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Media, power and decadence: some disquieting trends

While Australians face the possibility of the first-ever Senate by-election, as well as stormy sittings of a new parliament wrangling over the pro and cons of scrapping a carbon tax, 16,000 kilometres…

Silvio Berlusconi’s grip on power in Italy - albeit a hold that is slipping - has relied heavily on using his own media empire to exploit the political system. EPA/Angela Carconi

While Australians face the possibility of the first-ever Senate by-election, as well as stormy sittings of a new parliament wrangling over the pro and cons of scrapping a carbon tax, 16,000 kilometres away, in the troubled country known as Italy, an overcrowded parliament is furiously debating whether or not to strip a former prime minister of his Senate seat.

The Italian term for this particular case of “stripping” is decadenza, a word from medieval Latin (decadentia) used to describe a process of falling away, or losing someone, or something. In Silvio Berlusconi’s case, the old term decadence assumes a new double relevance. It refers not just to his possible loss of public office but to a deep-seated political trend that is arguably becoming worldwide: the growing use by governments of both mainstream and alternative digital media to wield power over citizens.

Measured in terms of the wider trend towards mediated power, the Berlusconi phenomenon is no Italian anomaly. Berlusconi is not just a serial womaniser, or leader of one of Italy’s three major political forces, or a recently convicted tax evader facing a two-year ban from political life. He symbolises a new decadent trend in all democracies, one that drags them down onto the same plane as so-called “authoritarian” regimes, with which they are conventionally contrasted.

Just as in Xi Jinping’s China, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Berlusconi’s grip on Italian politics relied on the tactical use of mediated power. Berlusconi spent most of the past two decades mobilising his own media empire to exploit the whole political system, along the way enabling his escape from justice and safeguard his financial empire. The past few months, in the aftermath of his tax fraud conviction, have been no exception in this respect.

Inside and outside parliament, debate rages over Berlusconi’s decadenza. Yet striking is the way his media machine has managed to mount a bold counter-campaign in his support. It depicts him as a victim of a rotten judicial system, a brave figure forced to run because he is being unjustly hunted down.

Sympathetic newspapers, radio and television channels and web-based platforms have morphed Berlusconi into a martyr, portrayed him as a casualty of a heavily politicised clique of allegedly Marxist-Leninist judges who (in his own words) are the true cancer of democracy simply because the man of the people who was chosen by the people should be judged by the people, and by the people alone.

Whatever the outcome of the latest episode in Berlusconi’s 20-year battle to slip through the nets of justice, the Italian case - despite all its strangely local peculiarities - reminds us of the vital importance of the old rule that no democratic system can survive and thrive unless it is embedded within a vibrant media system willing to stand up to governmental power.

The worrying fact is that states and politicians in many different parts of the world are now heavily into the flourishing business of trying to control public and private information flows, which (in spite of all the bumps and grinds) they do with increasing success.

A poet once remarked that the times, they are a-changin’. They are, but potentially for the worse. With varying degrees of sophistication and success, many governments, across the political spectrum, now routinely use crafty methods to control journalists, media firms and information flows, sometimes to the point where so-called democracies look remarkably like authoritarian regimes.

The ongoing NSA revelations are symptomatic of the growth of “toxic shadow states” anchored in invisible webs of closed-system connections between politicians, governments, journalists, big media firms, lobbyists and public relations specialists.

Cutting-edge cases are plentiful in central and eastern Europe, and elsewhere in the post-communist bloc, where young democracies, trying to cope with fragile institutions, polarised civil societies and transnational economic pressures, are particularly vulnerable to governments’ exercise of mediated power. Something similar is happening in more than a few Asian countries.

In Malaysia, for instance, mediated power has been a major factor in the National Front’s decades-long monopoly of government. Most of Malaysia’s traditional national media (radio, print newspapers and television) is owned by or associated with business interests close to the ruling coalition, and strictly regulated and controlled by the authorities. Mainstream media coverage is almost never critical of the government, while the views of the opposition parties are usually given limited space.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Reporters Without Borders recently listed Malaysia 145th in the world on its Press Freedom Index, its lowest-ever ranking, expressing concern that “information is becoming more and more limited”.

