An Italian university professor once said, ‘Democracy has many definitions, implications and consequences, but accountability is its most important component’. Accountable to whom? To the electorate, of course! Thus this thing called ‘political accountability’ has induced research at various dimensions: mostly in the public sectors, in relation to jurisprudence and in relation to the media as well.
It was pointed out in Asli’s analysis on the 2008 general election that ‘the public were put off by the propaganda, spin and one-sided coverage of the media’. This pivotal role of the media in shaping public perception of political accountability was echoed in the US when a former president told the press, ‘You’ve given us a new kind of people’.
He went further to accuse the media, ‘They are your creations, your puppets’. His argument was based on the change of combat weapons for political disagreements from direct relationship- building to press conferences, photo opportunities, news releases, leaks to the press, and ‘spins’.
Not to mention advertisements placed by the warring parties. Activities of this kind earned the name of ‘media politics’ and was crowned the new game in town. There are three players in media politics, viz. the politicians, the citizens and the journalists. The objective of the politicians is very clear: to use mass communications to mobilise public support for them to win in elections for holding on to offices. This would give them the opportunities to carry out programmes of choice.
As for the citizens, they are presumed to possess imperfect information. They hope that through media reports, they could hold politicians accountable to their (politicians’) end of the social contract. The information they receive will be crucial for them in making decisions on the competence of the political candidates and through the process of sorting, the selection of who to put in charge of their (voters) public affairs for the next few years to come.
The media’s goal was to produce big stories for their readers and to project the ‘independent and significant voice of the journalists’. Discipline, ethics and saliency are matters at the personal disposal of the journalists in accordance with individual conscience.
Much research has been carried out in evaluation of whether the media was indeed the independent conduit or neutral conveyer belt for statements and press releases from the politicians to citizens. Some focused on media values and creations of illusions, images and spectacles that masquerade reality. In one research conducted by a US university, it doubted that journalism could be termed a profession.
Such a statement may not be pleasant to many ears. However, upon further examination of characteristics of a profession and comparing it with what citizens expect journalism to be, reflections of some kind are in order.
A definition of the word ‘profession’ will normally include the words, ‘to supply disinterested counsel and service to others’. In a recent intellectual discussion on this definition, the word ‘disinterested’ was debated at length. Arguments that sending a journalist on a mission which he/she is disinterested in would result in wasted opportunity and a mismanagement of resources.
The outcome, too, may not meet citizenry expectations of providing information on politician accountability. Yet, should the journalist harbour any interest in the mission, what is the permissible degree allowed? Not to the extent of being bias, naturally.
As an academician, I often give talks on corporate social responsibility. At the end of one of such talks, on the way to my car, a journalist came up to me and asked for my opinion on an unrelated matter. The report in the next day’s newspaper focused on this by-the-way opinion and not on the event on corporate social responsibility which the journalist was sent to cover in the first place.
Comparing this incident with the events of the current MCA dispute, it may not be a mis-perception to conclude that certain media houses prioritise sensation over factual matters.
This leads to another angle for discussion. Who is the journalist in the above context? The person who brought in the story? The editor? The layout artist who positioned the story in the physical newspaper or the front web page of the online newspaper? Is there yet another invisible hand behind it?
In a protracted dispute like the MCA misadventure, what role does the electorate expect the journalist to play? The public wants, and has indicated, to monitor politics and the accountability of politicians. Not only the majority wants this, some were asked to make selections based on perceptions form media reports.
The journalists are expected to get the story to the public. Didn’t the media do so in the 2008 general election? Yet the public were put off by the behavior of the media. I may not be wrong to say that this same reason might be found in post-mortem reports on elections elsewhere in the world.
Has media behavior gone sideways? The Code of Ethics of the US Society of Professional Journalists declares: ‘Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.’
Where did things go wrong? It is not the purpose of this letter to tell why. Rather, to ask the question, ‘Have things changed?’ Yes, the voters’ behaviour in getting information has.
Information analysts in an operations room scrutinise media behavior from multiple media sites on a single huge plasma television screen connected to a computer’s CPU. Responses are composed and sent off at the point of a stylus or the click of a mouse. The latest digital tool, the Twitter, was alleged to have ‘stolen the 2009 election in Iran’.
The digital technology has disputed Hitler’s monologue information theory that if the same message is repeated often enough, the audience will believe it. Digital media has placed the controls of information feeds not in hands of the information producers and media moguls, but reverted it back to the audience, viz. the citizenry.
Electronic mail is one such example. The recipient of unsolicited e-mails simply dumps them into ‘Recycle Bins’ or classifies them as junk which the computer will block off when the sender tries to send again in the future. Busy executives selectively read e-mails.
True, digital technology by itself cannot revolutionise communications behavior. It takes leaders with courage and foresight to take advantage of new technology. In a country where the population has close to full literacy level, digital media has taken the citizenry to a new plane of exercising political democracy. Along this line, politicians, too, may want to take accountability to a level which will prevent erosion of trust amongst the voters.
The media, too, as one of the players of media politics, may need to take a change towards pro- development and be citizen-centered in their presentation. Messages are like light passing through a prism and the public expects to see the true colours of the rainbow – nothing more, nothing less.