Warren Foster
Warren Foster

From MyMedia to OurMedia

This piece began life as a response to Zukile Majova’s rather verbose entry on “National interest versus public interest“, but the more I wrote the more I found myself including my own definitions and/or interpretations to the debate. Eventually I decided that I should probably treat this as something more of my own verbose rant and not a response, specifically, to Majova’s argument. It might also just wind up being another diatribe on media in democracy. Let’s hop in and see …

I have this notion of democracy in my head. It’s idealistic and conceptually impossible. In my head I work with a periphery model with the ideal sitting (untouchable) in the centre and practices of governance bordering it at different lengths depending on just how democratic they are. If I had the wherewithal, I’d draw it up and paste it here. I’ve always accepted democracy to literally mean rule by the people.

Aristotle, I think it was, proposed that there are three kinds of governance:

1. Rule by all.
2. Rule by a few.
3. Rule by one.

Rule by all is what I’ll refer to here as true democracy and I’ll come around to describing how it works (or, rather, how it simply can’t work) in a few. Rule by a few is something along the lines of a small council deciding the needs of the many — what I refer to here as spartan rule. (And no, I didn’t draw that from 300, I knew how the Spartans did things long before that movie came along.) Rule by one alludes to the chiefdoms and kingdoms and pharaoh-doms that defer/ed to one man or woman as law- and policymaker.

Spartan rule and kingdom rule have for the most part been replaced by attempts at true democracy. I think this is because the disempowered masses would have realised that all men were created equal and that there is an unjustified elite making decisions for them. The apartheid government was kind of spartan in nature when you think about it.

True democracy is rule by the people/all: that means you have a say and your say is absolutely as valid as any other’s. Of course, this cannot be — as one person’s interest could fly directly in the face of another’s interest. So we compromise away from the ideal and accept that where there is conflict, the majority wins out. Abuse of this compromise, however, leads one far from the ideal. Remember, the ideal is still rule by all. If the demands of the majority are that a certain minority should be, for example, exiled from the state, we’ve clearly strayed further from the ideal than is necessary. It is not necessary precisely because we can attempt to represent the needs of all peoples proportionately.

Majova once stated (in the publication for which we both work) that proportional representation needed to be done away with. I wasn’t sure what he meant by this but imagine a fourth schema of governance not, I believe, considered by Aristotle: rule by the majority. It’s a hardy proposal. Not as easily toppled as autocracy (kingdom rule) or plutocracy (spartan rule) — yes, I wiki’d the proper terms — in terms of both physical action and legitimacy claims. But is it any more acceptable? Would it, for example, make the oppression of blacks in the American South under slavery (a minority) any more justified than the oppression of blacks here in South Africa under apartheid? I’m not posing the question rhetorically by the way. If you feel the act of oppression, or even empowerment, is legitimated by numbers — that may be a valid claim.

Did he just say what I think he said?? Yes, I believe so. You can’t, on one end of the spectrum, suggest that numbers are a deciding factor when it comes to oppression and not a factor when it comes to empowerment or vice versa. Before you go biting my head off, I support BEE, which (in principle) is about equality, which translates (in practice) into empowering the majority. If BEE were a principal of empowering the majority by virtue of it being a majority, I would be categorically opposed to it. Make sense?

It all comes down to the acceptance of people as equals. The second you have a system that does otherwise, you start to pick up on — for lack of a better word — moral quagmires. Anyone who embraces the idea that all people are equal should be on the same page as me. If you’re a supremacist of any sort, you probably lost me ages ago — don’t worry about it. We need to stick as closely to the ideal as we can in order to do what is right. Proportional representation is closer to this moral right than absolute majority rule is.

Where all democracies fall short is in the integrity of proportional representation. The media have a large part to play in that and this is where Majova and I are in agreement. The media are an important instrument to democracy for two reasons. They are s supposed to serve as a watchdog of the state and represent the voice of the people to those in government.

Majova sees the media as being irresponsible with the former (correct me if I’m wrong, comrade) and insufficient in the latter. I don’t know that I quite want to address the question of national and public interest directly here. I’m of the opinion that the two are inextricably linked (Steven Friedman’s piece on “Why our government’s business is our business” touches on the reasons I have for saying this, though he doesn’t work with those terms) and that much of Majova’s gripes are over the debate between “what is in the public interest” and “what the public is interested in”.

One thing Majova does, which I feel I must address directly, is derive a disturbing non sequitur. Regardless of how “irresponsible” the media are in attacking, for example, an official, I don’t see how he drew the inference that the attack occurred because the official is African and therefore considered inherently corrupt by the media. It’s a baseless statement and a dangerous one to make. He claims, in an intellectual space, something completely subjective as if it were fact. Hypocritically so, as that is exactly what he accuses elite media writers of doing.

Okay, I’ve digressed far enough from the original spirit of this rant. I was about to agree with Zukile about media representation. When one considers that we’re looking to stick as closely to the ideal as possible, you need a system wherein the media are accountable, first and foremost, to all citizens and then goes about representing the needs of citizens to the state.

The media are simply not participatory enough and consequently not representative enough. There are two factors, I think, that determine this: capital and access. Capital, because the media is a business and businesses cater to markets. Citizens, as actors in the state, are not to be confused with consumers, the actors under capitalism. Again, I think my point overlaps with Friedman’s to some degree. Markets are groupings of people whom corporations attempt to identify with; they’re mini stakeholders in that they keep the entity running. They’re never everyone, and in striving for true democracy, we need to include everyone.

Access refers to the citizen’s ability to participate in the media process. I believe the media should be a participatory arena. The stories we tell should not be our own. Ideally, we should hold the microphone out for others to speak, gathering as many voices as possible and then disseminate those ideas/complaints to our government. Where we pick on things going awry in the government’s handling of our affairs, the watchdog must not only snap them back into place, it must make sure everyone knows why.

Citizen journalism is widely criticised and I’m sure there are not many proponents of the idea out there. It’s a messy idea that nobody has really bothered to clean to my satisfaction yet. But I think it needs another look. And as technology progresses, more and more people are able to access the digital world (yes, even as the digital divide grows). Cellphones, for example, have become exponentially more pervasive in the past few years. Newspapers are encouraging readers to SMS story reactions, for printing, to their desks. This is already a step in the right direction and I would encourage that all media strive to develop more inclusive practices as we push towards the unattainable ideal.