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Media and twenty first century fake democracy

The ‘real’ fake news is not an exception to but the logical result of a market economy that privileges short-term rewards and commercial impact.

This image purportedly showing Ivanka Trump and Wendi Deng posing with Vladimir Putin is a digital fake. The original, showing them posing instead with film director Baz Luhrmann at a party in 2015, was taken by Hannah Thompson for Vogue.A free media and democracy are inseparable, or so we are told. A complex normative paraphernalia has emerged to describe the key responsibilities placed on media in the emergence and sustenance of democracy: as an independent watchdog and monitor of unchecked power, a tribune of the people, a defender of minorities, a fourth estate and a public sphere.

Free media are said to provide the oxygen, the lubrication or indeed the sinews of a fully functioning and robust democracy.

Yet in those liberal democracies of the west where this vocabulary is most deeply entrenched, we are seeing quite the opposite: a media that all too often preys on the vulnerable and bows down before the powerful; a media whose noble crusade for truth and justice has been replaced by a carnival of gossip and spectacle; a media that demonstrates a commitment to consumer, rather than popular sovereignty; a media that is no longer an outlier but a constitutive part of class rule; a media that has adopted the mantras of the free market rather than the difficult practices involved in ensuring free expression, political participation and democratic renewal.

One of the consequences of this degeneration has been a sharp decline in the media’s authority and legitimacy. In 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported that the media was distrusted in 82% of the 28 countries they surveyed and it had dropped to an all-time low in 17 of those countries. Traditional media showed the steepest fall. This collapse in trust is far from unique to the media and is related to the same backlash against entrenched interests that has also eaten into the credibility of neoliberal political parties and politicians. Given that the mainstream media are seen to be ever more closely entangled with elite power, so are they also implicated in the same mire of corruption and scandal.

Oversight?

For example, we now know that Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump are great friends. Murdoch was in the room when Trump gave his first foreign interview to a UK journalist. Trump’s daughter Ivanka was a trustee of the nearly $300 million fortune Murdoch set aside for the children he had with his third wife, Wendi Deng. She rescinded this role before her father’s inauguration but significantly after Election Day. This resonates with similar power entanglements in the UK where the closeness of the relationship between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch came to light when Wendi Deng revealed that Blair was godfather to one of their children.

The Murdoch-Trump relationship is proving problematic even for journalists at the Wall Street Journal – owned by Murdoch’s News Corp – many of whom believe that the newspaper has held back from more aggressively covering Donald Trump, they suspect, under pressure from Murdoch. This is a media marked by commerce, complicity and caution rather than critique, creativity and a journalism of conscience.

This collusion is not incidental to but intertwined with liberal capitalism of which our mainstream media industries are very much a part: a media where editors and top politicians dine at the same tables, are educated at the same institutions and share many of the same corporate values and ideological agendas; a media that is disaggregated in theory but centralized in practice; a media where the tools may be open source but the where the most powerful networks remain closed. This is a media marked by commerce, complicity and caution rather than critique, creativity and a journalism of conscience. It is not a media that offers us meaningful oversight over the powerful or adequate representation of the conflicts that make up public life.

The collapse in trust, however, goes deeper even than the sordid entanglement between media and political elites. While so much of today’s political journalism promotes a narrow and neoliberal ‘conventional wisdom’, parliamentary democracy itself appears increasingly distant from the lives of ordinary people, while across Europe it has also presided over devastating programmes of privatization, financialisation and deregulation. We are now left with the consequences of a politics of austerity: high levels of personal debt, in-work poverty, precarity and massive inequality.

‘Earthquakes’

These are the conditions in which a series of political ‘earthquakes’ have taken place across the world: the collapse of the main parties in the French presidential elections of 2017, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of the anti-austerity politics of Jeremy Corbyn and the decision taken by UK voters in 2016 to leave the European Union.  These events have many derivations – nationalism and racism on the one hand but also the fury and despair of marginalised voices who have used these opportunities to kick back against a post-war party system that has failed them and a professional political elite that has largely ignored them.  

Our elite media tell us that one of the main reasons for these ‘irrational’ acts is that we are surrounded by ‘fake news’ perpetuated by groups on both the left and the right – the ‘guerilla warfare’ referred to by the BBC journalist Nick Robinson in a recent lecture. But the ‘real’ fake news – information deliberately circulated online in order to deceive audiences – is not an exception to but the logical result of a market economy that privileges short-term rewards and commercial impact.

While fake news more generally is far from a new phenomenon, the rise of programmatic advertising and the domination of attention by Google and Facebook – hardly peripheral developments but part of a structural readjustment of the media – have only intensified these market distortions. Popularity, volume, consumption, sales and entertainment dictate the form and content of the internet just as they dictate much of the form and content of commercial media.

Fake democracy

The central issue for us, however, is not that we are suddenly surrounded by ‘fake news’ but that we have been living with fake democracy. A democratic facade that promises much but delivers little. It has promised popular rule and self-governance through market exchanges and constitutional guarantees but instead we have a shrink-wrapped democracy that celebrates only the most pallid forms of participation and engagement with all political nutrients removed. The problem is that elite media institutions … rely on the same personnel, the same evangelical belief in algorithms and the same agendas that failed dismally.

So we are now facing a new democratic fakery in which elite media institutions – from the BBC and the New York Times to Google and Facebook – are using the crisis posed by the growth of anti-establishment politics to argue that only they are capable of sustaining a consensual, rational and credible information ecology that can expose ‘fake news’ and protect ‘established truths’.

The problem is that they intend to achieve this by relying on the same personnel, the same evangelical belief in algorithms and the same agendas that failed dismally in their democratic responsibilities (not least in the case of the British press, by refusing independent and effective regulation), that are intimately connected to the neoliberal order.

Attempts to construct a reassuring narrative that contrasts ‘professional journalism’ (based on ethical responsibility and impartiality) with ‘fake news’ (anything that departs from established protocols) are somewhat disingenuous. What we are seeing are powerful media interests conducting a propaganda campaign designed to suggest that only they can be trusted with safeguarding freedom of expression and a commitment to truth, and that only they can be guaranteed to preserve democratic rights. Yet while we desperately need a journalism that is both fearless and rigorous, we have no reason to believe that the existing professional model is capable of delivering it. The interactive and decentralized affordances of digital media ought to make this easier to achieve – but only if they are freed from the same structures of controlling state and profit-maximizing market that have distorted and undermined previous communication ‘revolutions’. Leveson 2 must go ahead.

Instead we need to continue to challenge some of the most obvious abuses of media power – to oppose further media concentration, to expose corruption in media systems (Leveson 2 must go ahead), to insist on independent and effective regulation of the press and to resist the stereotypes and distortions that seek to normalize austerity, racism and militarism – and then to provide an alternative to the crumbling consensus of centrist voices.

But we also need to figure out how to turn the anger and militancy that we see reflected in the votes for Corbyn and Sanders or in the protests against Trump and the Spanish state into progressive projects: projects in which truth-telling and communicative capacity emerge from the bottom up and not through paternalistic diktat or pure market exchange.

A democratic media is going to need a mass movement for real democracy … and that may well be on its way.

About the authors

Natalie Fenton is a Professor in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre and Co-Director of Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy. Her most recent book is Digital, Political, Radical (2016). She is on the Board of Directors of the campaign group Hacked Off and a founding member of the Media Reform Coalition.

Des Freedman (@lazebnicis Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).

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