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Media and Democracy. Some Missing Links

Nick Couldry

I call our system a system of despair, and I find all the correction, all the revolution that is needed . . . in one word, in Hope.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson1

Emerson was writing about education in 1840s America in a fast-changing society that had a long way to go toward an effective representative democracy. This, after all, was before the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery, before the struggles to create trade unions, before the civil rights struggle for excluded black citizens in the 1950s and 1960s—and before America’s recent crisis over corporate and military influence on the federal administration of George W. Bush. But Emerson’s basic idea—seeing, for what it is, the despair written into the world around us and imagining “that something else is possible”2—is still relevant to today’s United States and to today’s Britain. It is still relevant to ask what might be the links between how we treat young people and address or ignore their hopes and the type of society we can expect in the future; it is still worth asking what resources might make a positive difference to those young people’s hopes and the society that for all of us emerges.

In fact, for those who want to build hope, this may be a particularly important moment, in Britain at least. For young citizens’ despair at the workings of British democracy is starting to come to the surface, where it can no longer be ignored. In the three most recent general elections in 2001, 2005, and 2010, voter turnout among 18- to 34-year-olds—that is, among those who are in or

Thanks to Tony Dowmunt, Mark Dunford, and Nicole van Hemert, the editors of Inclusion through Media (London: Goldsmiths, 2007), where this chapter was originally published in very similar form.

have recently left full- time education—was below 50 percent. This is hardly surprising when in a recent survey only 27 percent of the UK adult population agreed with the statement “I have a say in how the country is run.”3 And the British government is beginning to get worried: quite rightly, because unless those who were 18—34 earlier in the decade start voting in greater numbers, Britain will cease to be a working democracy in the next decade or two. In 2001, for the first time in a modern peacetime election, fewer than 60 percent of voters turned out to vote. So British governments need to listen to their young citizens better or risk losing their legitimacy.

If governments need to listen, what should they be told, or perhaps reminded of? For one thing, in case we forget it, they should be reminded that Britain has become more, not less, unequal over the past two decades; for another, that local government in Britain has lost, not gained, power and resources over the same period, which means, inevitably, that the experience of effective democracy is much more distant from people than before. It is important to be clear that the issue is not voter apathy: as the Power report published in March 2006 argued, drawing on a lot of recent evidence and picking up a growing trend in the literature on political engagement, people in Britain are not uninterested in politics in principle; they do not have, or find, places where they can go to be listened to and have their views and ideas taken into account when government policy gets made and implemented.4 Or as my colleagues and I put it in a recent London School of Economics “Public Connection” study, the problem with British democracy is not a lack of public engagement on the part of its citizens but a lack of recognition of that engagement by governments.5

I’ll be drawing on the Public Connection study later, but this chapter is not mainly about political engagement, or even as we put it there about “public connection,” the basic level of orientation to a world of public issues on which any potential interest in politics depends. I want to focus instead on a problem within British democracy and a dimension of social injustice that even more rarely sees the light: I mean the undemocratic nature of the media, not the political process.

No one would deny the importance of the freedom that British media generally enjoy: the freedom to publish that once was severely restricted by government in various ways. No one would deny that this freedom is important to the very possibility of democracy. But that is not the same as saying that media institutions themselves are democratic, in the sense of taking account of the views of the citizens affected by what they publish or broadcast. Yet if media— vital institutions of democracy as they are—themselves operate in a way that is not open to democratic challenge, this is a democratic deficit too.

There are two ways of thinking about remedying that deficit. First, by making the process of media production more open to citizen intervention or, as the political philosopher James Bohman has put it, “widen[ing] the circuit of influence over the means of communication”;6 discussing this leads into media ethics and media regulation and would take me too far afield. The second way is by making fairer the distribution of the resources on which media rely— the resources to make media or, more simply, to tell stories and be listened to. It is this second route—challenging the injustice in how society’s storytelling resources are distributed—that I want to discuss here.

I am not a media practitioner; I am a media and social theorist. But my work in researching and thinking about media and media’s relationship to democracy—the conditions of democracy—has focused from the start on the unjust distribution of society’s resources for storytelling, or, more technically, the unequal distribution of “symbolic power.”7 Because I’m not a practitioner, I do not claim expertise in putting that injustice right; instead, I will try to explain why, and how, I think this injustice matters, and in that way I hope to contribute something to the debate on why we need more media and social justice projects and what it would mean for such projects to succeed.

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