A strictly-controlled media have played a key role in the Najib Razak-led National Front’s continued domination of Malaysian politics. EPA/Ahmad Yusni

Singapore (ranked 149th in the same list) exemplifies the same trend. Like the People’s Republic of China, it is a one party-state heavily dependent on mediated power. Through strictly regulated license fees, economic pressure and a widespread culture of self-censorship, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has for many years maintained tight control over mainstream media. Directors of major media companies are filled with PAP members, or by executives directly linked to the party.

It is true that during the 2011 general election, when the PAP again won an overwhelming majority of seats (81 out of 87 seats), Singapore’s polity was rocked to its foundations. The PAP secured only 60.1% of the vote, the lowest figure since independence in 1965.

It seemed that the days were over when PAP leaders could successfully demand deference from citizens, in the name of “Asian values” and Confucian norms. Yet there are signs that the ruling party is now gearing up to outflank a citizenry that has become accustomed to freewheeling blogs and online forums.

Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) recently announced a series of new regulations to tighten the government control of online media, especially internet sites that are critical of the PAP, or regularly report on Singapore and have significant exposure to Singaporeans.

The MDA now requires these sites to apply for individual licences, which must be renewed annually. Each renewal is subject to a “performance bond” of 50,000 Singapore dollars and the sites must agree to remove any “objectionable” content within 24 hours of receiving a request from the government.

The Singapore government plans to extend this ruling across borders, to include overseas-based sites that report regularly on the country’s affairs. The thoroughly 21st century model of mediated power they have in mind attests to the way in which “Eastern” and “Western” cases of mediated power are today converging, and probably on the ascendancy. There is even evidence that they are actively comparing notes and swapping and applying new methods of controlling their citizenry.

The whole trend ought to be worrying. It casts a long shadow over the future of democracy, and prompts more than a few disquieting questions. In matters of media and government, are old ideals of “press freedom” increasingly outflanked by new government surveillance and control methods that dig so deeply into citizens’ daily lives that “press freedom” becomes but a meaningless euphemism?

What can journalists and scholars, citizens and their representatives do to reverse the trend? Or are we drifting hopelessly, irreversibly towards a brave new world of unrestrained mediated power? Is it a future that will force us to give up the whole idea of democracy and its old-fashioned ideal of chastening and humbling the powerful, bringing them down to earth by placing them under public control?


The topic of mediated power, democracy and decadence is addressed next week in the opening event of a five-day Festival of Democracy. The event features distinguished local and international guests, including Miklos Sukosd (from Hong Kong), James Gomez (from Malaysia), Jan Zielonka (from Oxford), Andrew Jaspan (The Conversation), Stephanie Hemelryk-Donald and Martin Krygier (University of New South Wales), Connie Levett (Sydney Morning Herald) and Benedetta Brevini, Peter Fray, John Keane and Giovanni Navarria (University of Sydney).

The Festival of Democracy full program is now available. Registration for each event is essential. Spaces for some events are strictly limited. Please RSVP to idhr@sydney.edu.au with the name of each event you wish to attend.

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23 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    This article does reflect the basis of government as practiced, but it is a tempting idea, that as a group of individuals, the citizenry exercise 'control' over the executive, within a democracy. How else does the group rule, but by exercising control? How does one exercise control, but by discussing in fine detail, all the public actions of the executive, that can be discussed, thus allowing the public to both communicate directly, articulate ideas through the media (reversing mediated control mentioned) and of course through choosing parties or representatives through elections who espouse the policies which align closely to the wishes of people.

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  2. john davies
    john davies is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired engineer

    A timely contribution in view of what is happening here.

