• The Government v. the People?

    We can all agree that a free press (and free media more generally) are important factors in a well-functioning democracy. But I am beginning to wonder if they provide us with an unalloyed benefit.

    I am an avid consumer of daily news – whether delivered by the press or by the broadcast media. And I have begun to notice what seems to be an increasing trend. What is regarded as “news” seems increasingly to fall within a particular category.

    Most news bulletins these days seem to comprise items of one particular kind. It seems that any individual or organisation can guarantee coverage as an item of “news” if they make a complaint – any complaint – to the effect that “the government” has somehow failed – has somehow done something that it should’t have, or has not done what it should have, or has acted, but “too little, too late”, or has listened to the wrong people, or has spent too little or too much, or has displeased them in some way.

    Complaints about the government seem to be manna from heaven to the news reporters. They require very little work – that can be left to, and has presumably already been done by, the complainant. All that is necessary is to offer the complainant a platform and – hey presto! – you have a news story.

    And there is always the even more welcome opportunity to put a government spokesperson on the spot, and to require them – whether or not the complaint has any substance – to account for themselves.

    I should make it clear that, although I am a supporter of the present government, the trend seems to have established itself over recent years, whatever colour the government of the day might be.

    But, you might say, isn’t that the role of the news media, to hold those who govern us to account?

    Yes, of course, but if it becomes the mainstay and staple diet of the news media, it can deliver an unwelcome injury to our democracy and convey a mischievous, damaging and inaccurate picture of its operation .

    It can offer, all too easily, a view of public affairs as, essentially, “the people” against, and the victims of, “the government” – and that would do no one any good. The proper functioning of democratic government is subject to quite enough challenges, not least from the social media, without concocting a false dichotomy between the popular will and the functions of government.

    The USA offers us an uncomfortable picture and warning of what happens when large numbers lose confidence, not just in a particular government, but in the whole concept of government in general. And that state of affairs dates back much further than Donald Trump – probably as far back as Ronald Reagan.

    It was “the Gipper”, after all, who famously said that “government is not the solution – government is the problem” and that “the most frightening phrase one can hear is “I’m from the government.”

    We (and our media) need to grasp that, in a democracy, government is the one actor we can rely on to protect and advance the general interest. There is all the difference in the world between holding government agents to account for failures on particular issues, and allowing an anti-government sentiment to take root. Without an effective government, we are all at the mercy of the powerful, the selfish and the ruthless.

    Bryan Gould
    16 April 2021

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