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Culture: Jurgen Habermas: subsidising the Press and the Internet
Thursday, 24 May 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
The Press in the West is a vital agent both of the dispersal of entertainment and of the sustenance of a political culture. Most of us absorb our ideas about politics from the press and what journalists write about it: even new forms of communication like the private blog are to some extent parasitic upon the main newspapers.

Newspapers of record- one might name Le Monde in France, the New York Times in America, the Financial Times, Guardian or Telegraph in Britain and various other counterparts in those and other countries- maintain a shared standard of fact around which others argue and dispute. Those papers form and create a political culture and sustain it by feeding the rest of us with the data upon which to argue.

Jurgen Habermas- one of the foremost European intellectuals of the last century- though has become like many others worried about the direction of developments in the media over the last twenty odd years. In this article originally published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Habermas notes what he sees as the worrying decline in serious journalism and lays out some of what he thinks the outcomes of that will be for the politics of our times.

Why is Habermas worried?

Habermas's worry stems from the growing capitalisation of the newspapers of the world- beneficent families or foundations- one thinks of the Sulzbergers and the New York Times or the Scott Trust and the Guardian- are giving way to moguls like Rupert Murdoch or Conrad Black and furthermore to equity companies who seek to asset strip newspapers whilst maintaining sales. This has led, in Habermas's thinking, to newspapers becoming more accessible and less concerned with expensive reporting or expertise- an article on Britney Spears's crotch gets more readers and costs less than a detailed report from Pakistan.

Habermas wants us to reflect on what this means for our democratic culture- ultimately the danger is that it deprives us of a number of things essential to maintaining what is at the moment a democracy. Without information which is produced from expensive sources of news like foreign correspondents, we can't take decisions appropriately. Furthermore as newspapers often perform the role of gatekeepers- informing the public about new developments in culture, academia and the arts- as the papers dumb down so does the population with them. Professor Habermas's point is that in order to have good citizens we need the papers to inform as well as entertain- we could have papers which would satisfy everyone, which most people would buy, but which could not cohere with a functioning democracy.

Professor Habermas is right to be worried. He is right to be worried that once we lose foreign correspondents or indeed book sections newspapers cease to fulfill their purpose as a device to improve citizenship. Furthermore there is another danger- the increased proliferation of media outlets leads to a world where different people have completely different sets of information. Perhaps this is most evident in the most sophisticated media market in the world- the United States- where a rightwinger could listen to Fox News, find his encyclopedia on Conservapedia and his videos on GodTube whereas a Liberal uses completely different sources of information- the common ground that facilitates political dialogue has broken down.

One of the problems within modern society thus is the way that we think about the press. We too often think about the press as though it were a normal part of the market but of course it isn't. Even editors acknowledge that it isn't when they cite the public interest in Britney's knickers as a reason to show a photo- (the term public interest is fascinating in this context and I have written about it elsewhere) but given that there is a public interest in the press it behoves us to consider whether the best results are produced in journalism by commercial organisations- Professor Habermas offers several reasons why the profit motive whilst it may produce the most popular press may not produce the most useful press within a Republic- ie the press that stimulates citizenship most. Just to support his argument- it is worth noting that the most intelligent channel of broadcasting in the UK is maintained by a public corporation- Radio 4 beats handsdown any commercial organisation and in the US, PBS occupies a similar place.

But should we do anything about it

Well of course there is something here- but there is also a counterveiling consideration. If we are to accept that the press generates a something which a commercial press doesn't always protect, then the obvious corrolary is that the state in some sense should intervene to protect the quality press. But here we come into a problem- and its an obvious one. The problem is that of propaganda and the state's relationship to dissemination of truth.

