Conservative MP Andrew MacKay is surrounded by the media as he leaves the Kerith Community Church in Bracknell where he addressed his constituents, May 22, 2009.
"The Media Must Take Some Responsibility"
June 15, 2009
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 20082010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
The media's cynicism is threatening British democracy. It needs to remember it is a power in itself.
Over the past month or so, the expenses scandal has engulfed us like a tornado, but there are some things which few have had the courage to say out loud. But when the people we rely on to do an important public duty let us down this badly, someone has to say something.
I'm not talking about MPs' expenses. Much of it has been indefensible, of course. But at least politicians know there's oversight. And in the recent elections, sure enough, those voters who weren't put off the process altogether turnout was down to a pitiful 34 per cent punished the big parties mercilessly.
I'm talking about our media, some elements of which have crossed the line between exposing guilty politicians and undermining the political process itself.
The media is an important check on power in this country. But parts of it do not always remember that this is an important power in itself. And this power comes with responsibilities to the public interest.
The first responsibility is to tell the whole truth. In this scandal, too many commentators have seemed to think that the public interest is best served by their all jumping onto the same bandwagon to tell us the same story: politicians are the bad guys. They are wrong. The public interest is best served by their actually doing what they are paid to do to report fairly who did what. And that involves admitting that not only did a few MPs make honest mistakes, but that some have come out of these revelations with their reputations actually improved, by claiming little or nothing. In short: politics like every other profession contains good and bad eggs alike. It may not be big news, but brushing it under the carpet because it doesn't fit the story they want to tell is misleading and unfair.
The second responsibility is to the health of our democracy. Trust in politics is at an all-time low. Few people vote these days, as the Euro elections showed. Even fewer actually believe in the integrity of the politicians they're voting for. The word 'politician' is practically an insult.
But that's not just a problem for politicians. It's a problem for all of us. Because however much we treat our politicians like our doormats, they're still our leaders. And if we believe we're not being well-led, it reflects badly on us to just whine about it. The right thing to do is to get up, get involved, and try to change it. As anyone from Cuba or Myanmar can tell you, that is the whole advantage of living in a democracy.
In the US, many people have an almost religious faith in the political system and its ability to renew itself and move forward. We have seen this again and again, with Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, and now Obama. But in the UK, too many of us don't distinguish the faces of our current representatives which we may like or dislike from the political system as a whole, which is ours to revive and recreate.
And the more the media fail to make this distinction and direct their bile at politicians as a whole, the more people are demotivated from even trying to get involved. That means our system doesn't renew and improve itself as it is supposed to. The sense that politics is just corruption by other means becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; people look down on public service, the quality of our leaders goes down, and everyone suffers.
Politicians will, whether by election or deselection, be forced to change their behaviour for the good of our political system. When it is taking a destructive course, nothing can force the media to change, except its own conscience.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Program, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; world fellow at Yale University and a member of the Deans International Council, Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago.
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