Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part III: Democracy in Crisis

The Future of Canadian Democracy: A Personal Journey.
Part III: Democracy in Crisis

As I indicated in my previous post, there has been a lot more discussion in the mainstream media about climate change lately. My last blog focussed on one way in which the media is failing Canadians, and in fact all citizens of western democracies. In this blog, I’d like to focus on how the media has become the mouthpiece of government and why this is a problem for democracy.

Remember China. Recall that earlier I indicated that one of the signs of a truly democratic society used to be how free their media was to report on the truth? The more under the thumb of government censors, the less free that society. Well, that’s the old paradigm, although it still applies in parts of the world like China. We know that China’s media organizations are heavily censored, and we know that China is far from a free society.

Again, though, I don’t want you to think that I’m picking on China, because these posts really have more to do with Canada and “western democracies” than they do with China. China is a stand-in that I’m using as a real-world example of a totalitarian regime which is not free or democratic, and therefore is something to stand in opposition to the Canada in which many Canadians think that they inhabit.

But the paradigm about a free media being representative of a healthy democracy is an old paradigm, isn’t it? You, who are sympathetic to Green politics and who may even belong to the Green Party, are here because you believe that our government needs to reset its priorities. They’re not doing enough to address the issues which are important to you, your children, and our society. By way of an example, our government continues to ignore the fact that we are now in the midst of an environmental crisis brought on as a result of human-made climate change.

You probably agree that our democracy is not as healthy as it could be. You look at the wasted votes cast in the last federal election (almost two thirds wasted, cast for non-Conservative Party candidates). Maybe you look at the ever-increasing percentage of eligible voters who refuse to cast ballots, largely because they are disengaged from the political process. Our democracy is not healthy. Sure, we’re not as sick as the Soviet Union was, but we’ve got some problems.

I have come at this argument from the opposite perspective, to illustrate my point. I believe that our media is no longer truly free, as a result of corporate consolidation. I have provided examples in support of my thesis that the media can not be trusted to report the truth. I have asked that you look for other examples and come to your own conclusions about this.

Yet clearly our media is free of government interference, unlike the situation in China where government censors review the news before it is disseminated, or the situation in the former Soviet Union where the newsmedia was a department of the government. If you want examples of un-free media, surely those are better choices, no?

No. They are also excellent choices. But when the news media turns a blind eye to the truth, or distorts it for whatever reason, perhaps by denigrating the messenger of an unpopular but factually correct message (have you heard much praise for Al Gore lately?), then there’s a problem. Why isn’t our media freely reporting the news any longer?

I postulate that this is because our news media has increasingly come under control of major corporations which, octopus-like, have their tentacles in so many interests that it would be foolish of us to expect unbiased reporting which might present the corporate elite in a less-than positive light. Or worse: negatively impact their bottom line.

What am I getting at here? Well, if the hallmark of a healthy democracy is a healthy and free media, and our democracy is showing signs of not being healthy and so is our news media...where does that leave us?

What we value in our democracy is slowly being eroded, and it is happening in tandem with what we have come to value as media oversight. It is doubtful that our democratic institutions could have ended up where they are today if the media had been more vigilant in drawing attention to what has been happening. In part, though, this has happened because we ourselves have had false expectations of the media. We really thought that they would be there for us to help us understand issues, to educate us and assist us in making up our own minds.

But that’s not the media’s role. The media is there to make money for its corporate owners. And as a result of this media mandate, the truth can be and has been a casualty. And it will continue to be a casualty.

What’s a Canadian to do?

Well, so far the media and government alike have been pretty good at ignoring certain truths, or spinning those truths in such a way that they can gain, or by denigrating the truth should it have to come to that. The climate change crisis provides an excellent example. Scientists say: “We are in a crisis brought on by climate change”. Government and media says “The world doesn’t feel any warmer. Not all of the facts have been evaluated. It will cost too much to do anything about it anyway. Boy, look at those lefties flap their jaws about this, how I wish they would get a clue, stupid lefties.”