There are obvious arguments on the libertarian side against this conception of press freedom. Any state support for the press is arguably a limit on the liberty of expression- because it tilts the market place and furthermore it forces people to consume. For reasons given above that might not be a bad thing- but it still behoves us to acknowledge there is a conflict. Professor Habermas's solution- subsidy of serious newspapers does acknowledge that conflict- however the questions about what is a serious newspaper will always become difficult and what is the education of the public is even more difficult. Legal cases and administrativer squabbles may make Habermas's solution unworkable in the long run.

The libertarian argument is easy to understand but it also reveals huge problems. Basically in making a choice there are two dimensions- the first is my personal preference. The second more interestingly is the information I have to understand the choice. How for instance can I make a choice if I don't understand that there is a possibility of a more serious press between it and a frivolous press. In that case the market tends to provide the cheaper option- not because I want it but because I don't know that I could want it. How do I know what political philosophy to hold if like one big UK blogger I don't know about some of its main groups?

The main newspapers in that sense frame the national conversation- and if they don't provide an illuminating frame- politics becomes visceral and partisan and angry and ultimately it is more difficult to fulfill one's role as a citizen.

Lastly the Internet

Of course there is a last factor which we ought to bring in- the internet. In many ways the internet changes everything- it is now possible if you look hard enough to find intelligent comment about everything from football to Straussian Philosophy to libertarian socialism to the political situation in Europe or in the UK. Most of this is comment though it relies upon other people's reporting of what goes on- almost none of the people I've cited here would want you to rely solely upon them for reporting- for their accounts are partial, reflect their interests and ultimately are parasitic upon others for facts and information. It isn't that they aren't intelligent but that they rely upon others to report.

In that sense one could argue that Professor Habermas is being apocalyptic- intelligent comment survives in magazines and in places like Bits or indeed some blogs- there are two issues though here. The first one is that Professor Habermas is really pointing to the fact that resources are dying out for such comment- there isn't any longer a central place to find intelligent comment. Furthermore the resources that used to go into the networks of foreign correspondents and cultural reviewers are dying out- we see more parttime and less fulltime commentators- more in magazines writing features and less journalists writing articles. The second point is that there is a corresponding ghettoisation of the intelligent press- many fewer people will read the Economist than the Times and therefore the democracy suffers when the Times goes downhill. The number of people who are exposed regularly to intelligent news has fallen as the intelligent is forced from the mainstream to the fringe.

The internet exemplifies some of these trends. Often readers of gossip blogs will damn the more inciteful analytical blogs- Guido Fawkes in the UK has a particularly virrulent attitude to anything constituting analysis. And political polarisation is rife- for example very unfortunately at the moment the British blogs are dividing along left right lines, with few people linking or discussing between the factions. Similar things have happened in the US. Blogging does bring some quality commentary to the table though but still the ordinary consumer is left relying upon the standard sources of information- the traditional media whether on the web or off it- who have the resources to have correspondents from Tirana to Tampa Bay.

Is Habermas right?

There is a kind of default position for any article to take- which is to say that someone's analysis of the problem is right but their solution isn't. Unfortunately its the position in which I find myself today- I do think that Habermas is right to say that the serious press needs protection from cost cutting and that we ought to be concerned with the way that the standards of public speech which the press sets are low at the moment.

However this goes with two provisos- I think we do need a much more extensive study of market failure in the information that the press disseminates. As I've argued there is a very good reason to think that standerds in comment have not fallen as far as say they have in foreign news coverage. I am also not sure that Professor Habermas's solution works- subsidy might well involve law suits over what constitutes a serious newspaper. Perhaps in the UK changes in the BBC's charter might be the best way forward, to make the BBC more highbrow- in the US maybe a beefing up of PBS- in other countries other solutions could be adopted and its not clear what those might be.

To sum up- there is an issue here- the Press does fulfill a role which left to the market might not be fulfilled of opening up information and culture to citizens of a democracy- if it doesn't fulfill that role democracy itself eventually decays. There is more though that needs to be done both in terms of proving where the problem lies and also in terms of finding a solution.

Professor Habermas hasn't provided us with a last word to this discussion- merely a first paragraph.