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Noeline Gannaway

In discussing media and democracy, Leo Bogart notes that although the invention of printing is linked historically with the rise of democratic theory and practice, this does not mean that the mass media inherently serves democracy. In today's world, media are vulnerable to manipulation by political authorities and economic forces. They are not inevitably an agent of democracy. The strength and sophistication of national mass communications systems reflect the overall state of economic and technological development. But even in wealthy, literate democracies access to information is not universal. Patterns of media consumption and political participation differ enormously for various incomes and social classes. Thus even in open societies poverty and illiteracy can be barriers to media experience.

Media power is political power. According to totalitarian doctrine, the media's function is to guide the masses. But more common today than overt censorship by dictatorships is media conformity to fit official expectations. The sheer number of media voices is not a reliable indicator of a society's level of freedom. In many democracies media ownership has reached what could be considered as dangerous levels of concentration. Links between political leaders and those who own the organs of mass communication are disquieting. In the UK, for example, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation owns 37 per cent of the daily newspapers. And in the US 75 per cent of newspapers are now owned by corporate chains. Gene Roberts noted in 1995 that four chief executives controlled more than one fifth of America's dailies.

Chains and groups say they don't interfere with local coverage; they simply insist that each paper return an 'acceptable' level of profit even when the economy is bad or newsprint prices rise. But Mark Fitzgerald reports that readership of the larger US papers continues to decline, as high newsprint prices have brought price increases, less discounting and smaller distribution areas.

Today production efficiencies have been made on most papers and there is more competition for the advertising dollar. Too often the trend is to reduce newsroom staff, budgets and news space. Profits are pursued and news shaped accordingly, often to the neglect of less sensational 'incremental' news coverage such as the passage of government legislation. Yet surprisingly this part of the news fills a basic need of democracy.

It is impossible to separate the various media in advanced industrial countries from their enormous advertising base. The companies that provide the advertising revenues that now sustain most mass media have a stake in the established economic and political order. The resulting conservatism refutes the notion that media inherently serve democracy. Advertising does, however, introduce a constantly changing array of fresh images into everyday life and in this respect it fosters democracy. Thus market forces can both expand and diminish the democratic potential of the media.

Mass media can support democracy only through information and ideas but most media content - especially in audio-visual content - is dedicated to entertainment. According to Leo Bogart, this entertainment cannot be categorised as non-political. He claims it is anti-political because it deflects public time and attention away from real-world matters that have political implications.

The media system is steadily more international in scope and control, with influence flowing overwhelmingly from west to east (north to south). Audience demand for greater choice has forced state broadcasting authorities to open up more channels, and monopolies to give way to private owners. While this may in a small way facilitate the spread of democratic values, it can lead to the neglect of indigenous cultures. Imported entertainment carries a political message in so far as it represents exposure to different values, modes of behaviour and living standards. Its effect may be disruptive in traditional societies.

Unlike entertainment, news reinforces connections between the individual and the surrounding society. Pre-election polls and other opinion surveys have evolved this century to become a leading ingredient of the news. Bogart comments that, whereas Americans used to read the newspaper to help them form their opinions, now newspapers and television tell them what their opinions are. This raises new questions about the relationship of the media to democracy. At worst, media have made polls a subject of frivolous entertainment, diverting coverage of election campaigns away from responsible reporting of debate to tracking who's ahead.

With the growth of electronic services, the Internet has - among the computer literate - created a new sense of community, as computer-linked interest groups form and multiply. But any new media is open to abuse and can undermine democratic order as well as enhance it.

Does the power of the media mean loss of policy control on the part of policy-makers? How much influence does the 24-hour cable news network really have on US foreign policy? Warren P. Strobel reports that despite incidents that might indicate a 'CNN Effect', a growing body of research is casting doubt on the notion that CNN in particular, or Television in general, determines foreign policy. The images of strife and horror abroad that are displayed help foreign policy officials to explain the need for US intervention. Officials, in turn, may advise broadcasters on desired policy angles. The struggle between reporters and officials continues as before - just at a faster pace.

Trends in modern technology seem to support the view of Jeremy Rifkin - presented in his book The End of Work - that we are moving out of the Industrial Age into the Information Age in which schools, the work force and society itself face major changes. While automated manufacturing will inevitably reduce the need for factory workers, the role of the media may well expand. Rifkin estimates, however, that fewer than 20 percent of the next generation will be needed in the knowledge sector. The children we are training for cyberspace and computer literacy will not necessarily find employment. It is important, then, that education should include service learning. The next generation will learn to see social capital as every bit as important as market capital. Rifkin advocates a shorter working week so that the productivity gains of the Information Age can be shared with the largest possible number of people. Even so, the Information Age is likely to free up millions of people for work outside the market place.

In a society where market sector, public sector and civil sector are in balance, the media may come to play a larger role in community service.

Noeline Gannaway is a researcher for the Pacific Institute of Resource Management.

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