Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Illiberal World and Broadcast Media's Last Stand

I can be accused of 'media determinism', but looking at the current wave of illiberal politics, I can't help but believe that this is the last stand of the broadcast media. 

Two countries I closely follow are caught up in the same 'illiberal' wave - India and Britain. Two very different countries, at different stages of development: A matured media scene in Britain, where newspapers are dying and even Rupert Murdoch has to fight for his corner, when in India, ever expanding newspaper circulation and 24x7 news channels seem to defy gravity. But, then, it could perhaps be seen across the world: Even the technologically advanced Japan, the newly resurgent Russia, and even inside the Facebook nation - a march of illiberal views, based on intolerance, rejection of the other, and increasingly, violence, at least of the verbal kind.

Cass Sunstein argues that this is resulting from 'media personalisation', a new media phenomenon rather than the old media (in Republic 2.0). We can now choose our media diet by using various tools afforded by the Internet, and this leads us to an 'Echo Chamber', where we only hear voices that are like us. In Sunstein's conception, this leads to an increasingly divided society - you don't want to participate in a coffee-house debate anymore - and creates the 'illiberal' society that I am talking about.

I shall argue that this overstates the effect media personalisation is having, at least outside the developed societies, or shall we say, the 'anglophone' sphere. The tools exist, but the mass mobilisation for a certain dominant view of the world, a mix of free markets but unfree society, currently espoused in its extreme form by as unlikely figures as Marine Le Pen, Narendra Modi and Nigel Farage, are creeping into the domain of mass politics and changing the discussion within the political establishment. This is the work of broadcast media: It is only fitting that Nigel Farage and Liberal Leader Nick Clegg fought it out on Europe on radio recently, where Nigel Farage's xenophobia own the day and Clegg only appeared to be an wonkish, out of touch politician. 

Indeed, Clegg can't complain, because he himself has benefitted handsomely from Broadcast media. He became a national figure in Britain only because he looked good on TV, where a poor, old, tired and even more wonkish Gordon Brown was trumped by the populist, young, good-looking dual act of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. And, TV is what is making Narendra Modi, despite his bot-army unleashed on the Internet: As India goes through its election, the Internet has turned against Modi, leaking out all sorts of inconvenient news, footage, and views that his bots try aggressively to suppress, intimidate and simply block - and therefore, he is making extra efforts to buy out paid interviews and threatening the other TV channels into submission. 

Despite Sunstein's warning of the 'Echo Chambers', this looks like the Broadcast media's last stand. Particularly of Television, which is changing in itself. The proliferation of channels did expand choice, but reduced the responsibility of the individual broadcasters. The old world principles of balanced coverage has now been given up - the existence of anti- channels justified the existence of pro- channels - somewhat defying the logic that the audience is not likely to watch two news channels at the same time, and the existence of some propaganda channels do not justify the abandonment of balance by the others (and, indeed, the same responsibility applies to bloggers, though they only can have a fairly limited impact).

However, I shall see this moment not as the moment of triumph of the broadcast media, but its last stand. Gone are those days when they unleashed not just the young looking, but also the rhetoric of freedom: Kennedy's upending Nixon was not just a win for his good looks, but also his fresh-sounding ideas of freedom. But, the words of freedom are now overused, and the Television's refuge now is the idea of purity. Despite Franklin's warnings against the trade-off between liberty and security, the increasingly besieged broadcast media instinctively sympathise with those feeling uncertain and besieged by globalisation, those who want to retreat to an imaginary 'pure' communities, the ideals of the Midsomer Murder's world, of Nigel Farage's world. Madison may have warned that such retreat never restores the security or happiness, but that is a view the Television may want to peddle right now, if only because the media itself is dreaming of a return to the days before Internet, and if possible, even to 60s world, days before the cable.

But Madison may still prevail because the same illiberalism that is feeding the broadcast media now must necessarily destroy it. The leaders who come to power riding on the power of broadcast media knows how powerful the media could be, and indeed, the way to perpetuate their powers must start with destroying the powers of such media. They would seek to suppress or fragment the media and render it impotent, and the disconnect between life and screen eventually, but inevitably, creates spaces for new forms of talk. Indeed, the media theorist Tim Wu talks about even this new form of talk eventually getting monopolised and becoming a tool of power, rather than a tool of freedom, eventually, and worries whether we are already seeing this on the Internet (in The Master Switch), but I shall argue, this still lies in the future. For the moment, Broadcast Media is unleashing a 'triumphant calamity' (using Horkheimer and Adorno's phrase, as they sound as relevant as ever), which will, eventually, subsume itself. 

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