The role of journalism in the modern democracy has come under the spotlight in recent months, particularly in the UK, with Tony Blair under pressure from the BBC and other sources, and being defended by the 'Murdoch press'. In the US, The New York Times, a bastion of propriety in the past, was recently hit by a series of devastating blows, peaking at the sacking of another Blair, Jayson. Their cough has been softened somewhat in the battle against the Bush agenda, a very difficult battle indeed. Maintaining the balance between patriotism (serving the country, and the people - the readers), on the one hand, and non-partisanship, on the other, is extremely difficult, and all the more so when the press is forced to rein in the government in the absence of coherent and powerful opposition. Oppositions seem to be the most telling factor in all of this.
In the UK, the Conservatives have lumbered from one landslide defeat in 1997 to another last year, changing leader three times in the process, and appearing bereft of coherent policies. They supported the war irrespective of the suggested or legal justification, but now attack the prime minister, sensing blood, for his 'misleading' build up to the war. That he misled is the problem. No problem with the war itself though. Put this together with the various in-fighting and backbiting that was aired three months ago, and you have an opposition that is imploding.
In the US, the democratic party is in turmoil. The bitterness following Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 election turned many grassroots Democrats off politics, and much of the spirit was lost. Clinton's ignominious exit didn't help, and the difficulty in locating a suitable candidate for the 2004 race was predictable. Winning will be difficult, against a reasonably popular incumbent at wartime. Coupled with that, Hilary Clinton's decision not to run significantly undermines any Democratic candidate. As arguably the most suitable candidate for the nomination, Hilary considered that the 2008 race would be a better bet. This has two significant implications - first, she is implicitly stating that she does not believe that the Democrat's best candidate (herself) has a good chance of winning; second, her waiting for 2008 means that she wants to see Bush win the 2004 election, giving her her best platform in the absence of an incumbent opponent. All of this means that the Democrats are not presenting the kind of coherent opposition that such a position demands, and, worse still, the two current frontrunners for the nomination are both pro and anti war. Arguing with themselves, apparently.
Ireland appears to be the world in microcosm. In 2002, it was the unanimous conclusion of the political media that the election was the first in history that the opposition had lost! Fine Gael, the main opposition party, dropped 35% of their vote, the Labour party, the second oppostion party, remained static, and the two government parties, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, increased their vote, albeit marginally. The big gainers were independents and fringe parties such as the Greens and Sinn Féin. Both major opposition parties promptly replaced their leaders, and while Fine Gael are searching for a raison d'étre, the Labour party appear to have discovered theirs as being the biggest party in opposition, rather than a viable government proposition. Significant inroads have been made, admittedly, in highlighting the government's shortcomings in a first year that has seen them break just about every manifesto pledge on the basis of a faltering economy. That they didn't know in advance of the election that the economy was in the shape that it was beggars belief - it is simply not true. But no one cared to ask. The media have taken up the task, deriding in particular the performance of the health minister, whose very public spat with the finance minister over funding of the health service twelve months ago has left neither looking very good. Cutbacks are inevitable; it is that they were not foreseen that is incredible, by either the media or the journalists.
Where then lies the media? In an interview with the Taoiseach (prime minister) today on RTE Television, he claimed that Ireland's debt was the lowest in Europe. This is not true. He claimed that Ireland's economy was the best performing in Europe. This is not true. Yet he got away with it. This was the soundbyte he wanted, this is the soundbyte he got. Party political broadcasts should be labelled in that way so that people can make their own minds up. When presented as serious journalism it delivers for the speaker a third-party trusted endorsement, compromising the journalist and the medium. Media becomes an arm of government. Commentary in this context is absolutely necessary - to merely report that the Taoiseach said this or the Taoiseach said that is wholly improper, and lazy journalism. Worse still, it fundamentally compromises the state and its various institutions, most notably the constitution itself. Journalism and the media have a duty to debunk misconceptions, to protect against the propagation of falsehoods, and to expose lies and deceipt for what they are. To not do this, and to repeat such misconceptions, falsehoods, lies and deceipt compound the problem by endorsing it. The end result is that the medium is itself compromised in the long run, neutered. The last defensive line of democracy is gone. Chavez Venezuela? Berlusconi's Italy? It's closer to home than you think.