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Precious common property

by Hans Dembowski
Where a deal between two parties impacts on a third, economists speak of an external effect. Viewed in this light, the shaping of public opinion thanks to independent media is ultimately no more than a welcome side-effect of market transactions. Diverse and controversial views are discussed in the public domain thanks to media companies, after all; and they finance their operations with advertising and sales revenues and only rarely through state-controlled licence fees.

The global economic crisis will affect democracy in many countries where it has been budding in recent years. And that will happen even without populist demagogues. As revenues slump, media companies have to reduce their coverage. This is a business problem with far-reaching political consequences.

In recent years, the media landscape of Africa and other poor regions of the world blossomed due to two factors. First, political freedom came to many countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Second, the global economic upswing poured money into the coffers of publishers, broadcasters and other media enterprises, largely – but not only – thanks to advertising. As a result, the range of media products increased, and in many cases so did their quality. In a positive feed-back, that trend reinforced democratisation.

It is well understood that civil society needs to be heard. Social and economic progress cannot be sustained without the widespread participation of the people. In many African countries, it has become evident in recent years that it is critical that the media express public grievances as well as political demands. Committed members of civil society need the sounding board of the media – and competent reporting can encourage civic engagement. Where the media are weak, civil society will hardly have much political influence.

Obviously, the new interactive fora of the internet and mobile telephony are also politically stimulating. But the new diversity must not obscure the fact that fundamental requirements for journalism must still be met. That is not always the case.

Editors need independence to assess news and views. In other words, they must be safe from reprisals and be paid so well that they do not readily succumb to corruption. Sound reporting always requires careful research of the facts, caution in dealing with sources and an ability to relate to the target audience.

Effective democratic decision making depends on journalists managing to convey complex political issues – from global trade and climate protection to the causes of wars or financial crises. But let’s not forget that achieving such goals is not necessarily the core interest of a media company. Circulation figures, ratings and clicks can also be boosted by tabloid tactics and cheap entertainment – and often more easily so.

The public sphere is precious common property. It needs to be nurtured. Education matters, because journalists need professional training, and all youngsters should learn in school how to tell reliable quality media from mere entertainment or tabloid sensationalism. Of course, there are other means to support the media too. Tax breaks are an option. One thing is certain, how­ever: the public sphere will not thrive as a mere external effect of market dynamics – and certainly not in a global economic crisis.