Media and Politics

High-Level Expert Group Meeting

24 April 1997 

Vienna, Austria

Chaired by Andries van Agt 

A group of eminent politicians, members of the InterAction Council and top-ranking journalists from different regions in the world discussed their relationship, their responsibilities, their interdependencies. To what extent should the two sides consider their functions as complementary and seek to cooperate, and to what extent are they naturally in confrontation? Politicians want to be elected, journalists want readers, viewers and want to sell papers and programs. The market of curiosities may not be the same as public interest.

There seems to be a major difference in experience and perception of the media in different regions of the world. The media in the USA and their realm of media-culture within the western world can be looked upon as (a) system that used to play two roles:

a. informing the public so that a common conversation can take place;

b. being the adversarial ''fourth estate'' checking political power with objective and balanced information.

However, the first role has nearly been pushed aside in favour of tabloid sensationalism. This is a result of a number of related causes, chief among them being the transition form of a responsible press in a market economy to a frivolous press in the mass consumer market of post-modern culture. In this new culture, where images have supplanted ideas in the social discourse, celebrities have replaced authorities as the central figures, in part due to the protracted derision of authority by the media. But this erosion of a responsible press is also a result of the commercial imperatives of an overcrowded media market. When America was founded, the early New England newspapers published irregularly, sometimes bi-weekly, sometimes monthly, because they published only when there was news. Now, with CNN-type 24-hour news coverage and 2,000 accredited White House correspondents, news must be reported even when there isn't any. And, because the number of media outlets has grown so large, you have to be sensational to break out of the pack, to be noticed, to compete competition drives sensationalism as media becomes the core business of post-modern societies.

Without that old kind of balance in the function of the media, one effect is that the citizenry becomes de-politicised and disinterested in political life. Politics is just another episode of vain wrangling of personalities.

There is a general feeling that the media, especially in the U.S., are too negative. They put a premium on finding out what's wrong, but don't often tell the full story about what government does that is right. This negativity also applies to coverage of other major institutions, such as religion, education, the economy and business. Media should be watch dogs who bark when something is wrong. Instead they have become attack dogs ''who go for your leg and try for more.''

The media have too much attitude and a know-it-all sensibility instead of reporting facts and devoting themselves to exhaustive research. This trend is accelerated by celebrity journalism, in which the glib and the provocative are rewarded with TV appearances and big lecture fees.

Media rush to judgement about people, trends and events. They are pushed into dynamic by the velocity of the news cycle, in which breaking stories are covered instantaneously by television. They misunderstand the public need by pushing ourselves to find ''insight scoops'' that are unjustified and premature instead of providing basic information and letting people make their own decisions in evaluating it. Journalistic analysis is valuable and necessary in today's complex world, but some media are pushing it to a troublesome new level.

Two questions were asked during the meeting: What do politicians expect from journalists? And: What do journalist expect from politicians? A third question must be: What can the public expect from both?

Both should be servants of the public. It is this service that justifies the special privileges they enjoy - e.g. the obligation of the government and the administration to secure the media's access to information. While there might be an extremely adversarial relationship between politics and the press in the United States after Watergate and Vietnam, in many parts of the world the problem is, on the contrary, too close a relationship. In parts of the world, politicians and journalists are living and working together very closely, making independent reporting difficult. The press usually knows much more than it reports. Information is spread in background circles with the understanding that it cannot be used. Or it is leaked to media friendly to either the government or to the opposition. The real problem then, is not confrontation but collusion.

Both must be avoided. In order to serve the public well, politicians and journalists must communicate professionally. They should keep a certain distance, allowing the press to report independently and without bias. Democracy has neither room for political favouritism nor for a partisan press.

At the same time in Asia, there is a stronger emphasis on the problems that politicians and parts of society still cause towards the media as far as their basic functions are concerned: informing the public and checking political power. Too often, media there are perceived as obedient lap-dogs of political power. There seems to be ''not enough adversarial relationship between media and politics'' there.

At the same token, countries in Asia or Latin America seem to rely too much on U.S.-agencies for the coverage of their regions which blurs the attitude of responsibility as well.

For politicians, it is disturbing to notice that the media are led by commercialism, by the need to be sensational --''infocracy'' as one called it -- or by a journalist's desire for political influence or even power instead of a desire to serve the public by informing. From the political perspective, what is missing is ''good news'' in the media, a clear advocacy of public affairs by journalists, a lack of transparent rules of ethics within the trade (regarding fair reporting, respect of privacy, matters of taste and style, etc.). Also lacking is a clear standard for fair reporting and for professional criticism.

The High-level Group agreed upon the inevitability of natural tension between the media and politics.

At the same token, it would be difficult and undesirable to look for a common denominator in all regions of the world as to guide the relationships between the political system and the different sort of media (quality press, tabloids, TV, etc.). The responsibility for responsible behaviour and ethical standards should stay a matter of self-regulation. Censorship is ruled out.

Independence for media is essential, self-restraint and responsible behaviour adds to self-respect and to credibility. Decommercialisation of the media would be counterproductive in general, since it undermines authority, credibility and the like. (''Commercial press is the worst, except for all the others'' as it was phrased). General rules for responsible behaviour, enforced by outside authority, were in general rejected as counterproductive. On the other hand, references were made to institutions like Press Ombudsman and Media Councils where rules of conduct could be challenged, discussed and changed and where journalists could be challenged with respect to accountability, accuracy and so on.

As a suggestion, the Group dwelled upon the idea to emphasise education and training in order to prepare a new generation for dealing with the modern bombardment of communication and infotainment and how to find their ways as customers and a responsible citizen.