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  3. Ronald Ostrowski

    logged in via Facebook

    The traditional Australian journalistic class are happily becoming the herd led by Murdoch, who in his twilight years can smugly claim 'mission accomplished' as so many Australians voted against their own interests on the strength of gross media fact-impairment and media driven political activism. The public conversation as facilitated by Australia's fifth estate has become severely anti-intellectual and has incredulously dismissed peer reviewed science and astute economic commentary as fanaticism…

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  4. Will Ross

    Student

    A brilliant article; I think it is past time that some of the 'democratic' systems of the world came under more scrutiny for their decidedly non-democratic actions. The power of media over public consensus and informed opinion cannot be understated in future. Now more than ever do we need to guard against those unabashedly biased media empires which denounce fact and prioritise income over credibility.

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  5. Venise Alstergren
    Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

    photographer, blogger.

    Democracy versus demagogy. This used to be the stuff of Hollywood movies. Poor clapped-out hero takes on Citizen Kane-and wins. Audiences of that era actually cared about the outcome of the war between good v not so good.

    In Australia any link between democracy and demagogy has been irretrievably severed. Whatever chance we had to be a free thinking and mentally unencumbered electorate has vanished, possibly for ever. It is difficult to pick which is the main cause of the most egregiously…

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    1. Ron Bowden

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      Excellent post, Venise. Can't help but agree with your sentiments.
      I've often thought a political qualification would be a good thing but how long would it be before that, too, became corrupted?
      Similar with ethics. Just as you can't teach common sense to a fool, you can't make a rogue ethical.
      We're in a bind,aren't we?

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    2. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Ron Bowden

      Your final paragraph. I think so.

      On the corruption front, it seems there is no area of endeavour which cannot be corrupted. Then it's back to sorting out where the corruption lies, etc--as per my comment. It would be interesting to look at previous societies to determine their rate of corruption. Although honesty compels me to think; yes 'they' (The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, etc) were infinitely corrupt. It is the ease of communication that exposes so many corrupt Eddie Arbieds of today.

      Cheers

      Venise

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      Of course Alexander and the Macedonians, alarmed at the corruption of Athenian politics by Persian Gold, were driven to take action for which we are all the beneficiaries.
      The corrupt Athenians sent their ill-trained youth out to be slaughtered by Philip of Macedon, rather that abandon their Persian gold, as Philip's pre-battle oration on the subject, shows.
      So, when discussing corruption in the ancient world, Lord Acton's observation that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely…

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    4. Michael Gormly

      Editor at Superkern Design Pty Ltd

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      Rather than politics itself, schools and universities should teach critical thinking and formal logic. There's nothing like being able to list the fallacies in a politician's speech or shock-jock's rant to puncture their credibility - and therefore their ability to manipulate opinion.

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Michael Gormly

      Spot on, Michael!

      One of my treasured memories from year 12 in high school was just such an exercise in clear, critical thinking. I went to a free school in Brunswick in Melbourne so, as you might imagine, back in 1973, the politics of the student body tended to be a tad left of centre and certainly rather less than favourable to the Vietnam war. The teacher handed out a recent speech from (I can't remember exactly whom - the Defence Minister or Foreign Minister) talking about the war. He asked…

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    6. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to James Hill

      We send our troops to be slaughtered in America's wars; not one of which that country has won since the Korean war-which, in itself, is a moot point.

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    7. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Michael Gormly

      I think universities do teach critical thinking-=on application, as it were, but by the time an undergraduate gets to university, it's already too late.

      Ideally schools should teach these concepts. Only trouble is the Catholic church would reject this-probably on the grounds of destroying people's liberty. A euphemism for, "How dare anyone bring logic to bear on anything. Next thing they'll want to question is Catholicism itself!"

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  6. John Rutherford

    Worker

    People are apathetic.some probably even trust ? politicians..They seem to stick with the mainstream media as it is too hard to look for a bigger picture and are led like sheep and like sheep the slaughter house is getting nearer.Incrementally over the last 30-40 yrs the whole system has been corrupted by big business and cheap money. It will end and not in a way many see coming
    The only way to make the system work is to have an open one where the Govt and its members are open to public scrutiny on everything they do and whom they meet with and all spending is up front.It is our money they spend.They are there to administer that spending for us and to rule for us....." NOT OVER US "
    BUT being corrupt and cowardly the current lot could not go near that.

