07 October 2010

The Aftican National Congress raises the media issue: should we?

The ruling party of South Africa, the African National Congress (AFC), is alarming many South Africans by proposing legislation that would restrict the media. The alarm is justified. It's justified when any government starts talking about restricting the media and perhaps even more so with African governments. They have not been known for their commitment to the basic freedoms.

Nonetheless, a debate about the mass media is overdue in this country as well, at the very least to consider the question "Is ownership of the daily press, the major public forum in a modern society, by a small group of corporations and oligarchs compatible with a healthy democracy?" These owners have their own agenda which often subverts the public interest, an agenda that leads to many critical questions lacking full and proper discussion. The corporate press either isn't interested or would rather not have the discussion at all.

The first question that springs to mine is, "Who should own the public forums in a democracy?" In the democracy of ancient Athens, there were two public forums, the Assembly and the marketplace. Every citizen could go to either, and hear and debate the news of the day. These forums were owned and controlled by the citizens. In our society, the major public forum, the daily press, is owned by one tiny special interest group. This group quite naturally has little interest in a debate about its control of public discourse.

Another critical question is "What is the appropriate level of taxes for the kind of society Canadians want?" The daily press, faithfully following the agenda of their corporate colleagues, want taxes to go only down. They persistently indoctrinate us in this policy and appear to be having considerable success. A proper debate is long overdue, but again this is a debate the corporate sector would rather not have.

Then there's the question of environmental responsibility, particularly in regard to energy and climate change. The daily press took a long time to open a discussion and then only with reluctance. When 97 per cent of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and we are causing it, the shape of the discussion should be clear, but you'd never know that from reading the daily press. Science deniers have a far greater say than the three per cent they deserve, but we can hardly be surprised when massive corporate interests oppose dealing sensibly with climate change.

So the African National Congress is right at least in insisting that governments should concern themselves with the media. Indeed, I would go so far as to say governments have a responsibility to ensure that citizens are well-informed and discussions of issues are thorough. What could be more important in a democracy? But the AFC is very wrong if it believes the answer to media bias or excess is to restrict speech. The answer is to ensure that the media include a full complement of news and a full range of opinion that emphasizes the reality of issues not the promotion of special interests.

In Canada, this would require a left-wing press to counter the current corporate dominance. Unfortunately, nobody on the left has the kind of money it takes to own daily newspapers. We could perhaps complement the CBC, our only independent mass medium, with a national, daily newspaper owned by all of us. It would be a start. No doubt there are other worthy ideas out there.

But first we need the debate. With the owners of our major public forum uninterested or even adverse to the idea, it would be useful for one of our national parties to follow the lead of the African National Congress and get it started.

I will watch closely to see where the current debate within the AFC leads South Africa.

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