Feb 2 2007
What about press responsibility?
Dear RSF ( Reporters Sans Frontieres),
I read with interest the news story on your recent report on press freedom (Not much good news about press freedom, reporters group says), and agreed with much of it - we certainly face problems, and always have and probably will, from repressive governments and others wishing to control information flow in the modern world, and trying to inhibit or shut down the freedom of reporters and newspapers to do their job.
But, again in the modern world, and especially in 'democratic' countries such as Canada (which is my home country and thus the one on which I focus most of my attention), there is another related issue that you (along with most other press councils) seem to overlook which is (or should be), I believe, of even greater concern in these countries in the modern world - the issue of press responsibility. Although few would suggest that the Canadian press is not 'free', a 'free' press is not of much use, at least to 'we the people', if it does not behave with integrity and responsibility in informing the public of the things they need to know, and yet we see, I believe, an increasing lack of responsibility in the Canadian press towards a number of very important issues in our country and world (and other countries as well, no doubt, but as I noted, I mainly follow the Canadian press, so will address my criticisms there.) More and more, as we see more and more media concentration and fewer and fewer owners, we see the major media, often called the mainstream media or MSM, apparently promoting the interests of their corporate owners, very much in opposition to the interests of the common people whom they purportedly serve. And such behavior, to whatever extent true, may be their right as a 'free' media provider of whatever sort in a 'free' country, but it cannot be called 'responsible' to the citizens of the country in which it is occurring; indeed, words much less laudatory would be much more suitable.
If the media was acting responsibly, I would suggest, it would be telling Canadians what different groups of people were thinking or advocating, but not be obviously promoting one particular policy - it seems to me, at least, that if the media overall were 'fair and impartial', then they would reflect in some congruent way the ideas and desires of the Canadian people. That is to say, if, in some controversial situation, as it arose, approximately half of Canadians were thinking they wished to follow course A, and half course B, the media would offer commentary and ideas in some more or less equivalent ratio from each perspective, and let the people work out which side they preferred through intelligent discussion and debate as all relevant facts and opinions were placed on the table, and come to some consensus most could agree with - but if the media were 95% promoting course A over course B, and giving very little space to proponents from course B and even marginalizing or belittling those who spoke in favor of this idea, then you would have to say they were propagandizing, trying to put course A in a good light and convince those who believed in course B to change to course A, or at least keep quiet while course A was pursued. And you can call that a lot of things, but a responsible, democratic media is not one of them.
But indeed, this is what we see, in a number of major issues in the country, and have been seeing for many years now. The media does NOT generally, in important matters, reflect the popular range of opinions, or offer space for such things to be debated, but instead proselytizes in favor of a particular course. In a fairly major way, once it decides to do so.
And that is not, it seems to me, 'responsible' behavior, unless you are of the opinion that it is the duty of the media to influence the policy direction of the country through such activities, treating the citizens as 'consumers' of some sort, to be swayed by whichever business has the biggest advertising budget or something.
There are various issues of considerable importance in our country and world that the people in a democratic country need to be fully informed of in order to participate in a discussion and make intelligent decisions about what the policy of the country should be concerning such issues - and yet if the press gives only one side of such issues, or weights their coverage of such issues very strongly in one direction so as to try to push the people in a certain direction concerning which policy ought to be followed, then it is not, I would suggest, fulfilling its duty of impartial news coverage, but can be seen to be acting more as a propaganda agent for whichever party wishes to follow the promoted path.
