The media: Agenda makers or agenda changers?

Should the media development sector push agendas that prioritise journalism’s contribution to ‘good governance’ – ahead of more contentious direct challenges to the kind of unjust power structures that lead to wider violations of human rights?

A truly independent media is not instrumentalised easily or well, for any purpose. Even effective and sustainable media institutions may not be willing or able to deliver outcomes designed to monitor and mitigate the effect of imbalanced power relations rather than challenge and change them.

Should the media act more directly to expand opportunities and the power to make choices, achieved, as Rosie McGee & Duncan Edwards write, “through a collective, rather than individualised notion of empowerment that focuses on addressing structural inequality and inequitable power relations”.

Are media institutions are the right means to this end? Alternatively, can individualised empowerment have a collective effect on unequal power relations at a societal level? If so, are personalised, individual relationships with media networks a better way to that end, rather than through the collective representations of media institutions?

For as James Deane of BBC Media Action notes: “some of the greatest media and communication changes shaping governance outcomes are being played out at the societal rather than institutional level.”

The institutional response is illustrated by the priorities of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, specifically SDG 16.10, which requires states to: “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” Bill Orme, writing for the Global Forum for Media Development, SDG 16.10’s firmest champion, argues that with its adoption, “the onus is being placed on governments to proactively disclose information or to explain why certain information is not being made public”.

Alternatively, the focus on SDG 16.10’s priorities, arguably sidelines more subjective and politically fraught demands for freedom of expression rights at the societal level in favour of a more objective – and less politicised – offer of greater access to governmental and institutional information and data.

This value of this may be reflected in the response to the media development sector’s “supply driven strategies”.  These include access to information projects that Deane dryly observes, “are not necessarily being complemented by increased citizen demand for such information.” To borrow from Mike Gurstein, advocate of ‘community informatics’, this is not to argue against ‘open data’. But in the absence of a strategy to provide the means to effectively use it, only those with the means already will benefit, or as Gurstein put it, merely “empowering the empowered”.

Another problem is the shortcomings of the technology providing the “supply” of information feeding transparency and accountability (T&A) initiatives. Indra de Lanerolle & Christopher Wilson highlight the “failure of uptake” of this technology, digital tools declined by the very people the tools were intended to assist, demand-led initiatives without a demand.

The tools are often deployed based on limited understanding of their intended users in their intended contexts. Values are brought into question, says Deane, asking if media development strategies are inherently associated with normative, democratic ‘Western’ frameworks. “Media support initiatives are particularly vulnerable to the charge that they start with a set of assumptions of how they think things ought to work rather than how power, politics and government is in fact organised and how change can be best achieved.”

Whether normatively ‘western’ or not, the current international development sector’s view of democracy is always consensus-based, dependent on somehow reaching broad agreement among highly diverse political cultures. Regardless of values or motive, says Deane, “the search for consensus does not provide an effective platform from which to devise meaningful strategic action on an issue as politically charged, and apparently divisive, as integrating support for free media into development strategies.”

political-journalism-and-reporting-of-the-2015-uk-general-election-18-638
From a talk by Charlie Beckett of Polis, the journalism & society think tank.

Since 1991, the year of the seminal Windhoek Declaration, to paraphrase UNESCO, the media development sector “has understood press freedom as designating the conditions of media freedom, pluralism and independence, as well as the safety of journalists.”

How is this served by testing media development against its contribution to good governance? How does an expectation that the media build consensus as that contribution, help “make(s) sense of the evolution of media actors, news media institutions and journalistic roles over time,” to borrow from UNESCO again?

If the aim is empowerment – implying a focus on addressing structural inequality and inequitable power relations – can media institutions be effectively instrumentalised to deliver this outcome? I would argue no. A strategy of advancing empowerment through personalised, secure and direct relationships with information networks is a better means of achieving this end.

A shift from a focus on institutions to a focus on journalists might reflect the debate in the non-profit, state and international aid funded media development and media rights sector, historically the strongest supporters of independent journalists, activists and advocates.

We need to look at tools and techniques that facilitate “the exploit” – disruption from within, hacks that can disable, subvert or repurpose the functions of corporate media network protocols.

The likes of reality TV stars and terrorists are already rewriting hacking’ corporate social media’s user models user manuals in ways their creators never imagined. Similarly, journalists, activists and advocates can hack user models in ways that respect and preserve sustainability, ethical principles and visible social benefit.

Alexander Galloway & Eugene Thacker’s concepts of network protocols consider their capacity to “modulate” – to modify the organisation of nodes, edges, protocols and connectivity – and shape “different topologies of organisation and control”. Networks may also accommodate coexistent alternative topologies at any one time, even incompatible ones, they say.

“A whole new topology of resistance must be invented, that is as asymmetrical in relationship to networks as the network was in relation to power centres.” This could be the first step in realising “an ethics and a politics of networks,” capable of “identifying and critiquing protocol modulation, while fostering its transformative capacity”. This is, I believe, also a useful working space for a journalist, acclimatising, mapping and collecting information in a space he or she has made her own ‘beat’.

‘Beat’ reporters are specialists in a thematic or geographic area. Once central to mainstream media production, their numbers have dramatically reduced as revenues have fallen. Their contributions are enhanced by their engagement with their networks; their networks are enhanced in turn by their contributions. Media institutions fail to make this transaction sustainable. The challenge is to make this so, outside the institutions, but inside the networks.

Understanding the nature of network topologies underpins any strategy to help networked journalists reclaim journalism from institutionalised media networks. Based around supporting individual journalists, social activists and cultural advocates rather than media institutions, such a strategy would better fit a sector overwhelmingly going mobile, in need of more accountability, diversity, independence and sustainability.

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