Friday, February 24, 2006

Democracy - still the best game in town.

Today there are reports of a foiled army coup in the Philippines.

In the West, we tend to take our democracy for granted and it’s almost unthinkable for us to contemplate a European democracy falling to military or other interests.

But such complacency is a danger and Spain should act as a warning.
Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the short-lived 1981 coup attempt in Spain, notable for the public performance of King Juan Carlos in ensuring its failure.
However, as recently as 7th January 2006, the Spanish army chief-of-staff, Lt Gen Jose Mena Aguado was placed under house arrest and subsequently dismissed from the army, following a warning he issued that the Spanish army might have to intervene if the Catalan Government went too far in its search for greater autonomy from Madrid. How quickly we forget that Franco remained in power until his death in 1975 - the most successful fascist regime in Europe because Spain stayed neutral in WWII. Just imagine what life might be like today if Hitler hadn't invaded Poland?

For all the failings of “the democratic system”, which are many and varied, and the quality of some of elected politicians, democracy remains the only political system worth having and fighting for.

It can and does throw up many anomalies: e.g.
The Nazi party was democratically elected in 1933, but once Hitler got control of the levers of power he proceeded to subvert the democratic process.
Ultra-right winger Jean Marie Le Pen finished 2nd in the 2002 French presidential election, ahead of the mainstream Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin. Thankfully, this didn’t translate into wider success in other French elections.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein and the DUP lead respective sides of their polarised communities. Neither would qualify as paragons of democracy, though both are quick to remind everyone else that they have a “democratic mandate”.

However, provided the political system isn’t subverted, democracies usually have built in protections for the population. For example, George Bush can only serve a maximum of two terms - 8 years in total, and can never run for the Presidency again.

Bush may be a good example of a major internal threat to a democracy - significant polarisation within a society when a victor has little or no desire to "be gracious in victory" and reach out to the losing voters. "Winner takes all" politicians with a radical agenda, as exemplified by Bush and the Neo-Cons in the US and previously by Maggie Thatcher in the UK, really do risk polarising their national populations. On the other hand, coalition administrations, often seen as politically unstable, have the merit of forcing participants to compromise and probably have a greater tendency towards concensus and reduced risk of polarisation.

The role of the Media
Paradoxically, the media may provide both the greatest protection and the greatest threat to democracy.

On the one hand, the media have a key role in questioning and clarifying government policy and activities, acting as a spotlight to discourage or expose any dodgy dealings by politicians. An ethical and even-handed media is a key player in a successful democracy.

On the other hand, the political influence of the media is often far too significant, when measured against the standards of ethics and behaviour which a largely self-regulated media applies to itself.

In the USA, the candidate with the most campaign dollars to buy media space, combined with the ability to appear empathetic, particularly via television, is likely to win - almost regardless of policies.
In Italy, ownership of media was clearly a major electoral advantage to Berlusconi. And once in power he, at least in theory, gained control of the state-owned media networks.
In the UK, support of the Rupert Murdoch media (Sky, The Times, The Sun) is seen as very important for electoral success.
And in Ireland, Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News & Media group has demonstrated a willingness to flex their political muscles e.g. their 1997 eve of election front-page editorial entitled “Payback Time” which called on voters to throw out the rainbow government.

You can find a media source to support your own position and prejudices, no matter how off the wall you are. Fox News is clearly gung-ho, pro-Bush, pro-war. The BBC, on the other hand, is almost as biased in the opposite direction, and clearly anti-Blair on any topic. Overly simplistic "black & white" analysis of highly complex, multi-faceted situations has become the media order of the day. Demonisation of those holding opposing or alternative views is now an accepted norm in political debate. The result is that real debate is often stifled, while ad hominem arguments and personalised insults are considered an appropriate response to an opponent's position.

In the chase for 24-hour content and BIG HEADLINES, the media has become increasingly "tabloid". There’s never been more information available in the public domain, but we’ve never had less confidence in what we’re being told - by media or politicians.
Conspiracy theories have never had it so good and are a godsend to the insatiable appetite of the 24-hour media monster. Media people speculating with other media people fills hours of transmission time. Every one of them has an opinion, regardless of their level of background knowledge, you'll never hear them answering with an honest "I don't know".

What we often get is a "dialogue of the deaf" between ideologues, who paint competing but equally distorted views of the world, but constitute what is now routinely presented by media as "balance" in a debate. It usually generates far more heat than light, but is then replicated among bar-room experts throughout the country.

What we need from media, on the major topics, is much more balanced analysis and considered debate. Contributors who can spell out the pros & cons, identify the often competing considerations in a highly complex situation and seek to educate the audience rather than beat them into submission. Personally I'd start by banning phone-in programmes on any topic other than sex, and I'd definitely make it a criminal offence to be Michael Moore.

Then, and only then, we might all be able to make up our own minds on important topics on an informed basis, individually.

1 comment:

Videos by Professor Howdy said...

Seen in a cafeteria :

Shoes are required to eat
in the cafeteria. Socks can
eat any place they want.

A shrimp sole my girl; I lobster
and haven't flounder!

A note left for a pianist from
his wife: Gone Chopin, have
Liszt, Bach in a Minuet.

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