcaster to inculcate the ideology of apartheid or racial separatism. 14 years after ushering in a multiparty dispensation, there is a sense of political déjà vu in the operations of the SABC.
The operational chaos being witnessed at the SABC is indicative of the fast changing political terrain in South Africa. Under the SABC Charter, the SABC is governed by a board of directors. Board nominees are vetted by a relevant portfolio committee of Parliament.
It was a hectic time for human rights last week here in Paris because of the many initiatives to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed on 10 December 1948 in this very town, at Palais de Chaillot. And it was hectic here at UNESCO’s HQ as well, which among many initiatives opened its doors to the last living witness of the Declaration’s drafting group, lawyer Stéphane Hessel awarded with the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize.
But working myself in the “Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace Division”, of course my focus was on the Declaration’s Article 19, the right of every individual to “freely seek, receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers”. A perfect formulation by those wise drafters Mr Hessel was part of. And a forward-looking one if we think that the wording “through any media and regardless of frontiers” was conceived in the aftermath of WWII, but it is even more of appropriate nowadays in the age of the Internet. Let’s repeat it once again: “freely seek, receive and impart information” - that is to say the essential prerequisite for two-way flow of information among public sphere’s three sectors: the media, the civil society and the State.
As some of you will know, there are these spectacular palaces around the global north where 'quiet seminars' regularly take place, usually over the weekend. I call them quiet because they are not advertised or broadcast, and they usually involve influential players; above all, no participant gets quoted. Ditchley Park, just outside Oxford, in the United Kingdom is one of these spectacular settings. It is the seat of The Ditchley Foundation. Established by Sir David Mills in 1958, the Foundation brings together experts from around the world to discuss key international challenges/issues.
And so it came to pass that during the weekend of December 4-6 I joined others for a conference on Media and Democracy. It was first rate, and I learned a great deal. However, rather than give my personal impressions, I will yield to the voice of the current Director of Ditchley, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. I don't think I can improve on his masterly summary of the weekend. At the end, you will find the list of participants. Here goes:
Development economists used to argue that elections were THE best instruments of accountability. But events have overtaken that idea and now there are many, including Oxford economist Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, who are focusing on the limitations of elections: “If you have an uninformed citizenry,” Collier says, “elections just won’t work.”
Once articulated, it makes sense that the sine qua non of good government and economic development is an informed society. And on the face of it, getting critical news and information out to citizens should be an easier and easier task in today’s digitalized, networked and hand-held world. But Collier and others note that most media—across regions and on any platform: print, radio, TV or online—aren’t interested in serving the public good, because “there is no finance to that public-good role. Indeed far from there being finance for it,” says Collier, “there is actually a hostile environment to it….”
Communicating change is a specialist field. PR and HR companies charge a small fortune for seminars on the subject. Whilst corporate and government communicators wrestle to understand how they might persuade colleagues that important, imminent, organisational changes are good for them - so that they can achieve that all important "buy-in" which leads to the shiny path of success - organisatio
In certain circles, democratic governance is seen as something of a luxury in the developing world. What people really need are the basics: shelter, food, livelihoods, etc., the argument goes. Yet what frequently goes unsaid is the importance of democratic institutions and practices to such basics. Nowhere is this more apparent than during public health crises.
A notable new initiative in development training has recently been undertaken by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In October the Foundation released a request for proposals to establish Masters in Development Practice (MDP) programs worldwide. This RFP is the outcome of a year long effort by the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, established in early 2007, also supported by the MacArthur Foundation. The aim of the Commission was to identify the core disciplines and areas of expertise needed to develop a global network for interdisciplinary training in sustainable development.
In the birthplace of democracy will be discussed the strengthening of a bastion of democracy. The 2008 Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) will be held in Athens, Greece, next week and will draw hundreds of people from around the world who promote, study, and work in the med