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The Role of Media in Democracy: An Interview With Gary Younge

You cannot talk about media being the backbone of democracy without talking about media ownership.

A video camera stands outside the Reichstag, the meeting place of the Germany Parliament. An infamous fire in February 1933 was used as a pretext by the Nazis for mass arrests of communists and increased police repression.

Gary Younge is editor-at-large for The Guardian and author of Another Day in the Death of America. In this interview, Younge discusses media’s role within a democracy, how a polarized political climate can make media appear to be more radical than they actually are, and how the press can contribute to a better world. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Vaios Triantafyllou: The media are often seen as the backbone of democracy in the sense that they hold politicians accountable and uncover actions of Big Business that might affect the environment or the consumers, etc. Do you agree with that? Do you believe that this is something that the Big Media, primarily in the U.S. and the U.K., have managed to do effectively?

Gary Younge: I think that can be true. I don’t think it always is true. For that to be true, there has to be freedom of press. But actually, within a democracy, there also has to be a distribution of power. Not necessarily an equal distribution of power, but a fair distribution of power. So, if you look at Rupert Murdoch, or Silvio Berlusconi, they are both good examples. You cannot talk about media being the backbone of democracy without talking about media ownership. Then you have, as we saw, the hacking scandal in particular, and in general how these kinds of editors are firmly intertwined with the state, and how the government can actually have a huge impact on democracy by spreading this information, by spreading the propaganda of the most powerful people.

So, I think it’s very important to understand whether there is freedom of press, and I don’t think you can have a democracy without a free press. America and the U.K. both have freedom of the press, and although Trump is doing his best to restrict this freedom, he is still not there yet. But there is a distinction between there being a free press and how the power is distributed within the democracy, i.e., who owns the press. Both in Britain and America, the press does those things you talked about. However, just because there is a free press, I don’t think that it constitutes the backbone of democracy.

How should the media combat authoritarian or even fascist figures such as those arising across Europe, Latin America and the U.S.? Is keeping an equal distance the solution, or should Big Media actively oppose them? How does personal commentary play a role in reporting such personalities and tendencies?

I think it depends on how powerful they are, actually. What the media should not do is give space that can promote hard-right figures. I don’t think the media should do that. I do think that the media has to cover them and that may at times mean actually engaging with them, but that it should do so with a view to challenging them, rather than indulging them.

There is a clear distinction between views we don’t like and views that are fundamentally against democracy and make some people unsafe because of who they are, not because of what they have done. And when it comes to those people, I think the rules of engagement change. You are not just talking about another source, another voice. They are a particular voice and a particular source with a particular aim, and the media has the responsibility to engage them in that way. Particularly, to challenge them as opposed to just indulging them, or just saying “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.”

You can’t debate people’s existence. You can’t say, “Well, we’re having a debate on whether Jews should live or die,” or, “We are having a discussion about whether Muslims should be allowed to live in this country, or should they all be expelled.” That’s not a debatable point. You can’t debate other people’s existence.

For those of us seeking a socialist society, is it important to seek a voice within Big Media? In addressing this question, I think it is important to ask whether you believe that Big Media play a role in shaping public opinion in favor of the liberal establishment, and in some cases, in close cooperation with it. Are there forces within them that have interests in silencing progressive voices? If so, how do we overcome them?

First of all, I don’t think it’s necessary for people on the left to seek a voice in the Big Media. That doesn’t mean that the media doesn’t play a role. Of course, media plays a role in shaping our view. I think you’ve seen over the past three years that it doesn’t play half as big a role as people thought it did. Big Media in America were against Trump, but it didn’t matter. Big Media were against Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour Party still gained seats in the last election.

Now we can talk about what would have happened, counterfactually, if the media [were] fairer and so on, but the fact is that the media do not have the kind of poll [they] think [they have], because we are not now just talking about big or small media. We are talking about such a proliferation of media, such a cacophony in terms of social media, that there are considerable numbers of alternative platforms that can challenge the mainstream.