There are many examples of such things in the last several years, up to and including many things happening at the current time. Just a small sampling:
I first noticed this in a major way in 1988, when Canada had the infamous 'free trade election'. This issue arose quite suddenly as a new government initiative never mentioned during the previous election campaign (except in passing, when Mulroney said he would never consider such a thing as free trade as it would be very bad for Canada, but then scant months after being elected suddenly decided it was absolutely essential for Canada, and the selling campaign began). In any event, considerable opposition to 'free trade' quickly arose in the country, and the issue became largely fought in the media. And although Canadians were, according to polls before and after, disinclined to accept the idea, the coverage in the media was overwhelmingly in favor of the FTA, and dissenting voices were marginalized as much as possible, beyond the few prominent spokespeople allowed some minimal coverage. Of course, Canadians voted by a solid majority to reject Mulroney and his FTA, but due to the vagaries of the Canadian electoral system which is designed to allow parties with minority support to gain a plurality of seats, we got both Mulroney and 'free' trade. (the refusal of the media to allow discussion of this outdated electoral system is itself a major indication of their irresponsibility to the Canadian public)
More recently, we see things like 'terrorism' and the Canadian participation in the Afghanistan invasion and regime change being supported virtually across the board by the Canadian media, with almost no allowing whatsoever of dissenting voices, although many eloquent voices are available in alternative media, and polls show that, for instance, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, most Canadians do not think we should be there as part of an invading force, even though there is considerable ambivalence around the issue as Canadians have all been well indoctrinated with the notion that we must 'support our troops' no matter what they are up to, or who is commanding them. But the Canadian media has next to no time or space for any voices opposing this Canadian military role, but feeds Canadians a constant stream of pro-invasion/war propaganda and jingoistic coverage of our great troops and their sacrifice and the 'humanitarian' work they are doing to rally Canadians around 'our troops', etc and etc.
Or what about the matter of 'illegal' drug use, especially soft drugs? The Canadian press is again notable for its absence of fairness in its coverage of this issue, as it devotes considerable space to government and police stories about 'getting the drug users' and virtually no space at all to the many voices and groups pushing for the removal of these laws. And again, polls have shown consistently over the years that well over 60% of Canadians do not think soft drugs such as marijuana should be criminalized, yet government after government refuses to do anything about this, except perhaps, in the case of Harper for instance, avow that no matter what Canadians think about this, they are going to 'crack down' even harder on any and all such lawbreakers, give the police more money and power, continue the 'war on drugs', etc and etc. And the media generally supports this government policy by refusing to carry any regular coverage of the opposition to these laws, or the way most Canadians feel about them. And in doing so, they are acting very irresponsibly, I would suggest, at least in terms of their duty to the Canadian people. If they really served the Canadian people rather than someone else (whoever instituted these laws and wishes them to continue), then surely they would be featuring this issue more, giving space to people demanding this very undemocratic set of laws was cancelled, and the police and courts stopped filling the jails with people most Canadians do not see as criminals, and so on. They are certainly capable of doing such a thing - if we consider the free trade promotion as an example, imagine what might happen if the Canadian media decided that soft drugs should be decriminalized, and filled their papers with stories promoting this idea for as long as it took to get the people agitating for this??
Or there is the matter of issues such as what I call the National Debt Scam, which arose from the changed policy beginning during the 70s of the creation of most of the nation's money supply by private banks, which is then loaned to governments or private individuals. This is a huge scam, there is no other way to put it, which benefits the wealthy bank owners and investors immensely, of course, but is very harmful to Canadian people in general through the 'service' charges they must pay on such money, and their ability to create and maintain a prosperous country for the benefit of all citizens. And yet the MSM simply refuse to talk about this issue. And this very directly reflects their ownership, of course, for the now very concentrated Canadian media is owned almost completely by wealthy investors who are also very well connected to the banking system with its immense profits, so have essentially zero interest in doing anything to compromise this very golden goose - but this is, again, of course, very detrimental to the Canadian people, and we see very clearly the gulf between a 'free' press and a 'responsible' press - a press at any rate not 'responsible' to the Canadian people, although of course the argument could be made that it is indeed 'responsible' to the interests and desires of their owners.
There are many other issues I could raise, from the Canadian participation in the Yugoslavia bombing a few years ago to the lies of the American government to justify the Iraq invasion in 2003 through 'social control' issues such as the no smoking drive, in which the press very strongly pushes a certain policy on the people, and allows no reasonable discussion at all, no matter what the feelings of a majority of the people.
This is not trivial stuff - it is actually about as important as the difference between a violent, destructive world promoting a small elite class and a huge serf class, and a world that strives to be a good and decent place for most of its people. We have a mainstream media that, under all of the 'feel good' stuff, essentially promotes war and injustice and elitism, rather than giving the citizens the information they need to understand that this is happening, and how to work together to defeat these destructive forces. And until a lot of people start to understand this, we are going to remain in a very perilous situation. I would hope that a group such as yourselves would be a bit more astute in understanding this in the future, and using whatever influence you have to counteract it.
As the old saying has it, quite truthfully at times, if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.