Media and Democracy in Australia
The internet’s influence on contemporary political processes in the areas of information, communication, political activity and participation
”The new technologies can strengthen our democracy, by giving us greater opportunities than ever before for better transparency and a more responsive relationship between government and electors.”1
When speaking about democracy one has to be careful to distinguish between its two key areas: direct democracy and representative democracy2. Direct democracy is largely associated with self-government of the people in ancient Greece. This Athenian democracy is something which, as population of states grew, was increasingly difficult to sustain. In, for example, Australia with a population of 19 million people direct self-rule which implies ”time-consuming and unwieldy procedures”3, with the likely effect of paralysing and not enhancing governmental decisionmaking processes, is largely unthinkable. Hence, today in the 21st century when one speaks of democracies what is largely meant is a representative democracy. Although remnants of direct democracy remain in aspects such as referendums, generally voters hand over their power in regular elections to representatives to rule on their behalf.
The emergence of the internet has inspired many critics to believe that it can be the answer to overcoming what they see as the temporary solution of representative democracies. They believe that the new media, the internet, will lead to a future in which ”major policy decisions can be instigated, formulated, and decided by direct democracy.”4 The hope that the new information and communication possibilities opened up will have positive impulses for the political system is also shared by supporters of the system of representative democracies as implied in the introductory quote by Robin Cook. This debate is happening not only against the backdrop of an information age but also of one in which ”people are (…) fed up with politics”5 and where there is increased talk of a ‘crisis of representation’ and a ‘loss of legitimacy’ by politics and governments. The recent protests against the war in Iraq in countries such as Australia whose government, unlike substantial parts of the population, supported military involvement, can be seen as one such example6. In many European countries and the United States this ‘crisis of representation’ is also evident in sinking electoral turnouts7. Citizens in Australia are faced with compulsory voting and this may guarantee high turnouts, yet it does not really change how voters feel about politics and the policy-making process. Many believe that politicians are increasingly distancing themselves from their population and voters, leading to an ”increasing alienation and cynicism of citizens”8. Consequently, many voters see themselves not as active participants but rather as onlookers of democracy. The internet is seen as having the potential to bring the government and those being governed closer together again. It is interpreted as having the ability of not only being an instrument of decision-making as well as opinion shaping but even of improving democracies. For the sake of this paper improving democracy will be defined as whether the internet creates a politically more interested, and to a degree more active, citizen. Analysing whether this assumption is correct lies at the heart of this paper and will be discussed in two core sections.
In the first section this paper will look at why, of all the media forms, it is the internet which has given rise to so many hopes. It will do this by looking at the negative and often more realistic aspects, as well as the positive, often more idealistic aspects which critics see as the new media and technology having. In the second half, it will look at contemporary issues and examples from the Australian political landscape to analyse the chances and realities for improving democracy. How does the internet influence and change contemporary political processes in the four areas of information, communication, political activity and participation?
II. The internet: A Fourth Estate in disguise or a radically new media?
”The Internet is the Fifth Estate — a sort of committee of the whole, made up of all citizens online”9
According to Dick Morris the Fourth Estate, the traditional media, is an outlived ideal which in the contemporary environment can no longer function in its role as the watchdog of society. ”Holding its head in politics and its feet (…) grounded in commerce”10 the Fourth Estate is unable to fulfil its duty as an independent inter-mediator between the public and the first three estates, the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. Morris consequently proposes the idea of the internet as the Fifth Estate, claiming that it is the new media, with its potential of returning society to direct democracy, and not the traditional media, which in future will be ”essential to the workings of any democratic system.”11
The view that the media is important for properly functioning democracies is evident in Australia. Although the Australian Constitution does not have an express provision relating to freedom of speech, press and expression, the High Court has interpreted these issues in a row of decisions made during the 1990s. Therein they stressed the exceptional significance of free and pluralistic reporting for any democracy.12 In order to be able to make decisions at election time and fully participate in the offers given by a representative democracy, the public needs to be informed. The reporting of the media is seen as being ”vital connecting link in the political
system”13 between the government and those being governed. A change in the media system, in this case the rise of the internet, therefore inevitably has consequences for the functioning of democracy. The potential chances of the internet in improving democracy are huge, however, similar to the Fourth Estate, ”rhetorical ideal and practical reality”14 are in conflict with each other as will be illustrated below.
Critics such as Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch see a greater autonomy of the media as resulting in the generation of more balanced political information and an improved role of the media15. Considering the widely held view that the traditional news media will not be able to revert to its watchdog role unless they are ”disengaged from the global entertainment and information industries that increasingly contain them”16, there is scepticism that the Fourth Estate will be able to slip into such an improved role. Following from this view the call for the Internet to step in the place of the traditional media and take on its role as watchdog and, so called Fifth Estate, is more understandable.