So far, though, and I can’t substantiate this, but so far, it seems to me that our government and media have not been repressing the truth about many things, just ignoring it. The truth has a habit of breaking free anyway, although it may take time. I’m sure it doesn’t always, though, and many historical truths have no doubt been lost to the mists of time. But when it comes to climate change, the truth is out there. Canadians just have to do a little more work to find it.

But many Canadians may not realize that our government and media might be holding something back in the truth-telling department. Many still labour under the impression that the media is there to hold our government accountable, and not simply to be its mouthpiece. Our media is free, after all, is it not? And a free media is a sign of a healthy democracy, so it’s not a problem.

It’s too bad that our media is not free from interference, controlled by an increasingly powerful corporate elite. But does that alone explain why our government seems to get off easy when it comes to some of the more difficult issues? Well, keep in mind the power structure of our government. It could be said that the interests of our government happily coincide with the interests of the media-controlling corporate elite. Happily, alas, for government and the corporations, but not for you and I, the Average Canadian.

Think I’m wrong about that? Well, look no further back than to the so-called “Coalition Crisis”, and recall that the media largely parroted the Conservative Party line about the Liberals making a grab for power. Maybe the media wasn’t serious about this being a “coup” in the same way that some Conservative MP’s were, but out the window pretty quickly went any discussion about the legitimacy of the opposition party’s bid to seize the reins of government through a process which has been part of our governmental institutions for a very long time.

And when Parliament was prorogued after sitting only for a few days, did the media raise a stink and report that never in the history of a Westminister-style democracy had a parliamentary leader obtained a time-out from the head of government simply because he was facing a non-confidence vote? Nope. Instead, the media breathed a collective sigh of relief that the crisis was over, for now. Although you and I may have been wondering just what the hell went on behind closed doors last December to convince our Governor-General that prorogation was the right thing to do. We might have been dismayed that the parties whom had received the majority of votes in the 2008 election were denied an opportunity to form a more representative government. But the media didn’t report on those stories.

The truth was clearly a casualty in the Coalition Crisis of 2008.

What does this say about the state of our Democracy?

I think it says that we’re in trouble, especially when you extrapolate existing conditions into the future based on current trends. As governments continue to become more secretive and put power in the hands of Caesar, er, their Leaders, and as the media continues to move from reporting the news to providing infotainment, where will we be in 10 years time? And do you think that we’ll have started to address those very real and important issues which we need to start getting serious about right now?

I, for one, just don’t see it happening. Instead, based on current trends, I believe that the Average Canadian is going to become even less engaged in political decision-making, and that governments will continue to spin reality in self-serving ways, aided and abetted by a media which will end up looking a lot more like Entertainment Tonight than CBC’s the National (well, the National which was on CBC last week anyway).

And those issues that are important? Like climate change? Will we still be debating whether climate change actually exists 10 years from now? I think we might, but rather I think the media and government will have finally admitted that climate change is real. 10 years from now I think that we will be debating just what we can do about climate change in order to avert the predicted catastrophes. We’ll have moved away from the Option A “Do Nothing” approach that I wrote about in the first part of my blog on this topic and will instead then be focussing on Option B, the “need for societal transformation” choice on how to deal with climate change.

Unfortunately, that’s the debate that we should be having right now. Or what would have been better for us all, 20 years ago. In 10 years, our tools for implementing Option B are going to be much more limited than they are today. And, perhaps, irrelevant, as we may have already crossed the tipping point.

But either way, I believe that we will be talking about transforming our society. Well, maybe not talking about it as in “how are we going to transform our society in a healthy way to address climate change?” Instead, I suspect that the conversation is going to be much more one-sided...And the Average Canadian might not be given all of the information about how important decisions are going to be implemented.

Remember China?

(Continued in Part 4...)

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