. . . for my kids. . . and good friends

getting angry . . .

In the mid noughties I went back to university, to take a master's degree in Social Development. Partly it reflected my change of direction away from pure journalism, but it was also about putting things in focus. I had a great time, was re-politicised and I produced a dissertation (in March 2007) that remains important to me!  

 Free Media are Essential for Development; can they exist?  An examination of the relationship between media and development in a globalising world.

The key 'text' for this dissertation, which is a rather grand description of eleven words, comes from a former President of the World Bank; "A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development" (1999). They appeared in an article in the International Herald Tribune: "Poor Countries must have a Free Press" by James D. Wolfensohn:  

"A free press is not a luxury. . . if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus to bring about change."

It put on paper the jumbled thoughts I'd been trying to organise for the previous five years, since becoming involved in the mid 1990s with the European Union's Med Media programme, working with the media on the 'other side' of the Mediterranean. It was an interesting change from being a BBC political journalist, broadcaster and manager; and a challenge.

We created Jemstone (Journalism in the Euro-Med region, Strategy, Training, Organisation and NEtworks) and got on with it; beset by more and more questions about the role of media in development, as we took 'our project', based by then in Jordan, across the Arab world from Morocco to Yemen and beyond, into Ethiopia, Malaysia, Macedonia and Iraq. Here, from an uncontestable source (or so it seemed at the time) were some answers.

I brought to the quest, as I have only recently discovered, something more or less unique. Serious experience in both media and development.

The terms I use need some explanation: 'good' journalism or journalist or media; and 'good' development. They sound a bit wishy-washy. But the other, more potent words have already been commandeered or colonised, often with the best of intentions but now they mean something else. Free media and independent media beg more questions than they answer; free from what and to do what, independent is similar; and neither of them need be good media, in any sense. Human development, sustainable or not, people-centred, equitable, 'development as freedom'; they are not easy or unambiguous either.

So 'good' it is; it has an honourable pedigree, having already been chosen by one of my development heroes; Robert Chambers talks powerfully of 'good' change and we all know what he means. And one of the most impressive journalistic thinkers, Ian Hargreaves, refers often and uncomplicatedly to good journalism. I use the term to answer the question 'in whose interests?' (the people as a whole) and I think it contains enough 'disinterestedness' to prevent it becoming obsessively, off-puttingly pro-poor, while not, I hope, losing the passion necessary to achieve change.

There is no direct relationship between media and development, though the first is probably necessary for the second, if they mean what Wolfensohn intended them to mean. The link between the two runs through those with power over the development decisions; and the basis on which they take them; what are they trying to do. Put it simply, whatever their good intentions, without constant reminding they will not spend development money maximally to benefit the poor and society as a whole, unless there is a real cost of ignoring the people -- like being voted out of power. Even then, in sclerotic societies, the power of entrenched vested interests cannot be resisted, unless they are rooted out regularly and ruthlessly.

However, the resistance of the media is starting to look as fragile as a venal politician's. The twin-track approach of weakening the journalism by demanding too much, too often and too fast and offering too little reward or support for quality in return, coupled with lashings of junk news, is sapping the resolve of dedicated hacks, let alone zap-happy viewers and web-site browsers. 

As the journalism deteriorates, the media world takes over from reality. Politics these days is media politics; negative publicity and character assassination are effective and the tricks of internet lobbying and campaigning have been learned by the neo-liberal victims of Seattle. If it comes to a battle of quacking and puffery for media attention there can only ever be one winner and it's not the poor or dispossessed. But we have no God-given or any other right to survive; ask the woolly mammoths! And the watchdogs have been castrated; no free media, no timely warnings.

Whether it's qualitatively different from anything that's gone before I'm not sure. There are comforting precedents for altruism and good sense; the slave-trade was abolished, the national health service established. And multi-national corporations have been tamed occasionally by threatening their most valuable possession -- their reputation. Even if people can't vote they can 'not buy'; global boycotts to restrain global hooligans.

The real arena is still the nation-state; there are no global levers of power, all the big decisions are taken in Washington, or New York or Brussels or London, etc -- that's where they are influenced too. And that's what good media should be doing. Where-ever power is wielded, media should be watching and reporting back to those who should be active participants in the decisions, on whose behalf they're being taken; and if they can't be present themselves their interests need to be protected by their journalists.

However, if media are that important would those enjoying power today willingly hand over control of them? Or even allow control to be shared? The conclusions are brutal. Either free media exist and are sustainable and valued or the freedom to establish them has to be taken. And we're not talking about worthy workshops by tired old Western journalists. This is not for the faint hearted but the battle really matters. It's about core issues. If trust dies, what's left? What chance good development then, without good media; who will protect the poor of the fourth world or on the margins of the rich cities if no-one knows they're there and no-one enables their voices to be heard. What sort of a world is that? Good media are essential.

Any simple conclusion that working hard to create good media will automatically produce or even encourage or enable over time good development is immediately blown away by what's happened in the real world. All the evidence suggests that good media are at best an endangered species and more likely an inevitable casualty of the world we are creating. This seems to hold true for developed, fairly equitable societies so the prospects for poorer, more divided ones look worse still. Any hopes that new technology offers an encouraging alternative are not supported by recent developments. At best it will be an ongoing struggle, with the forces that dominate existing media likely to prevail, certainly if new media become sufficiently influential to threaten the status quo.

NB         this is an edited and abridged version of the introduction to my dissertation; if anyone wants to read the whole thing, then click here!



Last Updated on Monday, 07 January 2013 15:43  

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