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  7. Bob Bingham

    logged in via Facebook

    I would like to think that this article refers to the old media of printed newspapers and TV. Murdoch's empire is being exposed as involved in criminal activities and his blatant support to put Abbott in power for a deal on the fibre optic activities may be his last major play.
    I relate the internet to the invention of the movable type face in about 1350 which led to the overthrow of the power of the church and eventually to democracy. There is a long way to go yet.

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    1. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Bob Bingham

      I'm sorry, but Rupert Murdoch has taken to online media with ease. all he has to do is to employ his minions to do it. Once you get to be as big as he is you never have to front up to legalities; you simply hire people who will take the rap for you. Rebekka Woods being a case in point.

      You second, and final paragraph is a wistful little wish. If William Caxton's invention had worked the way you suggest there would be no more filthy rich religions. Religions which tell people to breed ad nauseum…

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  8. Mark Lawson

    senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

    I have no particular comment to make on the article, except to say that it cannot be used to discern any trends. All the incidents noted by the authors are in known authoritarian countries, apart from Italy, and even there the authors neglect to show just how matters are worse then in previous decades. Corruption and crime have always been rife in Italy and press freedom is in a different category. That the media there can be leaned on to give favorable stories with greater ease than here is far from surprising.. Has it become better or worse of late, and how is it measured?

    As for Malaysia, what's changed? The government has always had tight control of the press there. China is now vastly more open than it was. Obviously it has a very long way to go, but that just reflects how bad it was before.Same could be said about Russia, more or less.. Putin keeps a tight hold on the media but it would be nothing compared to the Soviet era.

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    1. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      And which form of corruption is more odious than another? Here, in Australia we produced one of the greatest and most sickening forms of corruption in our history when the Australian Wheat Board was discovered to be forwarding millions of dollars to Saddam Hussein, as a bribe to accept the AWBs shipments. To pile one form of corruption onto another one, absolutely NO EFFORT was made to bring the guilty people to trial/justice, because it would have shone too much light on the shonky practices of…

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    2. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      @Venise & @Mark Lawson re: "Had you not noticed the ease with which .... " Oh Venice, Mark noticed. He didn't miss it, not by a long shot. I'm sure many a humourous discussion was had by all along the way over a scotch or several. :)

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  9. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Berlusconi's battle with the judiciary is reminiscent of the nascent struggles emerging between Queensland's Campbell Newman and the judges of that Australian state.
    Then there are the similarities in the religious background of the two men to consider.
    Is this "infallibility" leadership meme inculcated at religious schools versus " democracy", with democracy, unsurprisingly, coming off second best?
    Could our erstwhile "Rulers" be given a psychological test to reveal their true predelictions with regard to democracy?
    So that the nation might be protected?
    Not an entirely unreasonable request?

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to James Hill

      I always rather liked the cynical old Taoist view that you really needed to trick people into becoming rulers, because anyone who volunteered for the task automatically invalidated himself...

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  10. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    I agree, but doesn’t one need a certain amount of wealth and power to be able to set up a newspaper or TV network? Any lesser individual can’t get a look in. And anyway, most people seem to want authoritarian leaders. If you don’t believe me, read: http://members.shaw.ca/jeanaltemeyer/drbob/TheAuthoritarians.pdf
    The internet was going to provide a cure-all, but it simply represents global anarchy now, awaiting subversion by the powerful, wealthy authoritarians; could this be the ultimate conspiracy?

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  11. John Thompson

    Spinach

    Good article - but rather depressing.
    Cambodia is another sad case. After enduring the murderous Pol Pot regime, the poor Cambodians now suffer under the corrupt Hun Sen government that is masterful (and brutal) in its control of the local media.

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