Media Freedom by richard barbrook


In the late-medieval period, the emergence of the capitalist economy destroyed the intimacy of village and urban life. As people needed to communicate across time and space, the media were invented to carry news of economic and political events. At the same time, the creation of civil society also led to the overthrow of the absolute monarchies. From the beginning, the struggle for media freedom has been synonymous with this formation of the democratic republic. However the further development of capitalism has exposed the contradictions at the heart of modern politics and media: the need for representation. Although media freedom was originally defined as the right of journalist-printers to express their own opinions in print, the media freedom of the owners of printing presses presupposed the exclusion of most of the population. The propertyless majority may have possessed media freedom in theory but were unable to exercise it in practice. Not surprisingly, as in politics, most people were willing to accept representation as a substitution for participation. Just as parliamentary democracy created the conditions for universal suffrage, the industrialisation of the media reduced the price of information to levels affordable by all sections of the population.

Ever since the disappearance of the traditional interpretation of media freedom, there have been repeated attempts to reconcile the rhetoric of participation with the reality of representation. In the various Jacobin models, the views of the majority of the population were more or less successfully articulated by political parties. With the advent of the crisis of Fordism, there have been both left-wing and right wing attempts to surpass the limitations of the indirect forms of media freedom. Despite the failures of the New Left and the neo-liberals, the current revival of interest in the electronic marketplace and electronic agora demonstrates the persistence of this central contradiction within media freedom. Just as the crisis of representation within the state can only be resolved through the end of the separation of politics from control by civil society, so the construction of the electronic agora offers the democratic solution to overcoming domination by the 'spectacle'. Until everyone can participate freely in the production and consumption, the struggle for media freedom cannot be over.

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