Readying for a hard fight for media development

The relevance of an informed society to development is a subject that is relatively neglected by aid & development thinkers. But the post-2015 development consensus will be more culturally and politically diverse, and probably less sympathetic to the role of a free and independent media in complex political environments.

Many regard the media as a loose trigger for social unrest and a haven for hate speech and partisan politics.

The problem is discussed in a new policy paper by James Deane of BBC Media Action, for the OECD-DAC GovNet network: Media and Communication in Governance: It’s time for a Rethink.

The values and principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are built into the current consensus and deserve vigorous defence. But if the system fails to find consensus on the media, communication and an informed society, then it needs to find a way to address them outside that consensus.

To prepare for the fight this may well entail, he argues for a clear theory of governance based on how people are informed and the effects of information flows and sources on societal relationships. This needs to be backed up by evidence-based analysis.

Fears of what an unbridled media can do to a failing state are driven by the massive growth of online social media and the prevalence of hate speech in transitional states. Most notably there has been the impact of ISIS online and the perceived success of Iran and Russia in setting news agendas and “controlling narratives”.

Speaking at Senate House last month, Deane expressed worries about the way that media development was increasingly being aligned with strategies to confront violent extremism with ‘counter-propaganda’ rather than participatory development agendas.

He thought it was hard to respond to question how support for independent media address the challenge posed by propaganda? The research is siloed – terrorism & crime, law & state stability, conflict & security, media & culture, data & social studies – and they don’t talk, don’t argue and don’t cross-refer.

To at least test the evidence base behind current counter-propaganda strategies and efforts to combat violent extremism, BBC Media Action has taken on PhD researcher Kate Ferguson of the University of East Anglia to look at the role of strategic communication and media development in reducing conflict and countering violent extremism. Her work will focus on the use of propaganda by a variety of state and non-state actors.

Deane was speaking at a discussion on Media Policy and Media Law Reform in Academic Curricula and in Development Practice hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and The Democracy Forum.

Historically, he said, the aid & development sector has a habit of looking at media development in terms of accountability in state building rather than being of value in itself.

Increasingly attention is focused on understanding political economies, and new approaches to development that recognise political complexity. Understanding the media is central to that.

But so is a renewed commitment on the part of the aid & development sector to go on supporting media in tough economic or political environments.

“There is a market failure when it comes to the kind of journalism that can hold power to account and best support an informed society,” says Deane. “Market failures which result in negative development outcomes are what the aid system exists to solve.”

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