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Richard Barbrook
media freedom
free speech
representation
censorship


Introduction
part 1

Nowadays, almost everybody believes that media freedom is an essential prerequisite of a modern democracy. When an authoritarian regime is overthrown, the first act of the new democratic government is usually the abandonment of direct controls by the state over the media. With the worldwide spread of political democracy, credible politicians can no longer advocate muzzling the media in the name of some higher social goal, such as the defence of the national interest or the liberation of the dispossessed. On contrary, voters rely on the unshackled media to expose the abuses of those with power and wealth. Cynical of the self-interest of their rulers, they believe that the media are often the most effective defenders of their democratic rights.

At the same time, many people are also convinced that the dominance of the media over our societies is slowly destroying democratic politics. Within all industrialised democracies, most citizens feel increasingly powerless to influence political decision-making. By turning political conflicts into a branch of show business, the media are often blamed for exacerbating this crisis of representation. For many voters, their feelings of exclusion from the political process are confirmed by the nightly spectacle of self-obsessed arguments between professional politicians on the television news bulletins about matters unconnected with the concerns of ordinary people. Instead of providing an opportunity for rational debate between rival ideologies, the media are accused of having transformed contemporary politics into a series of spurious quarrels, mindless soundbites and trivial photo opportunities.

Yet, the bitter struggles to win freedom for the media weren't fought to provide an arcane spectator sport for political couch potatoes. For the revolutionary heroes of the past, the fight to abolish censorship and other restrictions was necessary to allow ordinary people to produce their own media. In their view, the involvement of citizens within the media was an integral part of popular participation in democratic politics. Our contemporary unease about the role of the media derives from the contradiction between the rhetoric of the past and reality of the present. In theory, media freedom is needed so that everyone can participate as citizens of a political democracy. However, in practice, the winning of freedom for the media has actually turned most people into spectators of the political process. This article explores and explains the history of this contradiction within the concept of media freedom. For, if we can understand how we arrived at our current predicament, we can also discover how to resolve the contradictions of media freedom in the interests of the majority of the population.

 
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