Where are the media important to democracy?
The media important to democracy? All governments, in every type of political system, seek to win for their policies the support or acquiescence of the population. And since a large population can only be reached through the means f mass communication press radio or television these media play a central political role in contemporary societies.
In a democracy, however, the media have important functions other than simply to provide a channel and government propaganda. These are to investigate government, to inform the public, to provide a forum for political debates and to act as a channel for public opinion to, and for popular pressure upon, the government.
Journalist as ‘Watchdog’
The investigate and informative functions of the media are necessary to combat every government’s preferences for secrecy, and to offset the sheer weight of its public relations machine.
A government can only be held publicly accountable if people know what it is doing, and if they have independence means of testing official claims about its policies. Whilst the media must not overstep the bounds of privacy, it is their task to impart information and a conception of the public interest, and it is right of public to receive them. Were it otherwise, the media would be unable to play their vital role of ‘Public watchdog’.
Besides the task of importing independent information, the media also provide a forum for public debate, through which ministers and other public figures can be interrogated in ways that the accessible to a mass audience and that allow for contributions ordinary citizens.
In doing so they also provide a vehicle for the expression of public opinion to the government. In all these respect the media serve to complement and reinforce the scrutinizing and deliberative functions of parliament by engaging the population as a whole.
Independence of the Media
However, the media can only perform these key democratic tasks if they are properly independent, and not dominated either by the government itself or powerful private interest. The dominance of a government can be limited by making the publicly financed media accountable to an independent commission or to representatives of citizens’ groups, and by allowing competition from privately finance media.
The dominance of powerful private interests can be restrained by limited concentrations of media ownership, and by other forms of regulation. None of these on their own, however, can guarantee and the media fulfill their democratic role impartially and effectively. Ultimately that depends and the independence and professionalism of journalism, editors and producers and upon a wide spread public acknowledgment of the vital contribution that the media make to the democratic process.