Last weekend was the 12th annual Media Democracy Day in Vancouver. For me, it was a time to consider the connection between the political challenges we face and the ways that information is disseminated and shared in our society.
With technology, we live in a time of unprecedented information abundance. However, the concentration of ownership and corporate nature of most media – both traditional and social – means that progressive voices have an uphill battle getting an equal hearing in the public discussion. Vital ideas are often excluded or buried under a mountain of pro status quo editorials and ubiquitous corporate advertising.
In Canada, we suffer under a federal government that carefully manages and targets its messages. The idea of media democracy – which means the availability of diverse critical views, but also an informed and engaged public – is antithetical to the Harper government’s whole project.
The whole premise of Stephen Harper’s government really appears to be that people are, and will remain, uninformed. And that, even if they are informed, they will fail to act, or at least they will only act on their fears.
So, it is that Harper and his government communicates with unrelenting cynicism. Every utterance, every sports or military related tweet, every press release and every tightly controlled media conference or photo-op aims only to convey a specific message to a specific targeted voter.
If you are not a targeted voter, Harper does not care, and he hopes and assumes you don’t care too much, either. The term media democracy implies citizens who are not just carefully reading a healthy range of media, but producing and distributing their own media.
This is where the power of social media comes in, and it should not be underestimated. Twitter and Facebook have proven to be catalysts and amplifiers of movements that have shaken the world in recent months and years, from the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street and Quebec’s Maple Spring. Social media didn’t, by any means, make those movements happen, but it did help to multiply their impacts once they got going.
Love it or hate it, social media has become a crucial part of the modern agora – it’s a key place where the issues of the day are debated. Twitter – with its open, public conversations, and its users’ tendencies to use humour, wit and creativity – goes against everything about the way the Harper government likes to communicate. Once a serious movement takes shape in Canada, social media will be crucial, and this government’s careful managing of the media may unravel once and for all.
For all these reasons, media democracy is essential to defeating Harper’s agenda, but also to challenging the systems that Harper serves. I’m talking about capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy and neo-colonialism, among others.
Part of the democracy we need in the media is more frequent, sharp debates in which things are called by their actual names. Instead, in the mainstream media at present, we tend to have a bunch of people – usually white and middle class – on TV segments like CBC’s At Issue. They always agree with and defend the system, tend to dismiss or outright mock protests and, more often than not, they more or less agree with each other.
You can’t say that we have media democracy in Canada when you have a public broadcaster whose flagship political discussion segment acts as if the political spectrum only goes from the centre-right to the right. At the very least, one of the four panelists on At Issue should be openly progressive, if not explicitly left-wing in their views.
We live in times of big and serious crises – economic, social and ecological. As a prerequisite for solving these problems, we need to be discussing and debating big and serious ideas.
In my opinion, for example, the continuation of capitalist business-as-usual is incompatible with the long-term survival of the human race. At first blush, for many people, that statement might seem a bit crazy. But that’s only because we almost never hear such things in the media.
But, given the shocking signs of the impact that climate change is already having – and the frightening record melting taking place in the Arctic and Greenland – to me, the crazy thing is that we are not constantly debating whether capitalism needs to go. In our mainstream media, it’s hard to even find serious discussion about whether the system needs to be seriously reformed.
We must change who controls the present, or we risk having no future, or a future too barbaric to dare imagine. An important part of these efforts must be directed to changing the media landscape and making it more diverse and representative of the full range of people and views in our society.