Five ways in which the media fail society

From the Reuters lecture by Michel Rocard ,the former Prime Minister of France, at the University of Kentat Canterbury
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The present state of the media is unfortunately aggravated by the weakening of the resistance by journalists to trends which are permitted by the system. The first just concerns truth. Everyone has heard about these TV reports in which the comment concerns a recent event and images some previous ones. But plain lie is frequent too.

The present state of the media is unfortunately aggravated by the weakening of the resistance by journalists to trends which are permitted by the system. The first just concerns truth. Everyone has heard about these TV reports in which the comment concerns a recent event and images some previous ones. But plain lie is frequent too.

The second trend concerns the situation of the human person in this scenery. Human rights, privacy, innocence presumption are no longer concepts which are valid for the press. And the courts are totally incapable to preserve them in any way.

On this very point, the protection of privacy, one can observe a significant difference between the English and American press on one side and the French on the other. It concerns love affairs and sex. This difference is purely cultural. No law has contributed to create it. For mysterious reasons in which religion has something to do, your press is much more intrusive and much less tolerant than ours on these affairs. English press investigations on sex and illegitimate relations seem to proceed from some Lutheran strict code of moral conduct which authorises any type of search, even with illegal means. The idea is the bluntly hypocritical assumption that politicians should be and can be more saintly than the rest of the population, which is naturally idiotic. On this only subject, the French press seems to have a more healthy scepticism and observes some sort of self restraint, which would naturally exclude really scandalous behaviour, but admits private and discreet evasions of the legal status of couples.

A third trend has to be analysed. It is the one which progressively substitutes information with mere spectacle. It is especially the case on TV networks, but the written press seems to follow this path much more than to combat it. When a political conflict arises about a complicated problem deserving some technicality to be understood, it is much easier and more audience-creating to confront two people and organise a boxing match than to present the figures, the context and the arguments.

A fifth trend is the disappearance of secrecy. Naturally democracy needs a complete transparency and accountability on decisions, their motives, their costs, and their results. It is a condition of accountability. But it does not mean what the press nowadays concludes, which is that any information should be published whatever the conditions of its discovery, the damage linked to its publications or the harm it can produce on legitimate national interests.

Very rare are the public decisions which are simple. Most often the government is obliged to order studies and reports. But for the press there is no spectacular interest in publishing that the government has demanded an evaluation of a new road security device, or a new form of food health control. In short, the event appears as "the government has decided to..." which allows for comments from those who disagree even if they don't know exactly what is at stake. The dangerous result of such a presentation is that if the study is not conclusive and the government abandons this specific manner of treating its problem, it is no more the wise decision of a skilled and non-dogmatic government, it is a mere political defeat. That is why governments rely less and less on thorough preparations and more on intuitive decisions taken by surprise.

The media system is one of the six power systems which regulate our societies. Three are formally decision making authorities: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. The three others are only influential, but undoubtedly more efficient: the financial, the scientific and technological, and the media system. And this last one appears to be the only power system in our societies without any counter weight or counter power. The checks and balances principle fails with the media.

Comments