The euphoria shared today about the possibilities the internet could have for democracy, can be seen as being similar to that of the 1920s about radio17 and in the 1970s the emergence of cable television. The production of so called interactive cable television also allowed unfulfilled hopes of overcoming one-way communication to emerge, by being able to send back simple responses such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with the availability of the right technology18. The internet has widely been heralded as ”the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire”19 and even sceptics of its ability to improve democratisation acknowledge that it is radically different from media forms which have preceded it20. This is due to the new ways of communication it offers, such as email, the World Wide Web, newsgroups, chats, online-conferences, databases and discussion forums. What differentiates these forms of communication from the predominant media of press, radio and television is essentially the direction the communication takes. While the traditional media largely only allow one-way directed information, the internet allows communication in the original sense of the word, namely the reciprocal exchange of information and opinions. As communication models there is not only ”one-to-many” but also the ”many-to- many” or the ”person-to-person” one21. The communication does not originate from a few central points from which the public is served. Instead it originates from many points and is sometimes directed at many, sometimes at few and generally allows for a response from the recipient. Hence, the communication is decentralised as well as being non-hierarchical22. As high concentration of control in the hands of few is seen as dangerous to democracy23, it is obvious why the internet with the reduced role played by the traditional multinational media organisations as well as gate-keepers has raised such high hopes. In theory the internet is open to everyone and ”every desktop is a printing press, a broadcasting station, and place of assembly”24, thereby allowing eq people accessing the new media, as is the case with radio and television due to frequencies, and it also does not require the enormous investment of capital that the traditional mass media often do. In addition the internet can combine all three components of the traditional media: text (press), sound (radio) and picture (tv). These can be accessed independent of time and space. Communication is possible in real time, distance is irrelevant and barriers are at most those of language. Aside from these multimedia aspects, the Internet also allows forms which no medium has been able to offer so far, e.g. the easy access to theoretically endless databases and archives of knowledge. With that the internet, although containing aspects of traditional media, does indeed open a totally new dimension of communication. With its rather different and diverse input by the public it cannot be seen as just another aspect of the Fourth Estate. However, does the internet, if seen as a Fifth Estate, consisting of those people capable of accessing it, really open up chances of improving democracies?
1 Robin Cook ”Reviving Democracy”, speech given at the Reviving Democracy Conference (11 April 2002), available at http://www.epolitix.com/bos/epxnews/0000004E123E.htm (accessed on 6 May 2003)
2 For more detailed definition see Andrew Heywood, Key Concepts in Politics (Macmillan Press, London, 2000), pp.125-127
3 John Keane, The Media and Democracy (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991), p.166
4 Roger Clarke ”Information Technology. Weapon of Authoritarianism or Tool of Democracy?” at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/DV/PaperAuthism.html (accessed on 26 April 2003)
5 D. Kavanagh quoted in Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch, The Crisis of Public Communication (Routledge, London, 1995), p.212
6 See Newspoll ”Australia’s involvement in military action against Iraq” in The Australian (22 March 2003) in which 47% of people asked opposed involvement in Iraq
7 see e.g. 51% voter turnout in 2000 US Presidential elections — for data see US Voter Registration and Turnout 2000 http://www.fec.gov/pages/2000turnout/reg&to00.htm (accessed on 4 May 2003); see 59% voter turnout at 2001 British General elections, the lowest since 1918 — for data see The Electoral Commission http://www.electoralcommission.gov.uk/elections/2001report.cfm (accessed on 4 May 2003)
8 D. Weaver ”Media Agenda Setting and Elections: Voter Involvement or Alienation?” in Political Communication (Vol. 11, No.4, 1994), p.351
9 Dick Morris, Vote.com (Renaissance Books, Los Angeles, 1999), p.ix
10 Julianne Schultz, Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998), p.45
11 Sean MacBride, Many voices, one world (Kogan Page, London, 1980), p.233
12 see e.g. High Court cases Nationwide News Pty Ltd v Wills (1992) at Australian Legal Information Institute, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/177clr1.html ; Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth (1992) at Australian Legal Information Institute http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/177clr106.html ; Theophanous v Herald & Weekly Times Ltd (1994) at Australian Government Solicitor, http://www.ags.gov.au/publications/briefings/br15.html (all accessed on 4 May 2003)
13 Dick Morris, Vote.com (Renaissance Books, Los Angeles, 1999), p.57
14 Julianne Schultz, Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998), p.18
15 Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch, The Crisis of Public Communication (Routledge, London, 1995), p.23
16 James W. Carey ”American Journalism on, before, and after September 11” in Barbie Zelizer and Stuart Allen (eds.) Journalism after September 11 (Routledge, London, 2002), p.89
17 Pierre Sorlin, Mass Media (Routledge, London, 1994), p.45
18 Dean Alger, The Media and Politics (Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1989), pp.71-72
19 John Perry Barlow et al ”What are we doing on-line” in Harper’s Magazine (August 1995), p.37
20 W. Russell Neumann ”The Global Impact of new technologies” in Doris Graber et al (eds.), The Politics of News, the News of Politics (Congressional Quarterly Press, Washington D.C, 1998), p. 239
21 for models of communication see Dennis McQuail, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory ( Sage Publications, London, 2000), pp.52-57
22 for more detailed discussion of this aspect see e.g. Stuart Cunnigham and Graeme Turner, The Media in Australia (Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1996), pp.429-431
23 Doris Graber et al (eds.), The Politics of News, the News of Politics (Congressional Quarterly Press, Washington D.C, 1998), p.2 3
24 Howard Rheingold ”Community Development in the Cybersociety of the Future” at http://www.partnerships.org.uk/bol/howard.htm (accessed on 8 May 2003)
- Quote paper
- Dr. Belinda Helmke (Author), 2002, Media and Democracy in Australia , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/174543