And then I think your next question was kind of a Noam Chomsky question about the relationship between the media and the establishment. I wouldn’t say that they have interest in silencing progressive voices. I wouldn’t put it like that. But there are elements of the media that are liberal but not left. So, there are some moments — and Trump is one of those moments — where that distinction becomes, on many levels, not as important. That’s because you have someone who is neo-fascist, and a liberal outlet can appear as a left or even radical outlet because all the challenges are from the right. (It was similar, but not the same, with George W. Bush.)

Then, there are other examples, such as Corbyn, which is by no means the only example, where those liberal outlets are then challenged from the left, and we see that they are liberal and not left. I don’t think that this necessarily means silencing those voices, they are just forced to return to their tradition, and they are often true to their tradition. So, The New York Times is an organ of the liberal establishment. That means it hates Trump, but it also means it is not that keen on Bernie Sanders, either. Most countries have versions of that, and they are mirrored in the polity.

One alternative to Big Media in expressing our opinions are some progressive online hubs. To what degree do you believe that these smaller media are able to create massive movements able to bring about social change? Is the style and militancy of the texts published in these media enough to create such movements?

No, I don’t think they are enough. I think they are good; they are important and useful, but I don’t think mass progressive change will come out of the media. The radical media will come out of mass progressive change. I think that one has to reverse the causality there so it would be possible.

I do think that, and we have seen this, mass progressive change will produce its own media. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the opposite, where media [have] actually produced change. One might say, in a way, something like Black Live Matters, where they are producing media with the capacity to upload and distribute information, created a market for a movement. But in a sense, that movement is a coalition of pre-existing movements anyway. But that would be the closest one would get to the media creating the change, I think.

Let’s turn to more militant, socialist parties fighting for social change. To what degree do you believe that militant, radical socialist newspapers, such as Socialist Worker, are able to create such movements? Is there a trade-off between militancy and critical thinking/commentary?

It depends on what the organ in question is for. Some of them are propaganda tools, which is fine if that’s what you want. That’s a description rather than a criticism. They exist to push the line and to promote the use of the organization. There is a place for that. There is a distinction between that, though, and hammering out a vision that isn’t truly formed.

If you decided that your politics are pre-formed and that each new situation is silted through your politics, rather than your politics engaging the situation, then of course, there is not much to discuss, not much to be critical about. If there are fearless debates, then the organization (and this would be true for any political party) would decide whether they would like to make these discussions public or private. So if the U.K.’s Conservative Party were disciplined, which it is not, before you knew about the conversations they were having regarding Brexit, they would have debates among themselves where they would sort out what they think.

I guess, what I am saying is, yes, they are not necessarily critical, because sometimes that’s not their function. That’s not an issue for me. You just have to work out what it is you are reading: For instance, if I want to know what the Socialist Workers Party thinks, as opposed to wanting to know what kind of debates they are having. But any organization worth its [salt] will be having debates. The question is whether they choose to do these debates publicly or privately, and whether they choose to have these debates running through their journalism or not really. I find a more critical approach more engaging, but the purpose of these things is often not to engage, but to organize, seize power or whatever it is. That’s fair enough.

Do you think there is a way to find the balance between the two when it comes to the organization and do so publicly?

I think that I always had a problem with democratic centralism as a point of view and as a tool for organizing. I think that’s why so many Leninist organizations collapsed and split, and that there is an element of being confident enough to actually have debates, and whether those debates were to be public, which would enrich left organizations. And I think that now is a time to have them because we are in greatly volatile times. We need ideas, actually. We have to act, but we have to do so with intelligence and purpose.

I think that we should be above the notion that any one group or any one person has the truth. I don’t think that it is a particularly fine line, but I think there is an important distinction. And in many ways, I think that the left is not doing too badly at that … I do think that there is quite a lot of critical thinking going on.

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