Monday, November 2, 2015

Media and governance: It’s time for a rethink, by James Deane

The post 2015 Global Goals have been agreed and for the first time in any such agreement, there is a goal focused on improving how societies in the 21st century are governed. 
It is a major accomplishment and an acknowledgement that the quality of governance will do as much to shape humanity’s prospects as anything else.  A good argument can be made that unless progress is made in this area, investments in the rest of the goals may well be wasted.  This should be an exciting time for those working to support good governance.  That excitement should extend to those, like myself, who have argued for increased support for a free and plural media and to improved public access to information.  The goals include a specific target designed to ensure “public access to information and to protecting fundamental freedoms , in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”.

That does not appear to be the prevailing mood.  In my field the optimism that the digital revolution and media liberalisation around the world would result in more empowered, accountable and informed societies capable of underpinning more responsive government is waning.  It is waning in part because of the sheer scale, pace and often  negative character of recent information and communication trends; and in part because governance strategies have not yet adapted to just how dramatic the implications of the transformation in information and communication dynamics have been for governance outcomes.  These are some of the issues I focus on in  a chapter in The Governance Practitioner’s Notebook, produced by the OECD-DAC Governance Network (GovNet). 

In an age of digital optimism and informational transformation, why the concern?  Conflicts from the Middle East to Ukraine are fought through the information space as actors as diverse as Russia and the so called Islamic State perfect increasingly effective multimedia propaganda machines designed to secure loyalty and exploit identity.  The democratic hopes of the 1990s and 2000s, and the substantial financial support provided by western donors to fostering a free media that accompanied those hopes, risk being supplanted by concerns over combatting violent extremism and winning information wars.  Media trends which a decade ago were characterised by increased openness, liberalisation and diversity are being replaced by a disturbingly consistent story of cooption and intimidation by state, religious, ethnic, commercial and factional forces, especially in conflict affected and fragile states.  The popular energy of the Arab Revolutions, substantially enabled by transformed access to information and the means to communicate, have been sapped and largely replaced by chaos, authoritarianism and a renewed capturing of the information space.  And within all this, as Tom Carothers has so ably documented, the democratic space in many countries is closing and, as documented by Freedom House and many other organisations, the assaults – now more accurately described as an onslaught - on journalists and journalism worldwide continues to intensify.

Evidence  is scant that people do have improved access to the issues that shape their lives as trust levels in the media are plummeting.  Platforms for public debate, so recently galvanised by online social spaces, appear increasingly polarised and captured.  The accountability role that development actors assume that a free media plays threatens being undermined.  The costs to social cohesion of a media that is captured to drive people apart exacerbates, and is arguably increasingly driving conflict.

None of these reasons, however, fully explains a growing sense of pessimism that is felt I know, not only by myself, but many who focus on support attempts to increase peoples access to information they can trust and use to advance their lives.  Some of the pessimism is due to a hang over from the heady days of democracy assistance, some of which was naïve and overly normative.  Some of it from the concussion suffered by the multiple assaults being mounted on the public space. 

Most of the pessimism, however, is rooted in the lack of a clear, coherent response to these issues from the development system.

Why that response does not exist and what such a response from the democratic governance community might look like forms the focus of my chapter in The Governance Practitioner’s Notebook.  It argues that governance strategies need to reassess their approach to the role of media and broader communication trends and assess more clearly their impact on governance outcomes.  It suggests ways in which governance actors can better understand these impacts, both positive and negative and how they can more effectively respond to them.  It argues that the current development architecture is poorly suited to reacting to and integrating media and communication concerns into development strategies but that relatively modest improvements in the attention focused on these issues is likely to be cost effective.  It argues above all that political and governance outcomes simply can’t be understood or improved without engaging with the transformative shifts (both positive and negative) of 21st century media and information dynamics. 

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD or of its member countries.